I did it. I drove out into the cold, dark evening to a small town high school band room. I walked in, mandolin and banjo cases in hand, smiled awkwardly and introduced myself to the three people there. I noticed there was one other banjo, but no mandolin. Good, I'd rather play mandolin anyway.
"You got a song for us?" My mind went blank for a moment, as it usually does when I'm put on the spot to suggest a song. But then I remembered my old standard, Greg Brown's "Early". I began to sing.
If I had been nervous, I quickly realized that playing with this group was nothing to be nervous about. There were no fast songs, no unusual chord changes, no one even put anyone on the spot to play a solo. As I eased into the music I started adding mandolin ornaments to the melody, tremolos and runs, nothing too flashy. It was noticed and appreciated.
The leader, a sixty-something man in blue jeans and plaid flannel shirt, played the dobro (resophonic slide guitar). He was mild mannered and good natured. In between songs he told tales of jams and festivals and picking into the wee hours of the night.
A woman about my age was playing banjo. Normally a banjo is loud enough (or the player makes it loud enough) to dominate the sound. She played so softly, picking the chords in basic patterns, it seemed as if she wanted to enjoy the music without being heard. We joked about some of the quirks of banjo playing, and I apologized for calling "Soldier's Joy" in D, a difficult key to play in a jam unless you happen to have a second banjo lying around tuned to D.
There was another woman there, I'm guessing in her sixties, who sang and played guitar on a number of old country and bluegrass ballads. She said she used to be able to remember so many more songs, but ever since she had heart surgery, she has had a difficult time remembering them. Some effect of the anesthesia. It frustrates her, but she keeps right on singing and playing an re-learning tunes. My excuses for not playing music more often now sound pathetically lame.
After a few songs I realized that, unless the leader was holding back, I was probably the most accomplished player there. I'm not trying to brag or anything (well, maybe! ;) ), but I realized by mostly playing alone over the last few years, I tend to hear only my own inner critic. I compare myself with mandolin greats like Sam Bush and Chris Thile, and of course when you do that you're going to fall short. I think a steady diet of professionally recorded music, unless it is tempered by real live playing with ordinary folks, can lead to a musical inferiority complex. I suspect this feeling leads more than a few aspiring musicians to keep their light under a bushel.
I am grateful for the musicians everywhere who let their light shine. It's not about the best voice, or the flashiest solo; it's about being there, playing for the love of the music.
I'll be more prepared next time. I'll bring a song list. :)