Isis: a tale of terror (and ludicrously fast picking)


I’d heard that you couldn’t throw a rock in Asheville without hitting a musician. I haven’t tested out the theory yet, because I don’t want to way myself down with pockets full of pebbles, but I’m pretty sure it holds up. I’ve been here almost a week and practically everyone I’ve met has either been in the music business or closely related to someone who is.

There’s really no room for amateurs here and, I’ll be honest, I’m out of my league. On Tuesday nights there’s an open jam at the Isis Music Hall – yes, it's really called that, and no, they won't change the name, because it's a renovated movie theatre from 1937 and its name is literally up in lights – in trendy West Asheville, just a couple of minutes down the road from the place I was staying. At about 9.30pm, the restaurant space was filled with diners, and on a large stage overlooking them were a bunch of guys playing some of the fastest bluegrass I have ever heard.

The banjo player was a guy called Judo I’d met the week before at a jam down near Hickory. (His name’s actually Aaron, but he does judo, so that’s what people call him). He waved me backstage to a green room where a host of other musicians who’d just got off stage were sitting and chatting. They were pretty friendly but I was terrified by the sounds coming off the stage. I know where my playing’s at right now, and there is no way I could fiddle that fast. I decided to keep a low profile and try to avoid going out on stage at all.

But that wasn’t the deal here, and after a while someone popped their head out of the door that leads to the stage and said it was time for fresh blood. I walked up there like I was heading to the gallows. Which is probably a good experience for a bluegrass musician, considering how many murder ballads end like that.

Someone asked me what I’d like to play. I saw my only chance of survival. I said, how about something slow, like a waltz? They agreed. I got through it. I stayed on for a couple more tunes. Later in the evening, I had another go, this time in the company of a second fiddler called Scott, who provided welcome cover every time I was out of my depth.

Being out on stage was easily the worst part of the night. The best bit was sitting in the green room with the unbelievable host of talent back there, watching them picking at lightning speed, enjoying each other’s company. My favourite moment was hearing a haunting sound emerging from the bathroom, and realising two of the musicians had gone in there together to play tunes because they liked the acoustic so much. One of them was actually perched on the toilet, fiddling. They were still there when the jam was over, playing til after midnight.

Later in the week I'm going to do a round up of all the amazing talented musicians I've met so you can check out some of their work. Until then, here's a video I took from the balcony, of some of the guys playing…

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