If I were pressed to pick my favorite song of all time, there's a good chance that Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" would be on my short list. I've been mesmerized by '52 Vincent ever since Thompson released it on his album Rumor and Sigh when I was in college. I've even labored to master it on guitar, though at this rate, I'll probably be retired before I'm decent enough to let anyone else hear me playing it. So when Del McCoury and his band began playing the song yesterday, while I sat in the front row of the small audience assembled in Studio 4A, I briefly assumed it would be the highlight of their visit to NPR.
Yet it wasn't.
I loved every moment of their performance - I've been replaying it all day today - but the band actually managed to be upstaged by a 10-year-old caller from California named James.
About halfway through the performance, James called the show and found himself talking with Neal Conan, the band and audience listening. "I play the mandolin," James announced proudly. "I've been playing for about three years." He then asked if he could ask Del's son Ronnie a question, and requested to play a song of his own over the phone.
First, the question. James asked Ronnie about how he got started playing mandolin. Ronnie told the story of how he started playing violin when he was nine, then migrated to the mandolin at 13, picking up several tricks from his dad along the way. "After about six months, he put me in the band," Ronnie said. Neal then followed it up with a question to Del as to whether he put family members into the band as a way of saving money.
At this point I started wondering if James' request to play a song on his mandolin would get lost in the mix. I mean, this was a performance chat with one of the greatest bluegrass acts of all time, not a county fair pickin' contest sponsored by 4H and the local musical heritage association. Maybe we'd all conveniently forget he ever asked. Besides, how good could a 10-year-old be?
Fortunately, Neal didn't forget James' offer; the mic was his. James said he'd play "Salt Creek," a traditional fiddler's tune recorded by Bill Monroe in the 1960s. (Actually, James played "Fisher's Hornpipe," a traditional tune that was also part of Bill Monroe's repertoire, but who's counting?)
"Okay, I'm gonna put you on speaker," James said excitedly, probably having no idea it would be such an applause line among those of us gathered in the studio. "Can you hear me? Here it goes!"
James had no problem diving right into it. I could picture his small fingers rising and falling across the mandolin fretboard, the tip of his tongue bit between his teeth to fortify his concentration.
Being in the studio with Del and the band, it was momentarily jarring hearing the audio quality shift from the dynamic range of the live performance to James' over-the-phone rendition, but in some ways it was actually magical. The quality of the audio was so bad, it sounded like an old-time record from the early 1920s - precisely the period when Bill Monroe himself was the same age as James. It was like we were in a fleeting musical time warp, sitting in the parlor over a glass of fresh lemonade, mesmerized by the shellac 78 spinning on Grandpa's phonograph.
It was a short song, perhaps only a minute or two, but James played it like a champ, with precision and passion. Bill Monroe would have been proud; Del certainly was.