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The Bluegrass Mountain Boys Save the World

Copyright 1983 by Bruce Jaeger. All rights reserved.
Published in Bluegrass Unlimited, July 1983


Well, I knew something strange was bound to happen to us sooner or later, but I never expected anything like this.

I’m Tommy Olson, and by "us," I mean our band, the Bluegrass Mountain Boys. You’ve probably seen us opening up for the Hog Raffle or the like at your local county fair. Anyway, we had just finished a gig up in Onamia, Minnesota, playing for the grand opening of Big Al’s Used Car Sale-O-Rama, and were heading back to the Twin Cities in our new van. Well, it was new to us, anyway. The old bucket actually used to be owned by Jerry-Jim’s Plumbing, and it still had the picture of the toilet on the side along with the slogan, "Don’t Be Discommoded!" Yes, we got it cheap.

It was a Friday night, about 2:30 a.m. Junior the guitar player was driving, and I was slouched next to him in the prayer seat. (You’d understand that more if you ever rode with Junior.) Norm the Dobro player and Big Swede the bass thwacker were pounding their ears on the floor, while Bemidji Billy was taking apart his banjo again.

I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what caused it all. There must be some kind of atomic limit in space/time that a mystic ring of old crystallized bronze can be fooled with. All I know is that one minute I was sleepily watching the telephone poles go by, and then everything went dark.

The next thing I knew, we were pulling into a different Princeton than the one we’d passed through on the way up. Highway 169, never what you’d call a high-class expressway in the best of times, had turned into a frost-heaved, pot-holed menace that looked as if it hadn’t seen a road crew in twenty years. Even Junior, who doesn’t usually notice much of anything at all when he’s behind the wheel, noticed the change. "Hey, where’s the neon?" he grunted. He was right. There were no lights to be seen. Anywhere.

We pulled off the road in front of some houses that looked in the dim moonlight as though they hadn’t seen a paintbrush since the road had last been fixed. Junior shut off the engine, and we sat in silence for a while. Not a street light was to be seen, and there were no late-night TV’s lighting up any windows with their blueish glow. And it was dead quiet.

It must have got to Junior the same time it did me, because we both reached for the radio knob at once. More silence. Up and down the dial, all there was to hear was the low hiss of static. Unable to bear the silence any longer, I stuck in my favorite Stanley Brothers cassette.

We sat there for a minute or two, not saying a thing to break the spell that the town had cast over us. Norm and Swede were still asleep, and Bemidji Bill was off in his own special world of tailpiece tensions and neck angles and hadn’t even realized that we’d stopped.

I was the first to notice that a dim light was flitting from window to window in the house nearest us. Before I had a chance to nudge Junior, a slight figure darted furtively out the front door and toward the van. I stepped out the passenger door as the person came up.

"Are you crazy!?" hissed a girl’s voice in a loud whisper. As near as I could see in the moonlight, I was being chastened by a young woman with long, dark hair falling over the robe she clutched around her. She turned off her flashlight and stamped her feet in the evening chill. "You’ll be arrested!" she whispered.

"Heck, the tape deck wasn’t all that loud," I said as politely as I could. "We were just kind of spooked because of how dead things looked. Where are the street lights? And the all-night cafes? And how come there’s no radio?"

She looked at me like I’d just peeled myself out of a spacesuit. "Look, mister. . . "

"The name’s Tommy," I said as matter-of-factly as I could, considering that I was talking to an attractive girl in her bedclothes on a dark sidewalk.

"I don’t know where you’re from, Tommy, but around here all business stops at 6:00, and the State Radio goes off the air at 10:00. And playing any music at all other than the official State Hymns is against the law! Even owning that tape deck could put you in Detention for years!

Whew! State Radio? Detention? Something was seriously wrong here!

"This is Princeton, isn’t it? I asked.

"You’d better not be heard calling it that. The name is New Courage, now."

"Since when?"

"Where have you been? Since the Glorious Victory of the Moral Majority in 2004, of course!" She pulled her robe more tightly around her, as if someone might catch her morality slipping away. 2004? Well, I’d always hoped I’d live to see the new century!

"I’ve been kinda out of touch, miss.. ." I waited hopefully.

"Oh, I’m Mary Anne." She smiled.

"So, Mary Anne, you say I can get into trouble for just having a cassette deck?"

"Yes, if you’re caught!"

"Well!" I exclaimed, throwing open the side door of the van and switching on the light, "What’ll they do about this!" There for her to see were the rest of the guys in the band, as well as our P.A. and instruments. "Look!" We’re a bluegrass band! Here’s a full sound system, and a fiddle, mandolin, Dobro, banjo and bass!" I turned to see the effect on her, but didn’t see anyone.

She’d fainted at my feet.

I told Junior to park the van behind the house, then I picked up Mary Anne and brought her inside. Junior offered to do the heavy lifting while I parked the truck, but I reminded him of who owned the P.A. system, and he went meekly. Besides, she wasn’t heavy at all, and I could have carried her from Princeton to Elk River. And I think she’d have let me, because halfway to the house she came to, but she didn’t make any effort to get down.

I set Mary Anne on the sofa, then found the back door and let the boys in, making sure that the van was locked and its windows covered. It was some trouble to get Billy to leave his banjo, but Big Swede came to my assistance by picking him up with one hand and carrying him into the house. Mary Anne had thrown on the coffeepot, and soon we all gathered around her in the moonlit kitchen.

"I just can’t believe that you fellows are brave enough to travel with all those dangerous instruments!" She looked at us in what I took to be admiration.

"Yee viss!" said Big Swede. "Only der fiddle iss really dancherous, an days because Tommy here, he gets to pokin’ dot bow op an down an aroun’!"

Mary Anne giggled at the way Swede used a baseball bat on the English language, then quickly sobered. "It’s twenty years in prison for you if you’re caught with contraband instruments," she said. "Except for the ringleader." That was me. "They just seem to disappear forever." Gulp!

"Shoot, lady!" drawled Junior. "We been tryin’ to get him to do that for years!"

"Yoo becha!" grinned Big Swede.

"Certainly!" added Norm.

"Where’s my banjo?" asked Billy.

"All right, guys!" I huffed. "Just remember who it is that’s got the inside contacts for the Crow Wing County Fair!" They quieted, and I turned to Mary Anne.

"How come all of you people put up with this medieval nonsense?" I asked bluntly.

"Oh, we resist what we can," she replied. "But we try not to attract attention to ourselves. There are still too many people that go along with the government policies.

"But occasionally a group of us sneak together with some illegal records and have a dance." She looked at me from under he long lashes.

"We’re having a big one tomorrow, if you’d like to come."

I said we would.

We slept that night on the floor; all except Norm, who is somewhat fastidious and offered to wrap up the mike cables next gig if we’d let him have the sofa. We were awakened by the rest of the household--Mary Anne and her three roommates--at about 7:30. Using language more colorful than I care to record, Billy explained to them about musicians and early mornings, then rolled over to sleep until noon. I got up and went into the kitchen to apologize.

I found the girls kind of white faced and red eared; Billy’s language has been known to start cars in the dead of Minnesota winters. After reassuring them that he wasn’t really a bad sort, we had some coffee and homemade rolls and talked about the upcoming clandestine dance.

"We can have some friends come by to pick us all up," Mary Anne told me.

"How about the gear?" I asked.

"The gear?"

"Yeah. Our instruments and P.A. and stuff. We’ll need it, if we’re going to play."

"You mean you’d actually perform?" The way she looked at me sent my heart into a double shuffle. "Sure! I’d like to see anybody try and stop us!"

Around eleven the rest of the band started poking their way in. Billy stretched and yawned his way through the kitchen at twelve sharp, and headed straight out to the van for his breakfast beer. Mary Anne stepped to the door and watched Billy rummaging in the old plumbing truck for the cooler. "That’s disgusting!" she sniffed.

"What? Old Billy? Heck, he’s not so bad! He just doesn’t like coffee or orange juice."

"No, I mean that van!"

"Oh! The toilet on the side! Well, Jerry-Jim must of wanted to attract attention."

"But why haven’t you painted over it?" she asked.

"Camouflage. Who’d ever break into a toilet truck to steal anything?"

The rest of the boys wedged themselves into the back of the van, and I got into the driver’s seat, with Mary Anne next to me to give directions. We got back on old 169, going north for a few miles until we hit an unmarked gravel road. About ten minutes later, we pulled into a farmer’s driveway and stopped in front of a big old barn.

The paint shortage extended out here too, unless the owner was purposely raising a crop of weathered barn wood to sell to interior designers from the Twin Cities.

Mary Anne got out as a big old farmer about the size of a welterweight Holstein was coming up to the truck. "Oh, it’s you!" he exclaimed. "I didn’t think Ma’d called a plumber!" We introduced ourselves all around, and followed Emil--that was his name--into the barn.

Now to me, one barn is usually pretty much the same as the next one, but even I noticed that Emil’s was suspiciously free of stalls, machinery and such. In fact, all there really was inside was hay, both loose and baled, and some calling cards left by his cattle. We got right to work, and between all of us we had that place slicked out in no time. I gotta admit it made a mighty fine dance hall, from its high, pillar-free roof down to its wooden floor.

Emil pulled in a little utility haul-around trailer to use as a stage, and we set up our P.A. gear. Norm and I did our usual comedy routine trying to get the right mikes in the right places, and as usual all the cords and cables ended up in a huge hairball. Big Swede and Junior hung the speakers from the roof, and Billy disappeared to take apart his banjo again.

Pretty soon, people started showing up for the dance, some of them furtively holding records under their arms. I wish you could have seen the expressions on their faces when they saw the mikes and instruments and such up on the stage. Some smiled and laughed and ran around hugging each other, and some just stood their with their jaws hanging slack.

When enough folks had showed up we started in to play, and let me tell you, if there had been elections that night, we would all have been voted in as kings and dukes and such. They went crazy! We played "Fireball Mail," "Blue Moon of Kentucky," and "Old Joe Clark," and they were dancing and laughing and kissing and punching each other in the arm like they’d never heard music before. Which I guess they hadn’t, not like this. Then we did "White Dove" and they just stood there and cried.

I knew then that I’d better avoid anything too emotional, because these folks just weren’t used to it, so I called out "How Mountain Girls Can Love" and they went crazy again. I thought that all the yelling and pounding was going to knock the place down. Then the doors flew open, and I realized that some of the yelling and pounding was from the police!

About two dozen purple-uniformed thugs streamed into the barn, threatening with clubs and pistols. Two men stood at each side of the door with machine guns. Of course, we were still playing--this wasn’t much worse to us than the Fridley Legion Post. Actually, the cops were pretty much leaving us alone, and even looked interested. All except for the sergeant in charge. He looked at the band like he’d just bitten into a skunk.

Unless I could think of something real fast, we could look forward to a long stay in the Crossbar Hilton. The song was almost over when it hit me. Forget about the cops! This was just another tough audience, and nothing else! And we all know how to handle a tough audience! Yep! The "Orange Blossom Special!"

We’d been doing "Mountain Girls" in G, and as it was coming to a close I hissed "OBS, or we’re dead!" to the band, and let me tell you Bemidji Billy had that banjo capo on slot #2 faster than a Democrat on a tax surplus! We launched into that "Special" like it was rocket-powered! I played it straight and hard, leaving out "Dragnet," "Leave It To Beaver" and the other silly stuff I usually throw in. And it worked! That old train was smokin’ down the rails, and them old cops was grinnin’ from chin-strap to chinstrap! Even the old sergeant was swinging Mary Anne on his arm and hollering for beer! We played that song from Key West to Philadelphia without stopping for coal or water, and when we pulled into the station you could have lit off a bomb and we couldn’t have heard it for the cheering!

Afterward, the folks worked out a deal with the police to be raided regularly every other Saturday night. We tore down our gear, and it was sure a treat to see five or six big old cops pushing and shoving each other to help carry our speakers! Some folks even rolled up our mike cables nice and neat, and those things had looked like a bushel basket full of fishin’ worms ever since the day we’d got them!

Mary Anne was going to ride back with her roommates, so I stuck Junior behind the wheel and crawled in next to him on the passenger side. We followed the girls back toward town, and I kind of dozed off, thinking of the way Mary Anne had looked at me while we played, and the way she’d kissed me behind the barn afterward. The last thing I remember was Billy saying, "Maybe if I loosen the head just on the front, and crank down the tailpiece..."

When I awoke, I recognized the town of Elk River from the bar signs and streetlights. Elk River! Streetlights! I turned the radio, and rock music punched me in the face. Damn! We were back in 1983.

You know, someday I’m going to wrap that banjo around Billy’s neck.


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