Few people who came to hear me in most of the local country and rock music venues for four decades know that I started out playing bluegrass.
Jean Burnum, wife of a Baptist preacher, and I played all of James and Martha Carson's songs, the songs of the Blue Sky Boys, the Delmore Brothers, the Louvins and Carl Story, "the father of bluegrass gospel." Later, Rocky Mull joined us on mandolin.
In fact when I was 17, Story played a concert at Hillcrest School here and offered me a job on mandolin.
I was so excited, I could hardly wait to tell my parents I had a real job with a country/bluegrass great. Mother took a dimmer view of it since I was a senior in high school. The next morning Dad told me, "You're old enough to make your own decisions, but if you take that job, it will kill your mother."
Deciding not to kill my mother and to finish high school, I turned down my chance to hit the road with one of my heroes.
Years later, I learned Story never made much money on the road. He worked as a salesman in a music store in South Carolina. A local friend who played the bluegrass circuit with a major-name act said he made less than $14,000 the last year he played.
I made so little money playing bluegrass with that first band that I formed a regular county band and did well for four decades.
Still, there's something deep within me that regrets not taking the job with Story. Music is a spiritual thing between a musician and God, and all we can do is call the decisions the best we can.
One thing's for sure. Bluegrass musicians are doing better now than they ever have. There is a clear upsurge of interest in it. Every little crossroad is trying to start a bluegrass festival.
We already have one of the best -- the annual Boxcar Pinion Memorial Bluegrass Festival at Raccoon Mountain Campground. It is named for one of the most beloved bluegrass musicians to ever walk the streets of this town. Boxcar played doghouse bass with several of the best bands we have ever had.
Forty years ago, Boxcar took his daughter, Cindy, to the Armuchee (Ga.) Bluegrass Festival, and she was immediately addicted. She is no doubt "Mama Bluegrass" in Chattanooga.
She said, "As soon as I heard the music, it made me feel good all over." Her daddy had warned her, "If you get it on you, it will never go away." If you don't believe that think of how many times you have seen Cindy's bumper sticker with "Forever Bluegrass" on it.
Chattanooga is positioned perfectly for two of the top bluegrass festivals in America: the Boxcar Pinion Festival in May and Tennessee Homecoming at the Museum of Appalachia in October. You will see dozens of folks demonstrating pioneer skills and 400 bluegrass and old-time musicians.
Email Dalton Roberts at DownhomeP@aol.com.