June 20, 2009 — I had a major deja vu last weekend on the banks of the full, fast-flowing Arkansas River in southeast Colorado, at an event called "Bluegrass on the River."
The name pretty much says it all, except that nobody sticks strictly to the bluegrass genre: country & western, folk songs, characteristic American pickin’ and singin’ with roots in indigenous Celtic music, adapted by homespun natives of 19th century Appalachia and the rough-hewn westward-moving frontier.
I’m old enough to remember when ordinary folks pretty much made their own entertainment. If they were of a musical bent that’s what they did: music, for their own entertainment and the enjoyment of family, friends, and neighbors.
My kid sister and I inherited a musical gene from both talented parents; we started playing piano and singing together before we entered elementary school.
History repeated itself when my vocalist/cellist wife and I produced 3 daughters. The youngest sang with a Chattanooga band, the middle one belted out "I Enjoy Being a Girl" in the Tennessee Junior Miss pageant, and the eldest has a voice that makes heads swivel looking for the source when she sings in church or in a sing-along at the Golden Bee at the Broadmoor.
It’s that homespun family part that deja-ed my vu last weekend.
Father Jim, mother Natalie, and ten children ages 27 to six comprise the Hartman family of Loveland, Colo. Five of the kids form the core ensemble and the three youngest are frantically fiddling their way into a permanent place with their older siblings to make music with banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle, and a standup bass.
Inquiries to Natalie about a possible connection between her large brood and a religious affiliation that encourages large families receive a laughing, earthy reply.
As a wannabe bass player, I was totally smitten by 11-year-old Laura, who must stand on a stool to get her fingers on the strings at the upper reaches of her big white dawghouse bass. She plays with a fetching, confident nonchalance. Standing alone she’s a lovely little girl; standing on her stool with fingers flying over the strings and long ebony neck of her taller-than-she-is instrument, she’s a virtuoso.
They all started learning fiddle about age four. Most of the older kids can creditably play most of the instruments but each has his/her specialty. The clan, including mother Natalie, composes much of their music.
The homemade amateur family band turned professional very quickly. For their first "official" performance at the local farmer’s market they were paid with a wagon full of vegetables!
Once the young ones discover how relatively simple it is to create sounds that people enjoy and applaud, it triggers their creative urge and the natural need to be noticed/approved. There’s not a person alive who doesn’t need those elements.
Theology-by-slogan is a big put-off for me, including the banal bromide "The family that prays together stays together." The family that makes music together is praying.
Family music groups aren’t rare, but they’re not all that common either. It doesn’t seem to occur to parents whose time and energy are exhausted simply keeping the kids from killing each other, that playing music is a useful alternative, and surprisingly not difficult to achieve.
God probably taps her foot when 14-year-old Philip and Laura fire up the intro to "Banjo Bounce," and let out howls of heavenly delight when 5-year-old Jesse clambers on the stage with a fiddle that looks like it would fit in my pocket.
Their music isn’t heavy with conventional "gospel" songs, but it sounds like prayer to me.
Editor’s note: W. Jackson "Jack" Wilson is a psychologist, an Episcopal priest, a sometime academic and a writer living in Colorado. He writes with humor, whimsy, passion and penetrating insight into the human condition. And in Pushkin, Russia, a toilet is named in his honor.