I’ve often heard the legendary tales of how little Ricky Skaggs and lil’ Marty Stuart first got their start. Mr Monroe or Lester one invited them up to perform on stage shortly after they had just learned to walk. Essentially they couldn’t do long division yet but they could play Rawhide with ease. So anyhow, they go on stage and shred their instrument. The crowd goes crazy. The record deals stack up. They’re legends. Bodda bing bodda boom.
Little Rick and Marty aren’t the only ones to have such incredible opportunities though. In the summer of 1990, my family traveled to Canton, TX to embark upon one of the most stacked bluegrass festivals in the Lone Star State. It was at this same festival when I first met Mr Monroe. I purchased an 11×17 poster of His Highness and he promptly signed it using my back as a writing surface. This festival had all the kings and queens of bluegrass. The headliner however for 1990 was none other than Mr Smiley himself, Del McCoury. I believe it was just the year before I’d met Mr Bill, so riding on the wave of that success I was determined to meet The Great & Mighty Pompadour. Del rode in style back then – a big huge coach that resembled a two story building to an eleven year old. As my memory serves me, I found myself snooping around their bus as a kid would. I must have been a terrible prowler because Ronnie McCoury, son of Del and mandolinist extraordinaire, popped out with a high-pitched and friendly, “Hey there! How ya doin’?” Most definitely he was making sure I wasn’t up to no good but he instantly gleamed that I was just a curious kid. “Do you pick?” I quickly informed him that I was a fiddler. Without a second thought, he invited me on the bus as though I had just signed a musicians waiver and was clear to enter into the sacred transport. “Come on, some of the guys’ll wanna meetcha”. Well, by now, my internal organs were all about to shut down due to the thrill of it all but I managed to muster a cool and collected, “Sure.”
I vividly remember the steps to get up into the bus were quite steep to climb even for a beanpole like myself. I was quickly met by Robbie, other son and banjoist, and Jason Carter, one of the best fiddlers around. Robbie had the same welcoming tone as his brother Ronnie and Jason was equally kind (once he had surmised I was no competition for him.) Ronnie informed me that “Dad should be out soon” which had the sort of casual air that an heir to the thrown would announce the coming of his pops, the King. Sure enough, Del wanders out from the back of his bus and sees me. Might I add, he already had a grin on his face but upon seeing me he managed to pull back the corners of his mouth even wider, almost painfully but old hat to him. He sat down and we had a conversation. A patient conversation that consisted in all of the Q&As that come with getting to know your neighbor. I rattled on with nervous one word answers and, at the end of the chat, he uttered the words that would align Ricky, Marty and myself for life. “Hey, you should join us tonight on stage! Play a tune! What’s your favorite?” Staying consistent with my quick responses, I told him “Gold Rush”, a Byron Berline jam that he wrote while with Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys”. He instructed me to be back stage a quarter to eight and to bring my fiddle.” I exited the bus and life became less care-free.
The soundtrack for the day leading up to the show was Alison Krauss’ recently released ‘Two Highways’ on repeat. ‘I must decide alone. Which road will take me home?’ As I walked through the festival campgrounds, I saw only blurry faces, heard dulled clanking of banjos and even the sweet aroma of funnel cake had grown faint. I was perplexed to say the least. In the end, ‘my decision was an awful one’, I chose the ‘loser’s choice’, and ghosted Del and the Boys. I’m quite certain that their set that night was stellar but I was too frightened to even be in the crowd for fear that those loving, squinty eyes would find me in the distance and re-extend the offer. And sure enough, the equation that worked out for Ricky and Marty proved true. Go on stage with a legend at a young age = You become a legend. Don’t go on stage with a legend at a young age = You don’t become a legend. While that math adds up, there were many different outcomes in which I’m extremely grateful. Indeed that day secured a lifelong fondness for bluegrass, the McCoury family, and, ultimately, a heart for pushing past the moments when you feel like walking away.