- Steve Yarbrough
In 2009, my first year to teach at the Sewanee Writers' Conference, I attended the dinner for faculty at Wyatt and Barbara's, at which I mostly stood around in a state of mild discomfort. While I knew the [End Page 752] work of everyone there, I was personally acquainted with virtually nobody except the Pruntys themselves. In the mid-to-late eighties I'd taught for three years with Wyatt at Virginia Tech and spent a couple of pleasant evenings at their house. On one of those, having heard that I played bluegrass, he put his mid-sixties Martin D-28 in my hands. I played "Wabash Cannonball" and apparently did not thoroughly embarrass myself, since he complimented my playing.
The thing is that in 2009 I had all but given it up, for the same reason that so many people with creative inclinations abandon their pursuit of painting, poetry, fiction, music, or whatever art they're drawn to: I knew what good sounded like, and it didn't sound like me. I'd been playing the same licks since I was ten years old, and they didn't consist of much more than a G run and some Maybelle Carter-style hammer-ons. I don't think my guitar had left its case more than two or three times in two or three years. The fingers of my left hand had lost their calluses, so that when I did play, my ears were not the only things hurting.
By the Conference's midpoint, I'd gotten to know several people, and at the social gatherings I invariably hung out with the poet Claudia Emerson who, despite winning a Pulitzer, was about as down-to-earth as anybody I'd ever met, as was her husband Kent Ippolito, a jovial man with a bushy beard and a taste for good whiskey. Tony Earley, knowing I loved bluegrass, had mentioned that Kent was a fine musician, and I discovered we liked a lot of the same players, chief among them Norman Blake. Kent told me he planned to bring some instruments to the French House on Saturday night and suggested we play together. I told him that I wasn't very good but was eager to hear him.
I have never forgotten, and will never forget, walking across the yard that evening and seeing him standing alone in the dark just east of the house, a mandolin slung from his shoulder. The party was already in full force, people milling around on the porch, or [End Page 753] sitting in those big white rockers, everybody with drinks in their hands, talking about that afternoon's workshops, or somebody's reading, or the agent they'd just met with, and I couldn't hear him until I got within ten or twelve feet. I don't know what he was playing—it could have been any of the countless fiddle tunes he knows how to play on mandolin, guitar, banjo, and Dobro—and even though I subsequently wrote a novel about a bluegrass musician, I can't adequately describe his playing except to say that his tone was pristine, his picking precise yet relaxed, and that when I heard his tremolo—that rapid but delicate repetition of single notes at the end of a phrase—for me the sound of the party faded away. I was reduced to a single thought: I'd give almost anything to do that.
Well, I still can't do that, at least not like Kent does it. But thanks to his inspiration, in the decade that has passed since that night, music has taken its place near the center of my life. I can play with Kent or anybody else without making a fool of myself, and I regularly write for Fretboard Journal, the pre-eminent publication of its kind in the world. An entire floor of our house is devoted to stringed instruments. The fingertips of my left hand are so thickly callused that an iPad will not respond to their touch.
Last summer, when I played "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" with Kent and Maurice Manning in the...