Across Tennessee. By Kia.
He takes my hand in a bear-like grip and shakes it warmly.
I am relieved that he has a bear-like grip. Having just watched him play the most amazing banjo music in the world, I had worried that there might be something a bit odd about his hands, to allow him to play so fast, so casually. But he has normal hands, if a bit bear-like. I will not have to deform my own hands in order to play like him.
Sonny Smith is a national banjo champion of the USA, and you don’t get much more accomplished in the banjo world than that. Like many true greats, he is also a very modest man, and has no airs about him. He stops shaking my hand and there is an awkward pause.
The problem is that I am not very cool around celebrities, especially musicians. I sort of go in awe and stuff. I am not name-dropping or anything, but I have met the likes of Peter Andre and Tony Hadley and stuff, PLUS supported the Sultans of Ping on one date of their UK tour. So you would think that I would be a bit more comfortable around legends.
“I’m pleased to meet you,” says Sonny Smith, US banjo champion.
There is another short pause.
“Iamthatwasimeanthatwasbrilliantbanjogreatreallyamazedhowyougetthatwow,” I reply.
“Oh – well, you know,” says Sonny Smith, modestly.
There is another pause. This one is a bit longer.
“I play the banjo as well!!!” I blurt, after a while.
Sonny Smith does look genuinely interested at this, as I don’t suppose he has met many other banjo players in his life. He gives me a broad grin, as I am part of the brotherhood.
“Are you any good?” he asks, in an interested (not challenging) way.
I consider this. I have just watched one of the best – if not the best – banjo players in America play, which makes him one of the best – if not the best – banjo players in the world. So his definition of ‘are you any good’ is probably a bit different than if, say, I had been asked by Eddie up at the Village Pub. I am a reasonable banjo player compared to some people, but I do not have – and never will have – the right hand technique to play proper Scruggsian bluegrass, and I’m frankly a little lost once I start wandering around the neck. But he seems genuinely interested, and I would really like to have a conversation with him about banjo playing as – let’s face it – it’s not that often that you meet somebody who is so eminent in your chosen field (apart from Peter Andre, Tony Hadley and the Sultans of Ping).
In the end I decide that the best course is be to be honest, but to also make a bit of a joke of it. Banjo playing is hardly an English thing – so I could be said to be better than many of my peers, most of whom wouldn’t know a banjo from a mandolin from a ukulele… but I am nothing like even a halfway-competent American professional exponent. So I try to encapsulate this in one sentence, getting across that I’m pretty average but that sometimes people think I am a bit better than I am as there aren’t a lot of other people dotted around the Village to measure my banjo playing ability against.
What I actually say is:
“I am the best banjo player in England.”
Sonny Smith, US banjo champion, is a bit taken aback by this – but being from the USA he is used to people telling it how it is. I, on the other hand, hear the words coming out of my mouth and want to hide inside a giant banjo.
“Hey, that’s great!” he says, and goes into a detailed conversation about banjo playing. I do not hear most of the conversation, as all I can hear is:
“I am the best banjo player in England.”
The rest of his band (who are also brilliant musicians) are still milling around. I have a horror that he will call them over and introduce me. So instead of having a nice conversation about banjo playing and perhaps getting some tips, I mumble something about the Toddler waiting for me, buy three CD’s and run for it. I might be really suave, cool, attractive etc on the page, but I am rubbish – rubbishy rubbish – at meeting people in the flesh. If Sonny Smith, US banjo champion, ever Googles this then it was really great to meet you and the CD’s are fantastic.
EDIT – Sonny has very kindly left a comment, which has chuffed me to bits. For readers who are interested, Sonny’s CD is available – contact him through his website at www.sonnysmithbanjo.com for information. It’s all-instrumental, with a mix of guaranteed favourites and some that were new to me – some bluegrass, some veering towards swing. I’m sure that he’d set you up with music from his colleagues in the Smoky Mountain String Band as well – I came back to the UK with some truly great stuff.
And for those who like reading – if my books share a theme then it’s the joy that a deep love of music brings you. You can get them in paperback or in e-format; try the links above, and thank you!