It felt good to have a banjo in my hands. I believe the last time I held one was back in 2010 when borrowing from my father’s friend.
There is something about it. When you pluck the strings, it sounds like hard musical raindrops falling on a tin roof. A banjo haunts a body. It feels both lonely and powerful at the same time. I figure, it is the kind of instrument to turn to on tempest driven nights.
This past Thursday, I wasn’t wearing the metal fingerpicks on my fingertips and it wasn’t so stormy but it was good enough, skin against steel, the familiar but half-lost chords forming on the frets.
For Anne Luise, she was a bit apologetic. When she had first arrived at my place in the early evening, pulling out the five-stringed wonder, she said it was a bit out of tune But handing it over to me, she confessed it felt good to get it ready for our little prep-session.
And so we sat in my room and made a little music. While practising and jamming together, each taking turns with the banjo, we started to gain some semblance of a set for this coming Tuesday. In turns out she had written a song recently – one you’ll have to hear this coming Tuesday, no spoilers allowed apparently. The instrument will feature in the song and I’ll be accompanying her. I had told her earlier I wanted to do an interview with her for the Leipzig Glocal but with the little time we had, with the banjo between us, deliriously distracting us, we focussed on finding the tunes that would best compliment our musical backgrounds.
But to give you some idea what we are doing, because it is only fair, we found ourselves playing a few country songs. Well, not ‘country’ in the shiny pop stadium-sized versions of Shania Twain and Garth Brooks or the faux-twang of Taylor Swiftt but the more traditional, the more roots-woven old style Western Country best personified by legends like Hank Williams and the Carter Family. We had no idea we were coming to this but with her song, a few of mine I’ve wanted to play, and yes, that banjo, safe to say, it was going to happen.
And I do blame the banjo, a kind of summoning in its strings. It was making the decisions, drawing us towards its stalwart but melancholy power. I said I had wanted to buy one recently after having watched the Belgium film, The Broken Circle Breakdown recently. Actually, I seem to watch it religiously every two months or so. It is a tragic tale about a female tattoo artist ( played by Veerle Baetens) and a bluegrass banjo player (Johan Heldenbergh) falling in love, having a daughter and losing their daughter to cancer. Sorrows aside, the film shines not only in the dialogue but in the musical performances. The actors sing all their songs and when they hold the instruments, they know what they’re doing (I highly recommend the soundtrack as well).
There is catharsis involved in the film but it is far more personal for me. Due to my Dutch background and love of old style country, the film provides me with a doubled sustenance: I can hear the Dutch language (or here, Flemish, close enough) so in a sense, I am taken back to my grandparents living room, floating in my nostalgia while at the same time, I can hear and remember the old records my father used to play after coming home from work. Yes, I have country in my jeans, to quote Loretta Lynn and the singing female protagonist, Elise.
Anne Luise had seen the film years ago and I lent her my copy. For her, the film invoked memories of Nashville, Tennessee while traveling in the United States. Nashville, that grand capital of the Grand Ole Opry, the place where legends came to roost and rise, you would be hard pressed to find a name in country music that first didn’t make their name there. Whether you’re thinking the classics (Bill Monroe, Roy Acuff) or the more modern (Reba McEntire, Brad Paisley), it is the Mecca for ‘tears in your beers’ kinds of ballad makers.
And Anne Luise had been there, walking the streets, seeing the facade of the house of legends. She must have taken something away from it, judging by her song.
And I have to say, that song is still with me.
I asked her about it and she said when it comes to writing a song, it either comes all at once, down on the page with chords intact, or not at all. And I’m the same. In all honesty, I don’t consider myself a true songwriter in that I don’t labour over the work. When I write a song, it happens once or twice a year, tops. But they are songs I still play and I would rather have a handful of what I love than a mountain of music I shudder over.
As for the rest of our jam session, shortened by responsibilities, we agreed on our script and our set for the evening along with a few country covers.
Also, a few surprises.
Most of all, I am hoping the audience will enjoy our own contributions to country.
As Anne Luise bundled up her banjo, saying she would practice one of my songs with it, I couldn’t help think about how the past is never too far. For Anne Luise, back in Leipzig after being abroad, she still carries her memories of her time in the states, of Nashville. For me, I have my childhood, and I am never too far from the songs I love, the ones I first heard on my father’s old LPs.
Seeing Anne Luise off (God, she’s got a great name for country, doesn’t she?) the one thing I am wondering is how strange – country music in Leipzig. Is it going to work? This is the city of Bach, Schuman and Mendelssohn. But still a music city and country might be in good company here.
I guess we’ll have to see this Tuesday.