The Last Drop

After the rock and roll spectacle is over, a caravan of cars heads single file out of town and turns right up the Maple Hill road, red taillights disappearing and reappearing in the blowing snow. Not far from here in the craggy, hawk-haunted hills, my friend Cindy is probably burning the midnight oil with her chocolate brown fiddle, flying through the night on ancient Cape Breton tunes. How many winter nights like this one had I had joined her, settling in next to the wood stove with my guitar, her big old dog at my feet and her husband quietly clanking pots and pans in the kitchen stirring up some dinner for us. Warm memories but life has a way of driving wedges between friends in the oddest way.

Another winter, another adventure. The familiar four-wheeling on studded tires, up frigid hills and down, the dark snowfields disappearing into darkness, the pilgrim churches and sugar bushes gone silent with snow. With my body tightly hunched between right and left heater vents, I'm again the musician refugee, following another line of strange cars to another unknown destination and another after-party.

The rock concert had necessitated an army of technicians, nameless ghost-faces slipping in and out the towers of gear, guiding their mini-metropolis of blinking dials and, no less, a smoke machine, with precision. And the theater itself under renovation - a confounding blend of partly-lit construction zones, makeshift ramps, corridors,  gaping holes in the floor and flimsy surveyor's tape barriers. Like an ant hill, everyone is running every which way, on a mission. Though in transition and chronically short-funded, the Floydsville historic theater is proudly flying its raft of small town colors. Tonight's show is living and breathing its short life to the fullest.

Jack offers me a shot of Scotch in a styrofoam cup as I fumble with my cables and guitar picks, trying to get organized. Dirk appears from around the corner with his fiddle promising to return in time our set - and is gone again. There's a set list somewhere.  Rumor has it we'll go on six songs in, after the rock band. The sound check reinforces my insecurity; I'm unable to hear myself no matter how loud I play - the electric banjo is louder. No telling what our moment in the spotlight will bring, fun or fiasco. A fool's errand, perhaps, to gamble with so much unpredictability. But what a lovely exercise in trust.

And finally: here it is. Our time on that big, beautiful stage and its fuse about as long as a candle’s wick. But in those minutes, our sounds fill the hall, flying with energy & happiness like birds out of cages, the guitar circling and sparkling & deep, the pulse of the banjo and fiddle dancing, and everything rising out of the darkness, dipped in colored lights. Doesn’t matter really now the fears about anything not being good enough. Instead here's the surfboard and the juiciest wave. What are you going to do? You get on and ride as if your life depended on it. You steal the moment and to hell with the rest. And the best part is most likely everybody’s going to want to come along.

Falling into the heavy door after midnight, cousin Teddy and I lug our amps across the threshold of a sleeping house, unbundle and uncork a bottle on the floor by the wood stove. “ You didn’t have room to say what you wanted to say, “ I venture, leaning into the warmth and pouring him another glass, “right?” He slowly nods, the small explosions of dry ebony scraps igniting like starbursts. I’m glad to be in the company of a fellow traveler in life who grapples with some of the same issues I do - this music business is way more complicated for some of us, I think to myself.

“Look,” he says, “ You have to get out of it something for yourself and make it work for you. Otherwise it’s an exercise in generosity towards others. You and I have done enough of that in our lives without balancing it with what we need.” As he pauses to slice a piece of French Comte cheese for me, the silver whiskered golden retriever laying flat on his side between the stove and the cracker bowl lets out a lengthy, barrel-chested sigh. “He knows we’ve waited a long time,” I say. Teddy, who works in a wine shop, raises the bottle to the fire’s light, turning it ever so slowly. “Yes” he says, nimbly twisting the final drop into my empty cup.

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