Thursday, March 6, 2008

An appointment with the President

It'd been a real long time since I'd been pinned down and made to cry uncle by an older brother. But two weeks ago this was me, crying like a ninny: "I love George W. Bush! He's a great, great man," I shouted over the phone. "I've always loved him. And Dick Cheney, too."

Unlike the days of our youth, my brother Jim didn't have me literally pinned to a horizontal surface of his choice. But I was definitely feeling the hurt. Somehow he had secured an invitation to the White House for the reception last Wednesday of the 2007 World Series Champion Red Sox. He had called me to brag. I suspect he garnered the invitation through some unholy activity, like selling cookies door to door for the RNC.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Fiddlers on the routes

No good reason can explain why bluegrass music didn't originate in the Berkshires rather than in Kentucky. We’ve got the integral ingredients: the chimney-topped towns that lean against the hillsides, rivers that flow at breakneck banjo speeds, and some guy who drives an old Ford LTD with a bumper sticker that reads “Fiddlers Make Better Lovers.”

He's large. He emerged from the early morning mist like a dream — like a dream with a beard, a beard whose mouth sang along to bluegrass blaring from his car stereo. A friend and I were trying to wrestle a woodstove into a Jeep on Route 20 in Chester. The man pulled over, keeping his engine running and door open. A voice, haunted by the horrors of heartbreak, sang through the car speakers, something about the sun a-sinking.

“Where we going with this, boys?” the man asked. We just pointed to the Jeep. He sized up the situation, then squatted down like a Soviet weightlifter. He placed his forearms like a set of vice grips on both sides of the stove and hoisted it, solo.

“There you go,” he said, setting it down in the Jeep. He spun on his heel, climbed back into his car and continued claw-hammering his way up Route 20 toward Becket, which — to my eyes, for the first time —loomed in full foggy mountain breakdown.

That was probably six years ago. I haven’t seen him since. But he forever changed my eyes when it comes to western Massachusetts. The Westfield River is no longer the Westfield River. Rather, it’s moonshine dripping from the lip of Tekoa Mountain. Round and hard as calluses, these cherished hills groan in a non-standard key. You can hear it.

Berkshire roosters still strut to the collective memories of barn dances long gone, their heads bobbing with the chunk and chop of old-timey fiddle music — the songs of God and love, hard work and death. If you take a branch from one of our hemlocks and one from one of our mountain laurels and rub them together just right, I swear you'll hear the melody of "Cash on the Barrelhead."

We’re part of the ancient Appalachians, after all.

“I hear stories of these barn dances,” says Matt Downing of Monterey, a member of the Berkshire-based bluegrass band, the Hunger Mountain Boys. “They’d have bands. It was mainly fiddle-based. But that all disappeared somehow.” The echo remains, and it infects certain souls. Like Matt. Like many musicians throughout the county.

Bluegrass music has a past here. It’s got a future, too. I met him. He’s 10 years old. He's got freckles and long, buggy whip limbs. He’s a fiddler on another route: Route 23 in Monterey.

His name is Mac Litishin. When he was 4 or 5, his parents took him to the Blueberry Festival in nearby Austerlitz, N.Y. There, he watched an old-timey country band play. "He was mesmerized. Six months later, he was still talking about it," says his father, Jeff, who, with his wife, Melissa Preston, runs a farm, Honey Hill Llamas, on land cleared by the 1996 tornado.

Why this kind of music, rather than rock n roll? "Well, I'm not sure," says Mac. "It just got me." So they bought him a fiddle. He's been playing ever since.

Last Saturday morning, after delivering eggs to the neighbors, Mac skip-hopped home on a footpath that cuts through the orchard grass. He went inside and grabbed his fiddle, his music stand and his music book. He set everything up outside. Thoughtfully, he placed some bug spray within his father's reach.

Then he ran his bow along the strings, and out came the sound of an instant antique, a country waltz — music that would inspire any mindful person to want to eat the meat clean off a chicken bone.

Mac then stuffed his fiddle back into its case. He skip-hopped inside the house and arranged his stereo speakers so they aimed out his bedroom window. Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys started sprinting through a rendition of "Mule Skinner Blues."

Out back, the roosters crowed on cue. Because they know. It's time. Clearly. It's time we bring back the barn dances. And somewhere out on the winding roads a big, bearded Good Samaritan blaring bluegrass in a Ford LTD would sing for us like an angel.

In the meantime, Mac's enthusiasm for bluegrass inspired his father — a guitarist, himself — to begin a bluegrass jam session that meets the second Tuesday of each month, 6-8:30 p.m., at the Monterey Meeting House. All levels and all ages welcome.

How do you get there? From Great Barrington, get onto Route 23 and go up — up into the high lonesome.