The Benefit Concert
I go to the benefit concert in BigCity, NC for the boarding school I used to teach at. Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien are playing, award winning bluegrass musicians who sell out the show in advance. In one night their performance will earn $10,000 towards the scholarship fund for the school, which both of their kids attend (and I used to teach).
In line at the bar, I see Tim, who just won a Grammy for Best Folk Album of the year headed my direction.
“Where’s your son?” I shout over the chatter as we hug. He steps back and I see that he is not yet dressed for the show. His reddish-brown hair is fluffy and feathered and his cotton tee is untucked and too big.
“He’s in back, good to see you, but he’ll be out soon,” Tim smiles then continues through the crowd, finally reaching backstage. A few people in line give me How the hell do you get to hug Tim O’Brien? looks so I start to tell them about the school and his son Joel, to whom I taught creative writing.
On stage Tim and Darrell perform as if they grew up singing together, like siblings. While their musical backgrounds are each diverse, their influences cross over at perhaps the most important juncture: Hank Williams. For me, what distinguishes these two from other bluegrass musicians is the fact that they are both such incredible lyricists (for example, a good number of top ten hits out of Nashville in the past decade have actually been written by these two…read the fine print in the credits my friends, they’re hot shit!). The verses are none other than poetry and the intimacy each man has with various stringed instruments is unparalleled. (Album rec: Real Time, without a doubt.)
Tim looks so at-home-Nashville-in-denim that it’s hard to believe he’s a musician at first glance. He just looks normal, like somebody’s dad or another guy’s neighbor. I can almost see him moving his petite frame down the driveway out to the mailbox on a Sunday morning to get the paper (while wearing his sweat pants and thing-framed glasses). And as for the Grammy, well, he put it best when he said: “Once it comes in the mail I think I’ll put it by my toothbrush.”
When he sings a subtle, pale double chin finds its way to his profile and shallow dimples pop inward on his cheeks. His voice moves like water, seamlessly and commanded by gravity, without effort. While there’s no doubt that he performs with all his heart, his stage presence remains gentle and steady as opposed to overwhelming and diehard. He can rock out, particularly on the mandolin and fiddle, and he’s got his opinions about West Virginia, cornbread, and hamboning (to name a few) – but when you get down to it the man’s a clear and simple steady force of musical genius. Watching him play is like reeling up a bucket of water from a good well: you know what you’re going to get is pure spring water goodness, and you know you’re going to get this time and time again.
Darrell, on the other hand, is a big bear of a man. In his hands the mandolin looks even smaller and a big-bellied Washburn looks like a distant cousin. His hair is dark brown and grey, flopping in his eyes and touching his shoulders. He has dark, thick eyebrows that are visible even far away from the stage and his mustache and beard are just like the way my dad has worn his for my entire life, so I like it. Darrell improvises more with his voice during performances and occasionally I catch a moment where he moves his lower lip over to the side in a quick shift, just like his daughter Mahala did in class when she was on the verge of an idea for her next sentence.
Darrell’s voice is sweet and deep, gruff, and smooth, high and low. The man is simply unstoppable in his abilities. He solos on the guitar and banjo with the ease of a five-year-old on a Fisher-Price play-a-long – fearless, easy, without thought. Tim and Darrell play for three hours, speaking fondly of the school and thanking the audience for “coming out tonight.” After all, every dollar from the ticket sales goes to the scholarship fund – talk about get-down-to-it-all-around nice guys. At some point during the second set I let go, crying a little to release the tension of the week. I wiggle and dance in my seat, I bob my head and sing along. Tasting the saltwater of tears on my tongue, I open for a moment to the ocean of my soul – all the anxiety about what next, all the fear about money, all the pressure to produce – it doesn’t have to be so heavy. If only I could remember this.
“More love,” Tim says, “More peace, more love.”
Sounds like the right idea to me.