Every night I sit down with a guitar and a mandolin and we all three have it out.  It’s a tears & fears argument I’m tellin’ ya.  Of course, I’m the pessimist of the bunch.  I look at all their frets and all their strings and it doesn’t seem feasible.  So much to learn, so much to play, so fast I need to be. 

They argue back, though.  They don’t put up with my whining and self-deprecation.  Don’t get me wrong, they do it in love, and I guess they do have a point.  They own the strings and frets, but they can’t play either. 

“We need you,” they say.


I picked up that very guitar for the first time in 1990.  My mom gave it to my dad as either a one-year anniversary gift or a wedding gift, I can’t remember.  Dad played it for a while. 

I didn’t have a clue how to play it, but I wanted to.  It sat in the corner behind an old Stella guitar that dad got when he was 13.  The bridge on the Stella broke.  To this day I stand my ground–I didn’t do it.

Dad didn’t like for me to play the Fender (that’s the one I have now), but he would let me play the Stella.  Once it broke, I had to sneak in rounds with the Fender.  I placed it flat on its back on my knees as if it were a Dobro (maybe that was my natural calling).  I can even remember playing it like I had a slide in my hand.

It didn’t sound pretty, but I figured out that the top and the bottom strings were two octaves apart.  I could press them down on the third fret and get a really strange sounding G.  I could take them up to the 8th and get a weird C.  Although I couldn’t figure out the D, I had two chords and that was enough to make me feel like John Denver.

Soon I forced myself to play the thing correctly even though I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. 

In 1992 I went to my dad’s best friend, Danny Morris, at a youth event for the Meigs Avenue church in Jeffersonville, Indiana.  I brought dad’s guitar (he’d finally come to grips with the fact that I was going to play that thing one way or another) with me and said, “teach me everything you know.”  Tall task.

I don’t know why, but Danny did it.  To this day I have refused to teach others, but Danny did it.  He took an hour or so and showed me five or more chords.  I practiced until my skin sliced open.  I would go through memory drills to see if I’d gotten it.  Then I would go through transition drills to get my fingers used to switching.  Then singing drill to be sure I could play and sing simultaneously.  I bought a poster for my bedroom door with all the normal chord variations and practiced those, too.

I played with the radio, CDs, tapes, the TV, and anything else that pumped music out.  I tried country, rock, heavy metal, and bluegrass.

It was a long, long journey, but I did it.  I did it alone.  I didn’t need a teacher.  I had Danny to show me a few chords, my dad to show me a few variations on how to finger those chords, and that’s it.

Dad eventually gave it to me. 

A little over a year ago Karen and I drove to Paducah, Kentucky, from Florence, Alabama, to see Glen Phillips and Nickel Creek at the Luther Carson Center.  I was so dazzled by what I saw that I decided to branch out to the mandolin.

I’d been as big a fan as I could be of the group, but I could no longer deny the fact that I was in the room with a genius, a man beyond normal modes of thinking–Chris Thile.

When I got home I sold a Kona acoustic/electric that I’d gotten at a pawn shop in Jackson, Tennessee.  I took that money and bought a Stagg A-5 mandolin at The Sound Shoppe in Florence.  The irony of it all is that I’d traded a classical guitar and a Kentucky mandolin that I bought in Franklin, Tennessee, to get the Kona.  (Boy, that was a sad, sad trade.  I had a beautiful acoustic/electric Fender.  I’m not a fan of Fender acoustics, but this one may have been the only one they made with crystal clear highs and deep, warm lows.  An ex’s dad got it for me, and as much as I loved him and that guitar, I didn’t want anything else to remind me of what would turn out to be a pretty low point in my life so I got rid of it.)

I’d come full circle.  From guitar to mandolin back to guitar and mandolin.

I practiced that Stagg until the people around were annoyed.  When I couldn’t get the licks I was trying I would be tore up like a can of kraut.  I named it Feste after the jester in Twelfth Night because even though it could be a bit shrill, it spoke the truth to me.  I could learn more.  I wasn’t finished growing.

I played it all the way to Orange Beach while Karen drove.  She was quite patient.

As I progressed on the Stagg I kept stopping by shops to play F-5s.  They sounded so much fuller.  The chop was so nice and they felt like a baby in my arms.  And they looked so regal and vintage.  It was like having a cathedral strapped to your shoulder.  I drooled over several and disappointed the salesmen.

When I completed graduate school, my mother-in-law and Karen went in together on a Kentucky F-5.  I won’t bore you with the details, but it is heavenly.

Here’s the problem.  The more I listen to the greats, the more I want to be one.  I guess I just can’t be satisfied being an amateur picker.  I argue with my fingers, my hands, my pinky, my eyes, and my instruments every night. 

I know I need to play, so I do.  I play every day for at least 30 minutes, but most of the time for about an hour.  I play either what’s in my head or I turn on Comcast 404 and listen to the Bluegrass Music Choice channel and try to keep up.   Sometime it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.  If I’m in A it’s perfect (of course) but there are so many stinkin’ songs in B and Bflat! 

I’m just impatient.

Last weekend I took a buddy with me to the IBMA festival.  My friend, Josh, works for Peter D’ddario and gave me a couple “go where you want to and do what you want to” passes.  It was great.

While there I got to sit down to a decent conversation with Ron Block, the banjo player for Alison Krauss & Union Station.  He told me something that’s helping make peace between my instruments and me.  Being a tremendous player is simply the art of applying rear end to chair and fingers to frets.  Practice.  Discipline.  Tenacity.  Just do it.  You may not be able to play an entire break, but you can play five notes of it and that’s five more than you could do yesterday.  Run the marathon one telephone pole at a time.

He was right.  We talked for about thirty minutes and I left feeling like I’d been given a completely new set of hands.  There was so much more bluegrass to be heard that night, but I wanted to go home and play right then.

I didn’t.  We stayed and heard the Grascals, Mountain Heart, Tony Rice, Cherryholmes, and several more. 

I have a completely new mindset with my instruments now.  I learned how to play in the first place because I knew what I wanted to do and I wouldn’t quit until I got there.  I just need to renew that.

I feel like I’ve been to couples counseling. 

I’m going home now to tell the Kentucky mandolin–who I’ve affectionately named “Hildi” after Hildi Santo-Tomas on Trading Spaces–about everything I’ve learn.  I haven’t named the guitar, but I’m going to tell her, too.