“Come sit in with me, Fiddle Player,” says the singer as she takes a pull on her beer.
A tall young man with a short cropped sandy beard turns his attention from the blonde in the loose fitting green dress to look at the woman who has just finished the first song of her second set. She tried to get his attention before she went on, but that time the charms of the blonde won out. This time he ambles over to his instrument and begins a quick tuning.
“Fiddle Player? You don’t know my name, do you?” he says.
“Didn’t catch it. Guess it’s like Billy Joel’s Piano Man only you’re the Fiddle Player.”
“Fiddle Player, huh. Guess I’ve been called worse.”
She tells him she’s going to cover Springsteen’s ‘Main Street’, which he acknowledges with a simple nod. After the first lines of the song he begins playing quietly, ambiguously, letting her set things up. She does the song far more slowly and melodically than Springsteen. The approach works. She’s a decent guitar player and her voice is pleasant and strong, low in register, rough enough to work with the lyrics. The fiddle player begins taking a more prominent role, still backing her, not trying to take over the song, his sound contrasting well with her voice. Their collaboration is effective, and both musicians seem pleased with the result. The applause is genuine. They do another song before the singer returns to her seat and Fiddle Player returns to his blonde. A heavy set man wearing shorts and a ball cap tucked tight on his head takes her place. He begins a song he’s written as a new beer arrives at my table. Later a poet reads his work accompanied by a guy on a bongo drum. As the waiter said, “it’s all talent, either polished or raw.”
Wednesday is open mike night at Dave’s Modern Tavern, or Modern Dave’s as we locals call it here in Monteagle, TN. I don’t know where the ‘modern’ part came from, but there is an atomic symbol on the sign outside, the one with electrons whizzing around a nucleus, that was common in the 1950’s. In the front there is a proper restaurant and in back a bar with an open deck. It’s a good bar, relaxed, well stocked, easy going. Something approaching 160 kinds of beer are available if you’re feeling adventurous. Modern Dave’s serves the best burger around. The place is a breeding ground for good times and the perfect location for an open mike night.
So what has all this to do with art? Quite a lot, actually. In a world increasingly given to passive entertainment, the people who take turns at the mike in places like Dave’s are heroes. They are there to perform, to share themselves with others, to try—either with newly written material or with new interpretations of other’s work—to offer both entertainment and insights into our common life. And they do it for us and the music itself. No one is waiting for the famous Nashville producer to walk through the door. They play for free, even paying for their own drinks. They play for the love of their art.
Graffiti, the gallery where I show my artwork, has a reception on the first Friday of the month. Naturally, we always have new art on display, but just as important, various performers from Wide Open Floor come to entertain us before they go on to their show at Barking Legs Theater. They too perform for free and are a mixed lot. We’ve had belly dancers, poets, singer/ songwriters, and modern interpretive dancers to name but a few. Some are brilliant and some need work. I love them all.
Thanks to photographic reproduction and audio recording, the excellent has become the enemy of the good. The talented amateur is seen less and less frequently as the many watch the highly touted few. A hundred years ago it was common for young women to learn to paint in watercolor and many developed a high level of skill. People played instruments with greater or lesser ability that they might entertain each other. Now most of us play the stereo as our instrument of choice. I shouldn’t like to give up my own sound system to make a point, but too many of us have become passive watchers and listeners. We ask ourselves, why compose music if you aren’t Mozart, why form a band if you can’t be the Rolling Stones, and why write songs if you’re not Willie Nelson?
It’s a question any artist regardless of their medium eventually faces. It’s not easy becoming proficient, and it seems that no matter what one attempts there is someone else who is, or was, superlative in the field and whose work utterly dwarfs one’s own attempts. I will never have the facility as a painter that John Singer Sargent possessed, nor Rembrandt’s depth of soul, or the explosive color and line of John Marin. This list could go on indefinitely and applies in different ways to everyone in all the arts, but still the question remains: given past achievements, why even try?
Perhaps part of the answer can be found at Modern Dave’s and with the performers at Wide Open Floor. When people actively and honestly perform their respective arts they change as human beings, they think about things differently and with a different perspective. I can always remember most vividly the people and places I’ve sketched and painted, even if the resulting work failed in some way. It is so easy to look and see nothing, but that’s something that art does not allow. And, there’s more. All art is social in its nature, requiring both a performer and an audience. In reaching out to people, asking them to share questions and perspectives, we change the nature of the way we relate to others. For art to be good we must see others as being of ourselves and part of our process. With good timing and a little luck we might change or challenge how our viewers and listeners see their world—if only just a little. Every honest heartfelt statement is fraught with possibility. Every such statement has its own power, however imperfect it may seem to its creator.
In the words of Leonard Cohen,
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in….
Copyright 2014 James Tucker