D’ya know “Arkansas Traveler"?
On any given Thursday night, the pickers gather at the Fifth String
Another Thursday night at the Fifth String.
The music store, which now sits on the first floor of a nondescript two-story 1950s-vintage office building at the northwest corner of Alhambra Boulevard and J Street, has been hosting these Thursday-evening hoots-cum-jam sessions for most of its peripatetic 20-year existence.
It’s slightly after 7, and the music students are beginning to thin out. Someone has set up a rough circle of folding metal chairs in the half of the store’s main room to the right of the door, underneath a Masonite pegboard wall where nine or 10 mandolins hang. A few men drift in, open their guitar cases, gingerly pull out well-seasoned acoustic guitars—mostly Martins, it seems—then make their way over to the chairs.
To the left inside the front door is the other half of the store’s main room. Its center is stacked with boxes, inexpensive “starter” guitars for kids. High on the walls, guitars and fiddles hang; a pair of stand-up basses lean against another wall.
Behind that room is another; hanging from its walls are the store’s premium guitars: Martins, Taylors, a few choice Santa Cruz axes. There, hunkered down on a stool in the center, a bespectacled man deftly fingers jazz chords up and down the neck of a hollow-bodied electric guitar, while a long-haired guy picks on a blond Taylor, and an ebullient bearded man named Singh, sporting a maroon and yellow kerchief on his head, repeatedly plucks one note on a battered ukulele.
“Praying,” he says to no one in particular. “I hold this same note, and it carries my prayers to God.”
Over the course of the evening, Singh will play that one note on a variety of instruments.
The circle up front begins to
gather. A redheaded kid, can’t be more than 9, pulls a fiddle off the wall. “You play that thing?” someone asks.
“Yeh,” he says, with the cocky, jutting-jawed confidence of a budding Mark O’Connor.
He almost struts toward the circle. And, when it gets going, he will play his fiddle—even if he still sounds more like a Jack Benny-style squeaker than the bluegrass prodigy O’Connor once was.
One of the Fifth String’s owners, John Green, is sitting by the stacked guitar boxes. He’s telling a few stories, and he mentions running into O’Connor on the bluegrass competition circuit some years back. O’Connor was a kid then, and Green and his pals were in their early 20s and not above calling O’Connor a “punk kid.” As in: “You think you can come down here from Seattle and play with us real musicians?”
Of course, O’Connor wiped the floor with them. Repeatedly. Finally, a flustered Green asked him what his secret was.
“You know how you guys go home after a contest and bone up on what I was playing this week?” O’Connor told Green. “I’m not gonna play the same stuff again. I’m gonna listen to records and find some new tunes to beat you guys with.”
John Green and his brother Skip have owned the Fifth String for two decades. They started in a Victorian on the northwest corner of 20th and L streets, where the Lambda Center is located now. Skip says they used to put on concerts there, in an L-shaped room that held 60 people. Back then, people like country singer Vince Gill, the Byrds’ Chris Hillman and the Eagles’ Bernie Leadon would stop by when they were in town and needed an acoustic-music fix—Gill’s mother lived in West Sacramento back then, and Hillman and Leadon had been attending one of the local charismatic churches.
And the Fifth String was a place a stray picker could go where bluegrass was spoken. Or, more accurately, played and sung.
The jam session has been going
on for just about as long as the store’s been open, and a lot of the old regulars still show up.
“There’s Paul,” Skip says, motioning toward the longhaired guy who was picking on that blond Taylor earlier. “He was our first customer. And that guy there, Brian,” he says, pointing at a fellow who earlier was reeling through a few Irish hornpipes and jigs on his guitar in the back room, occasionally putting it down to play the flute. “His daddy was a railroad brakeman, and he used to come in here all the time,” Skip says.
Skip mentions a few other old-timers. Such as Willard, a middle-aged man with a Johnny Cash-like flair for the sartorial, what with his Brylcreemed hair, flannel shirt, black slacks and spit-shined black shoes. Willard plays the banjo early in the evening, but later he’ll sit with his Dobro resonator guitar in his lap, Hawaiian style, and lay down some tasty licks with a slide.
And there’s Lyle, a dapper, white-haired gent in his late 70s, who pulls a resonator mandolin out of a black case emblazoned with two silver musical notes and the initials “L.D.,” then sits in the circle and plays along.
Cliff isn’t playing tonight. He’s around 80, he’s sporting a black baseball cap with “The Gibson” embroidered on it in yellow, and he’s holding what looks like a vintage Gibson F-5 mandolin; it’s actually one of his own creations. “Cliff was one of the original Harley riders,” John says. “He’s also one of the best mandolin luthiers in the country. That one of yours?” he asks Cliff.
“Number 15 of 22,” Cliff says matter-of-factly. “Gonna make five more next year.”
By 8, the place is packed; there
must be roughly 40 people in the store, including a couple of rambunctious toddlers. And if you stand by the front counter, you can catch “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” coming from the circle and “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” from the room in the back. The two songs aren’t being played in the same key, lending the music the kind of musical vertigo that turn-of-the-century American composer Charles Ives routinely worked into his symphonies. Ives’ father, a bandleader, used to make young Charles sing in one key and play in another, and he grew up thinking that sounded pretty good. This sounds like a cacophony.
One of the guitarists in the circle is a pretty hot flat picker. Logan Calkins, from Placerville, is 16, and he already has a good grasp of the Arthel “Doc” Watson method—wrist stiff, elbow moving the forearm up and down like a hummingbird, which makes it possible to rip through those magnificent high-speed runs. He races through the curves of an ancient fiddle tune, “Arkansas Traveler.”
“D’ya know ‘Arkansas Traveler’?” someone asks.
“That’s what I’ve been playing,” he says, without rancor.
True, some of these old tunes are, for the untrained ear, hard to tell apart. They comprise a vernacular that most of these good-time musicians know in their sleep, a prosaic language culled from the songbook of rural America. The chord progressions keep it simple; most are in the key of C or G, and most songs only use two or three chords: C, F, G, or G, C, D. Not only does this make it so even the neophyte can strum along, but the hot-dog picker can negotiate the songs’ chord changes easier, too.
Calkins’ mother, Carla, drove him down from Placerville. He’d started out wanting an electric guitar, but he fell in with the wrong crowd and started playing bluegrass; this past summer he traveled, by himself, back to eastern Tennessee to go to picking camp.
It’s 8:15 now, and Calkins is packing it in. The crowd is starting to thin out—one picker is in the back room with the Taylors and Martins, and “The Old Rugged Cross” wafts out of another room, where John Green has been holed up with three or four others, one of whom is called “Bluegrass Bob.”
“Magic,” Singh says, plucking his one note now on a borrowed guitar.
By 9, all that’s left are the core
regulars, plus one underage fiddler who’s fighting sleep. The music has settled into a warm, comfortable groove: “Jambalaya,” “Old Joe Clark.” Brian bows a cello, the guitars pick and strum a fabric of sweetly resonating swells, Willard slides on his Dobro. A woman named Judy with a beautiful back-holler alto takes the lead on an elegantly mournful John Prine song, “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness.”
“You’re out there runnin’ just to be on the run,” she sings. The rest of the circle harmonizes behind her, and for a moment it’s hard not to argue with Singh.