Friday, April 4, 2014

Better Off Alive

I really couldn't have asked for more interesting men to spend my day with.

After a sunny, music-filled road trip to the northern neck, I wound up at the studio of a man named Jim who makes guitars for a living. And not just any guitars, but ones that start at $6,000 and go up.

Even better, the first thing he wanted to know was if I'd eaten lunch yet. So not only was I going to spend the next couple hours hearing about these one of a kind instruments he crafts, but he was going to feed me, too.


We walked to The Corner, which wasn't really on a true corner, at least not the kind we have in the city, but we were far from anything urban-like, so I let it slide.

It was everything you'd expect from a river restaurant, from the tiki bar on the front porch to the pool table and dart board in the back room.

When I asked what he recommended, he said his wife thought their crabcake the best in the state, so I ordered it, at least up until he asked for a Jim burger.

Both the server and I wanted to know what this off-menu item was and found out: burger with double cheese, grilled onions, ketchup, mustard, lettuce, tomato, no mayo. Also known as a Karen burger.

Let's just say I changed my order.

We did a good part of the interview there, allowing for bad jokes and segues into the unlikeliest of topics - the sex lives of parents (my fault), men who can fix anything (both he and his father) and the causes of E.D. (he brought that one up) - but always coming back to his love of being a luthier.

After another hour back in his studio admiring these works of art he makes by hand (ever seen a harp-guitar replica? I, it was time for me to hit the road again.

Instructing me to "drive safe," I did my best, ending up at Good Luck Cellars where the next man I was interviewing was out on his tractor plowing rows for the new batch of vines to be planted next week.

You have to admire a man who handles a tractor well.

His wife and I strolled down toward where he was working while a car pulling into the tasting room parking lot let out a wolf whistle in our direction.

As she put it, "I'll take it." That made two of us.

Once he'd joined us and washed his hands of the terroir, the two of us headed up to the cupola with a 360-degree view of the rolling land, various plantings and multiple houses for the pack of winery dogs, all rescued hounds (be still, my heart) to chat.

A former orthopedic surgeon who bought the property ten years ago and now lives there full-time, I sensed the passion he'd once put into medicine now transferred to the farming life.

It was fascinating listening to him wax poetic about the shift to a rural life, the learning curve of farming and winemaking (helped considerably by the consultants he brought in) and his enthusiasm for becoming part of the northern neck community.

His passion for his new life was all over his face when he took me down into the cellar, where with a beatific smile on his face, he said, "This is my heaven."

Mine followed as he handed me pours from the tanks as we made our way around the huge room, glasses in hand before making it into the barrel room.

You see, this is what is called "research" in my business and is part of why I'm willing to be a dirt poor freelance writer.

By the time I waved goodbye to the grape farmers, I was barely able to make it back to the big city in time to catch tonight's music panel discussion at Candela Gallery.

It's part of this weekend's "The Great Busk Event," three days of focusing on street performance, in tribute to Jackson Ward's own Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.

See: statue at Leigh and Adams streets.

I'd figured I'd miss the beginning of it all, but walked in to find everyone still in full-on mingle mode and stopped to chat with a favorite Americana musician who was noticeably hatless because he's decided to grow out his hair. The neighborhood fabricator, whom I seem to run into everywhere now, was there, as was the photographer I met at the  ladies' arm wrestling night who's also turning up wherever I do.

Eventually we took seats so the panel could begin enlightening us.

Here's the first fun fact I learned: busk is Spanish for "to seek." And, sure, buskers seek money in the hat laying on the sidewalk, but they seek much more than that, as we heard from the panelists.

WRIR DJ Carlito moderated a panel of musicians, some of whom busk and some who never have, on the subject of folk music and where they pull their influences from.

Answers were all over the place, with many coming from outside the U.S., places like France, Spain, Romania, Egypt and Chile.

Accordionist Barry cited a Jewish cantor and Richmond's Tobacco parade of yesteryear, with the Armstrong and Walker marching bands recalled as the best musicians in town.

Laney of Lobo Marino, said that her band's extensive travels informed their music, meaning every album showed different influences. "We're modern gypsies," she explained.

Salsa pianist Marlysse talked about the difficulty of busking when your instrument is so large and you haven't mastered the accordion.

After a grazing break, we gathered for music from our panel.

Herschel did his idol, Randy Newman's "Better Off Dead" accompanied by his baritone ukulele, making sure we knew he has the only baritone uke in town and even name checking another uke player who claims hers is a baritone. Not so, he said.

The Richmanian Ramblers' Nate played his Czechoslovakian upright bass to demonstrate the difference between desperation and longing in Romanian gypsy music, playing a couple of songs to prove his point. Sunshine, lollipops and rainbows were nowhere to be found in his music.

DJ Mikemetic talked about the art of DJ'ing and the challenge of trying to get people to dance to music they've never heard before.

Barry, the accordion player, and Khalima, a belly dancer, began with an improvisational piece before doing an 800-year old song called "Surrender," an eventuality if you'd seen Khalima's stunning dancing.

Midway through the song, Nate picked up his bass and began playing along, providing some deep, rhythmic notes to the performance.

Last up was Laney, who did a traditional Hindu call and response chant with musical partner Jameson sitting in his seat next to me before soloing on one of their original spirituals, the jubilant "Celebrate," a song impossible to tire of, no matter how many times I hear it.

The time has come for us to celebrate, celebrate
For all we are, we can not hesitate, hesitate

Who's got time to hesitate when there are luthiers to lunch with, winemakers to sip with and buskers to entertain me?

Like them, for me it's all about the seeking.

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