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Teaching a Rank Stranger some Bluegrass Jam Etiquette

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Teaching a Rank Stranger some Bluegrass Jam Etiquette

Dim Lights Thick Smoke

A TRUE STORY

by Bonnie Sims 

I host a weekly Sunday afternoon bluegrass jam in the beautiful Rocky Mountains of Colorado. I usually host this jam with my husband and partner-in-all-things-music, but alas, he had gone to his grandmother's eightieth birthday in Texas. So this Sunday, I was flying solo. Think how excited I must have been when the first person to turn up is a good girlfriend, Cindy, who sings and kicks ass on bass and guitar, so she and I together begin the sweet dance that is Bluegrass.

Enter a small, pretty unremarkable stranger dude. He's in his twenties and dressed in normal earth-toned Colorado clothes, complete with a beanie and a beard. Then he begins... Shitty guitar: check. Tuning by ear: check. Smells like feet: check. Introduces himself as Elvis: check. He’s not off to a good start. After I offer him a chair, he grabs a bar stool and says “Do you allow stools here?” to which I jokingly replied, (my first mistake) “Hey, you do whatever you want as long as you keep your pants on.” At this point a kind of drunk, arrogant look washes over his face as he muses, “Girls are always trying to get me to take my clothes off.” NOPE. Newsflash, I told you to keep your pants on. How did that not compute? This is the first red flag, and then he just started literally throwing red flags at me. Right in the face. Which, coincidentally, is also where his OPEN FLY is positioned because he’s sitting next to me on a bar stool while I am in a normal chair. Thanks for the crotch shot, new guy! 

He sings some songs. Some drunken, barely-audible songs. He plays some solos. The jam continues as usual, except that now I have moved over a chair (I’m literally scooting away from you DUDE!!) and Cindy and I are having deep and intense conversation with only our eyes. She decides to sing a tune, ‘Banks of the Ohio’. Right before we start this song, Elvis lets us know that he “plays this one all the time with Tony Rice.” Ok. That’s probably not true. Now, we all know how creepy and misogynistic of a tune ‘Banks of the Ohio’ is. For those not familiar, the story goes: Man likes Girl, Man takes Girl for walk, Man asks Girl to marry him, Girl says No, Man stabs Girl and throws her in the river to drown. That shit is a modern day Law and Order SVU episode. So after my girlfriend sings the line “I killed the girl I loved, you see, because she would not marry me” Elvis yells out, “It’s her own damn fault!”

Woah. I take this opportunity to tell him that this is in fact THE creepiest thing anyone has ever said at my bluegrass jam. He tells me he was trying to make me laugh. Just, no. Everything, no.

The jam continues. I start to notice a funny trend, when I play a lead, Mr. Elvis starts to as well. Seems like he is having trouble playing music with a woman that takes solos. Since his guitar is barely audible, and I like to spank it out on my mando, I ignore him and let it slide. I also play chords for his actual solos. Because I know how to behave at a bluegrass jam. It’s Elvis’ turn once more, and he informs us that he wants to play a Fleetwood Mac song, but also that he lost his pick. He starts to get pretty upset about it actually.

“Did you take my pick? Why did you take my pick?”

“I didn't take your pick, I don’t take people’s things. I’m not five.”

“Oh you think you’re so good. North Carolina wannabes. Why don’t you learn to play the fucking mandolin?”

“Excuse me?”

“Listen babe---”

“My name is not babe. My name is Bonnie Sims and I get paid to be here. This is my job. This isn't some game to me where I pretend to be something I'm not. If you can't treat me with respect, you can get the fuck out of here. Now. Leave.”

Then, Elvis replies with the craziest thing of all:

“You know I respect you.” (as if this was obvious all along)

And I just laughed and laughed and laughed. He left the jam and went to the bar, pulled his hat over his face and proceeded to pout. Then they cut him off, proceeded to kick him out, and called him a cab, because Oskar Blues Longmont is a classy joint. And I am a classy lady. 

Now this was, no doubt, an extreme situation. I've hosted this jam for five years, and played bluegrass all my life, and have never seen anything like this at an open jam. This guy was acting the fool in bright neon colors. I have, however, seen shades of this my whole life: from being the only female in a jam circle and, for some reason, you're the only one who doesn't get a nod for a solo, to being called "Darlin" by the same men for years, who I'm pretty sure never learned my name. (For the record, "Darlin" bothers me a LOT less than not getting a solo.) Also, being complemented by other male musicians, people I respect, as being a "girl who will jam & solo", like that's surprising. I look forward to the day that this is the expectation, instead of a mind-blowing exception. Get ready boys, and be sure to make some room for the ladies. Please and Thank You.

Sincerely,

Bonnie “Yes, I would like a solo” Sims