One of the key themes in bluegrass is mortality. You see the big picture‚ you must be aware of the moment onstage‚ soaking it all in.
That's right. Music‚ especially‚ is temporary. It comes and goes. You can't sustain the highest pitch all the time. You've got to come down from it. I thought that bluegrass definitely had that balance. It had those tragic songs of daily life as it was lived during the Great Depression. It has a tremendous capacity even now to express those same feelings. But‚ there are so many bands carving their niche I wouldn't even know how to keep up with what everybody else is doing.
Do you think a lot about your own mortality?
Yeah. Well‚ I'm thinking longevity is the way to go [laughs].
NPR rebroadcasted this interview with the late Ted Williams to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of Fenway Park. He had said the hardest part of getting older was losing close friends and being more and more alone.
Earl and I were friendly and acquainted for sure. He was already a demigod to me when I came down to Nashville. Richard Greene and I used to watch him perform on the television shows in the morning.
What was it like to play onstage with him compared to Earl?
That's not fair to say‚ seeing as Bill was in his fifties when I was playing with him and he was hiding his power. Over the years‚ Bill spoke about Earl and he said that sometimes he thought he sounded best with him and then in another interview he was asked about the Blue Grass Boys and at first he was saying we were "playing my music" then later would say we contributed a lot‚ each one of us. I think Bill gained perspective. Jeez‚ he was still performing in his seventies. I'm going to be 70 soon.
What does the number 70 mean to you?
I have no idea. It is like the "big one."
My father turned 70 last month. He's always seen the big picture‚ but it's hard that the one thing he can't control is getting older.
Well‚ what is this life‚ you know? It's precious. It's impermanent. There are moments of great happiness and sadness. In the end‚ is that all we have to say? Or is there an alternative to just living this life like "death is coming"? How do we make every second count? We can't‚ because we can drive ourselves crazy trying to make every second count. I think the path of meditation and when you can finally see your karma‚ I'd say that's a pretty big goal. Because when you can see karma‚ then you understand cause and effect. Then‚ you get cause‚ you get effect‚ now what else do you have? Is there a mysterious third‚ that's neither cause nor effect? That it's just maybe the underlying illumination of everything. That philosophy‚ the Tibetans brought that teaching to the west. The path is to practice goodness‚ because that's the essence of what everything is. It's hard to say that when you're being eaten alive by fleas or ticks‚ but in ancient times‚ those were the demons‚ weird things that bite and scratch and make life uncomfortable for you. Now we have medicine that can go in and look at a lot of how microorganisms and how they affect us and why behavior is influenced by our environment. It gets down to an individual thing. You cannot legislate how a diet for a planet would be so helpful. A school diet would be so helpful‚ but I guess it wouldn't be school if the food didn't suck [laughs].
Now that Earl has passed on‚ more of the attention will be shifted towards you as a leader in the bluegrass community.
I know what you mean. You know‚ it's good. It happened so slowly. Over time‚ I realized I wasn't trying to wear the crown‚ but I was definitely becoming a spokesman. I remember all of that stuff. I remember what it was like to be coming into it in the beginning and the excitement of working with Bill Monroe and meeting all those people. We're talking the Osborne Brothers‚ Jim & Jesse. I can remember that and because I kept a notebook all through that time‚ I now have all of these reflective pages. I'm starting to piece together a book about it all.
What's it like to leaf through those pages?
I last worked on it a good deal about a year ago. In January‚ I was playing in Oregon and to see my son‚ all of my family. I had a hotel up there for a number of days‚ because of the way the booking worked out. So‚ I had a place to land and out of my cabinet‚ I took all my paperwork. I brought it up there to do some sorting and I ended up only writing for two afternoons‚ but I ended up opening my notebook. The notes gave me a great‚ pleasant sensation‚ like opening a work from another person.
And that's the great thing with that‚ because in those pages is a voice you could never get back without glorifying or forgetting things.
Yeah‚ you can never be that way again. I was reediting myself about certain things. A lot of my diary entries were cryptic because it was small pages‚ a pocket notebook‚ but I was able to extrapolate from it the entire scene of where it took place and everything. You know‚ for a writer‚ and also as a musician‚ sometimes I may hear some music I made that when I made it I thought it was a total failure‚ but when you can look at it and go‚ "Hey‚ that's really interesting." It's like you're reading someone else's writing and I like that. I'll work on pages and put them in a drawer and I'll go back and the song is already written.
If you ran into yourself at the age when you started going on the road with Bill‚ when you left Boston for Nashville‚ what would you say?
What a greenhorn. [laughs]
How would your younger self respond?
Get self-conscious and full of doubt. [laughs] It's weird you draw attention to this sort of combination of age and the history. We are the history our lives have covered. I'm still out there in front of the public‚ but if I'm not out in front of the public‚ then who am I‚ you know? I'm not that guy‚ the elder statesman of bluegrass by any means.
Is it hard to separate that person onstage and off?
Not anymore. I used to‚ but I don't anymore.