My grandfather played fiddle by ear. Except for a few lessons he took around the time I took violin lessons in the third grade (I did learn how to play a mean “Mary Had a Little Lamb” with hillbilly twang) from a man who was once featured on Hee Haw with his clogging granddaughter, I don’t think he ever learned how to read music. I can remember watching him play at big family reunions when I was a child, as well as heading down to hear his band play a country music venue in Tilton, KY with my sisters one weekend when I was home, visiting from graduate school.
I’ve had a record of his, recorded with a band of friends that went by “The Country Rangers,” for as long as I can remember. It has the weight of inheritance, of artifact, of family legend. It must have been recorded sometime in the late 70s, because I can remember it always being mixed in with my childhood 45s, and how I would flip past it in search of my “listen and read along” record for The Empire Strikes Back, my copy of Urban Chipmunk (A Take-off on Urban Cowboy, so the songs were all Country, not “urban” as a 2015 listener might assume. My parents bought it for me because I asked for Chipmunk Punk and they decided that wasn’t the best idea), and a couple of other records my elementary school age self thought were cooler.
Toward the end of his life, my grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, and so many of the things he loved–and was good at–the fiddle, woodworking, tinkering with tools and machines in his shop–disappeared from his life, often in semi-tragic ways. There are a few videos around of grandaddy playing his fiddle–grainy VHS tapes converted for better keeping, but this record–cut at a time when there was still something mystical about recording music, paid for by men who worked with their hands and played music for fun–has always been something special. Even if it wasn’t as cool as Alvin singing Willie Nelson, it was precious, and whether it was out of reverence or a lack of interest, my copy was never scratched no matter the city I moved to (The revelation that Darth Vader was Luke’s Father, on the other hand, will forever skip a sentence or two).
A few weeks ago, while preparing our house here in the Kansas City area to be put up for sale, I found my copy, tucked away in just the right spot so it wouldn’t be broken. It’s made a few moves with me–always kept safe, but it’s been a long time since I’ve listened to it. I immediately snapped a photo of it with my phone and sent the picture to my sisters, suggesting we find a way to convert the record into an MP3.
But they had even better news. My dad had recently asked a friend to convert the record to a digital file, and had shared it with them during a recent trip home. It was delivered to me via a Cloud application. I downloaded it and listened.
My Grandfather’s fiddle was clear and strong from the opening of the first song, “Me and Baby.” My granddaddy loved Marty Robbins, so it wasn’t surprising to hear shades of his style in the two very Country and Western tunes (The other was titled “I’m Having Dreams About You, Baby.”). It was such a joy to hear the songs as an adult, to hear my Granddaddy play again, to think about the distance between our lives.
After a run this morning, I synced my iPod with my computer in order to upload my running stats, and Granddaddy’s songs were downloaded onto my device. This afternoon, I jumped into the car and plugged my iPod into the sound system, and headed home. The sky had clouded over, and it was pretty clear within a few minutes of driving that I would be driving into rain. It was one of those big midwestern clouds, grey and wall-like, the kind that you see in Westerns over the plains. Even if the view was crowded by strip malls and other suburban trappings, it was the sort of thing my grandfather would like.
At a stoplight before turning onto the highway, Granddaddy’s song began to play, filling up my car with a scratchy recording of his fiddle, as if it were actually being played on the radio. I wondered what he would think of that. I snapped another quick photo and sent it it to my sisters with the caption “Granddaddy on my iPod.”
Soon enough, I made the turn and headed west into the storm, wishing I had a cowboy hat to tip just a bit lower, bracing for the rain up ahead.