From the time I was a child I loved music and loved making it happen. I performed for people in grade school and in all the turbulent years between then and grad school music was my companion. I survived high school largely because the music rooms were always open and welcoming when the lunch room wasn’t. In those days I believe God listened to my music and not my prayers because my music was real. I dreamed of being a performer, played in church when I could because I was the Pastor, and thought through it all that maybe, perhaps, my time would come.
It did, in the form of the local jams and one person who stepped out and formed a group with me. The local jams opened up to me almost magically. They were places where I could hone my skills, be challenged, be affirmed, and find people to make music with for the sheer love of doing it. Bassists need people, we give other musicians a foundation and they give us wings. In the jams I found out that I could not only survive but thrive, not simply muddle along but excel. And then there was Ross.
Ross was in his middle 60’s when we first met at the jams. His songs were eclectic, interesting, things not always heard but still worth listening to. He had the blues and I, with my double bass, had the rhythm. Quiet, spiritual, laid back, and funny he was, and is, easy to make music with, a mellow bastion of sanity in a music world full of pathological egos. We started playing together, Cajun songs, mining songs, folk songs, reggae songs, whatever suited our fancy. Then we traveled. Open mics, coffee shops, farmer’s markets, on the streets in Stillwater. People liked us. In a folk music world full of artists with morbid obsessions we were a dance band. As I said to one person “Ross and I have baggage, we just don’t sing about it.”
And people would join us, friends filling in at shows or coming up on stage during open mics. There was the two of us and whoever dropped in. Sometimes I would be on stage taking it all in and think to myself “This is really happening, this is really happening.” When the shows were done we’d practice at Ross’ house on a porch overlooking a pond, our only audience his two dogs who’d curl up on a chair and listen while we worked out the details.
Later we added Tilden, a talented mandolinist and guitarist and a generally good egg. We became regulars at a few coffee shops and made the kind get up and dance at the St. Paul Farmer’s Market. Finally, in the last few months, Collette, quiet and soulful with a passionate voice. Of course we were busy, we had lives, but those moments carved out with the band were special.
Yet things, all things and all people, grow old and tired. Ross needed to rest and be what he wants to be, a great soul playing music with friends. Tilden and I have other projects. Collette, I don’t know but there’s a place for her and I’d like to think that someday we’ll be listed in her biography as a place she got her start. The ending caught us, in some ways, by surprise but I think down in our heart we may have known all along. Right now all I can see is that special kind of happy sadness that comes when something of joy runs its natural course.
So here’s to Shoulder to the Plow, the little group where my lifelong dream of playing music for people finally came true, the little group that made people tap their toes while they sipped their coffee, the little group whose heart will always be on Ross back porch. Thank you for everything. Yes, of course we’ll bump in to each other somewhere, somehow because music makes us friends and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
And now on to whatever is next, all things being on God’s good hands.