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The Minnesota State Bass Festival

Copyright 1982 by Bruce Jaeger. All rights reserved.
Published in Bluegrass Unlimited, December 1982


   While thumbing through my little guide to civic festivals and other public events in the State of Minnesota, I came upon an item that was of great interest to me as a bluegrass bass player:

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     Wow! After years of suffering through fiddle and guitar and banjo contests, finally an event for bass players! I immediately made plans to attend, although I kind of wondered why I had never heard of this before. And, why hadn't the Minnesota Bluegrass Association's newsletter or Bluegrass Unlimited ever listed the event? At first, I figured that maybe the folks in this small farming/resort town wanted things kept low-key so they wouldn't have too many people descending upon them at once.
     Nuts. The real reason there's no publicity about this Bass Festival is because the editors probably found out, as I did, that it's the worst, most poorly-run event ever held!
What a shame. Imagine, doghouse-pickers, what it could have been like... A pleasant bass-playing weekend, with a contest number or two, a lot of bull-slinging and technique trading... And, best of all, standing around the campfire playing our basses into the early hours of the morning, without any of those other prima-donna instruments around! "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" without that clanking banjo! No nervous mandolin fluttering on "Rawhide"! Good solid bass, and no nasal fiddle screeching and whining like some tone-deaf old witch! No junkyard Dobros! And, perhaps best of all, no room for guitar player-singers who always want to sing all the verses to "Mountain Dew" or "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms!"
     But alas, that was not to be. Let me tell you about it.
     The first morning of the festival, I wedged "Henrietta" (my bass fiddle) into my LeCar, and left about 4:00 a.m. After hours of driving through the Anoka sand plain and other equally boring stretches of Minnesota's scenic anatomy, I reached the town of Alex, to be greeted by the wonderful banner across Main Street: "Welcome to the Lake Alex BASS FESTIVAL!" My heartbeat jumped to Allegro. Recognition at last!
     Wait a minute! I didn't see any bass players. No bass necks peeked out of too-small car's windows. No pickers wrestling their axes down the sidewalk. All I could see was the usual resort-town army of fishermen and their pickups full of rods and oars and such. And I couldn't park because of all the boats taking up the spaces.
     I pulled into a filling station. "Where's the Bass Festival?" I asked.
     He looked at me, then at my car, then at Henrietta, then back at me. "Huh?" he says.
     "Where's the Bass Festival?"
     "Oh! The Bass Festival!" he says, pronouncing "bass" like "gas." Must have been his Norwegian heritage. "It's just down that road up ahead, right at the lake!" I thanked him and hurried on down the road.
     After bouncing about two and a half miles down the public access, I reached Lake Alex. Curving around the lake on both sides as far as I could see were campers and pickups and motorhomes. Little monsters wearing childrens' bodies terrorized the grounds with their mini-bikes. (I knew then I was at the festival for sure!) Nailed to an oak tree was a sign telling all entrants in the Best Bass Contest to sign up at the park office.
     I parked next to a '62 three-hole turquoise Buick that had been converted into a pickup by someone who couldn't weld very good, and dragged Henrietta out of the hatchback.
Two men wearing "AlumaCraft" windbreakers saw me pulling the bass out, and ran up to the car with their eyes bugging out.
     "Do you see what I see?" asked the one with the "Hi! I'm Chet" badge. His partner, "Hi! I'm Steve," didn't say anything, but pulled a tape measure from his jacket pocket and started measuring my bass!
     "Um, hello!" I said. I don't think they even knew I was there.
     Chet turned to Steve. "Why didn't we think of this before! We'll make millions!"
     I'd always thought my bass was kind of a dog, myself. I sure didn't know what these guys saw in it!
     "Hey guys," I said. They stopped their excited babbling and looked at me. "Where's the pickin' going on?" They looked at each other, then back at me. Chet hitched up his pants and spoke.
     "Pickin'? There's a cleanin' shed down at the dock. That's all I know about." They both walked away then, waving their arms and argueing about freeboards and transoms and starboards and other musical terms I'd never heard of.
     Well, it didn't look like there was any music going on yet, so I thought I'd drum up a little action on my own. I pulled out Henny's peg, tuned her up and started in on playing my part to "Pike County Breakdown." Sooner than you could skin a dog I'd attracted a whole crowd of onlookers. Truen they were all Webelos from Cub Den #63, but that was already a lot more of an audience than I, as a bass player, was used to! Unfortunately, an ex-drill sergeant posing as a den mother came along and ordered all my potential bass pickers back to collecting aluminum cans.
     I played the best part of the next hour alone, with only a passing suspicious glance from the locals carrying their fishing poles. Then, as I was really getting heavily into one of my showpiece numbers, "Train 45," I heard a loud "THWACK!--THWUCK!" I'd broken both my G and D strings!
     Disaster! Unlike guitar and banjo pounders, we bass players can't afford to carry a suitcase full of spare strings. They're expensive! I still had a D string from the last time I'd changed (for a fundraiser back during Ford's campaign) but I'd used the old G string to hold down the trunk lid on my MG.
     I walked over to a group of old-timers sitting at a picnic table drinking beer and taking apart their rods and reels.
     "Excuse me," I said. "Can you help me find a G string?" They all put down their beer cans and looked at me real strange-like.
     "What did you say?" asked a guy wearing a Minnesota Viking cap.
     "I broke my only G string." I said.
     "Well, you thilly boy!" said the man sitting across the table from the Viking.
     "We don't like your kind around our town!" This was from a barrel-bellied monster who crushed his beer can between his finger and thumb, then stood up and moved menacingly toward me.
     I quickly realized my mistake. "Wait, guys: I know what you musta thought: Heh, heh! It's not for me! It's for my bass!"
     "Huh?" said the Viking.
     "It's for my bass. I need a G string for my bass!"
     "Why d'you need a G string for your bass?" He rhymed it with "gas," just like the pump jockey.
     "Well, I keep breaking strings over the bridge."
     "Have you tried using a shorter rod, to keep your casts lower and avoid snagging your line?"      This was music lingo I'd never heard before.
     "What line?" I exclaimed. "I just run the G string from the head, down Henrietta's neck, and tie it to her tailpiece. Then, I..."
     "I'M GONNA KILL HIM!" roared the monster as he lurched towards me. I spun around to run, and collided with a six-foot-four uniform stuffed with a sheriff's deputy.
     "You the person with the LeCar over there? And the bass?" He, at least, pronounced "bass" correctly.
     "Yes, sir," I replied. "I've been trying to find the other pickers, and..."
     "Quiet! I've had a lot of complaints about you! Pack up that portable outhouse and git!"
     "But, the brochure said..."
     "NOW!" I got.

     Well, that's pretty much the story. I'd wasted a whole day, several gallons of gas, and had almost gotten beaten up and thrown in the local calaboose! And, as a final blow, someone pasted a "Lake Alex Bass Festival" bumper sticker on my car:
     I sure hope I can give you a better report about next month's United Farm Workers Picker's Convention.


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