We're All In This Together
Los Angeles is filled with celebrities. Many places are, but they are pretty heavily concentrated in L.A. due to the entertainment scene out there (the same is true of New York, but I've never lived there) and it's not unusual to spot a famous face next to you while you're out and about. In both my casual and professional life, I've rubbed elbows with stars since I was a kid living in the Fairfax District of West. L.A. It might've been Stymie Beard of "The Little Rascals" sitting in a Fatburger parking lot or Regis Philbin trying on sandals at Standard Shoes on Fairfax Boulevard where I first became aware that the people on the screen were also in real life. There were plenty of autograph moments growing up and some embarrassing moments of fanboy excitement (like meeting musical hero Steve Taylor at my church and pumping his hand effusively as I praised him to the heavens and he nonchalantly looked around and asked "is anyone getting all this?") but, in time, I learned that the most incredible exchanges with celebrities happen when you don't treat them like celebrities.
I think it's that they're so used to being placed on a pedestal. If someone falls out all gaga over them, the walls sort of go up and they'll honor a request for picture or autograph, but then, the moment closes and you go your separate ways. Or, you can just casually make a comment, which sometimes turns into a conversation. Or say nothing and, with a knowing smile, just enjoy the time together, sharing the same space.
The only time I ask for autographs any more is if they're freely being offered or if I'm collecting signatures on a Folkcraft mountain dulcimer that I've had musicians sign for a number of years now. Usually, it's the experience surrounding the signing of that dulcimer that have turned out to be the most memorable. Willie Nelson and his band were the first signees and that was just a wild time backstage at a concert he was doing in Clearwater, Florida. My friend Dave Rhea had passes and we went, enjoyed the show, and then got to meet Willie and Co. afterwards. I'll never forget, after standing in the throng around the Red-Headed Stranger, pushing through the crowd with my newly signed dulcimer and seeing drummer Paul English kicking around in the distance. I walked up to him, dulcimer extended, and said, "Paul, would you mind signing my dulcimer?" He looked at me, surprised, and replied, "you want me to sign it?" I told him, of course, you've been Willie's drummer for years. You're part of the experience. He actually thanked me as he signed his name.
You don't have to be a star, you just have to be special.
Since then, Cyndi Lauper, Rob Thomas, Jill Sobule and their bands have all signed my dulcimer and the interactions have been great; no pictures, just signatures and the memories. Someone said recently that the ubiquitous nature of phones with picture and video capability have created a generation of people who shoot first and then don't remember much later because they haven't lived the moment enough, resided in the moment enough, to log everything that's going on. I'm not sure how true that is, but life is so much better when you're not looking at it through a lens of some sort.
Last night, I went to see The Charlie Daniels Band with my friend Karen and the plan was definitely leaning towards the "collect another signature" route as she also had a picture taken with Charlie some 18 years prior that she wanted signed. We got the info on where Charlie's tour bus was and when he was supposed to be transported to the stage area for a meet-and-greet. So, stalking gleefully, we hung out on the porch of the Lakeside Inn there in Mt. Dora and I took out the dulcimer to play it a bit, passing the time.
Presently, some activity began to hum around the front of the bus. I got up and put the dulcimer under my arm, walking down the stairs from the porch and stood there behind a man with silver hair, who I supposed was also waiting for Charlie to come out. He turned around and looked at me and said, "oh, a mountain dulcimer, can you play it?" I replied that I could and, at his urging, sat down and began playing "Spotted Pony", looking up occasionally to see if Charlie had emerged yet. I was peripherally aware that this man had taken out his phone and was getting video of my performance. Another gentleman came up behind me and was looking on with interest.
When I was done, and no sign of Charlie yet, the two men began asking me questions about the dulcimer and as I responded, I noticed that they were not your typical questions of broad, general interest. They were fairly heavy questions about tuning, scales, chording, etc. As it turns out, I was speaking to Chris Wormer, lead guitarist in The Charlie Daniels Band and Bruce Ray Brown, a 25-year guitar veteran of Charlie's band. We talked dulcimers and Mountain View, Arkansas (where Bruce had picked up his own dulcimer) and while I had both men sign my dulcimer, some mention was made of possibly doing some lessons. Pretty wild.
The band had to go and Karen and I stood by the bus and handed our items inside to have Charlie sign them. We knew he was busy and that there was a meet-and-greet to attend, so not meeting the man was alright. The experience surrounding the signing was really cool, though. Just fellow musicians talking about music. I think if I'd asked for a photo, it might've changed the timbre of the moment (though the guys seemed to dig signing the dulcimer - again, the band seems to get left out of that experience if you're a backing a frontman - wouldn't be the case with, say, U2.)
The show was amazing. Charlie's still got it at age 77 and watching Bruce on stage and listening to him, I realized how much I'd enjoyed his musical contributions over the years. To think that I might be instructing him on mountain dulcimer is kinda mind-blowing. I'd not seen Chris before and he blew me away with his acrobatics on guitar. The other musicians, drummer Pat MacDonald, keyboardist Shannon Wickline and veteran bassist Charlie Hayward were all phenomenal and they rocked out a show that veered from the country hits to latin to jazz fusion to "The William Tell Overture" with slickly entertaining aplomb. It was inspirational in more ways than one. I'd love to be that good. Maybe, by the time I'm 77, God willing, I will be.
Several years ago, I started getting "hey...aren't you...?" and pictures snapped by people passing by me in Mexican restaurant parking lots ("oh my God, Bing Futch! What are you doing in my neck of the woods?" *click*) and there have been autographs signed and many photographs with fans and friends. I'm nowhere near as famous as Charlie Daniels but the honor given to me by people who appreciate my work is one that I don't ever take lightly. I'm at a level where I'm not too unaccessible and can spend time hanging out with folks and that suits me fine. I know it would break my heart to have a security contingent running interference between me and the fans or have to be rushed along, not able to sign every autograph or pose for every picture. I realize that it gets tiring after awhile, but so does recording, or touring or performing for eight days in a row straight. It's all part of the deal and where I am right now seems to be the perfect place. People often say to me, "you're going on to bigger things" or "don't forget us little people when your ship comes in" and I don't want to rebuff their wishes. But I do like to make clear a couple of things.
One, sometimes the big is smaller than it looks.
Two, we're all little people and walk the same ground together.
You bet I'll never forget that. You can be whatever you want to be and as good as you want to be. It's the folks who have become successful, in many ways and on many levels, who encourage us and help us to continue working and realize those dreams. That's one of the reasons that I love music so much. You come to a point where it becomes clear: we're all in this together.