Thursday, May 25, 2006
Q: What's The Definition Of Perfect Pitch?
A: When you toss a banjo into a dumpster and it doesn't hit the sides.
Bobby loved banjo jokes. Bobby loved all jokes. He could have an intimidating disposition (I honestly never really got entirely used to it), but tell him a good joke and he would prove the meaning of infectious laughter. Behind his tough grey beard was a lot of silliness and playfulness. I heard a lot of anecdotes of pranks pulled while sitting at the dinner table with him as I was growing up. Those anecdotes are not for me to tell here, by the way. They are not my stories. But I can't wait for some Nashville session musician to write a book about the wild goings-on during the days when Bobby Thompson, my stepdad, kicked around this town as one of the greatest banjo players ever to hit the scene.
I only saw him in the studio once. I was a teen with zero love for country music, but went along anyway probably preferring to stay home and listen to Dokken instead. I sat politely in the small room with the mixing board along with five or six other people and watched as the producer and engineer worked their magic with all of those buttons and knobs. For a young music fan, this quickly became a very fascinating place to be. They worked so fast that it all just seemed like random manipulations, but of course they knew that board so well that what they were doing was in fact purposely precise professionalism. (Alliteration unintended.)
Although I cared not at all for country music, I soon heard music that blew my young ears away. These players on the other side of the glass were out of this world as they took to their instruments. It was that night that I first heard a steel guitar as it should always be heard. I heard a man play electric guitar up close and personal that was every bit as rocking as anything I was hearing on Headbangers' Ball on MTV those days. And I heard Bobby make music with his banjo that even made the seasoned pros hush up and focus on him as if they knew just how special it was to be able to be so close to such a unimaginably stellar artist. When Bobby played and we got to watch and listen to him from such close proximity, it more than made up for all of the other great moments in music history that we had missed for one reason or another. Of course, some of the guys just knew to pay attention because if Bobby made a mistake, he'd be sure to do some pretty good cussin'. And no one wants to miss out on that.
Watching Bobby and his fellow session players that night didn't make me a country music fan. The wonderful stuff I heard pretty much got edited down to the same old 3:05 of your basic radio friendly crud. But I did feel my respect for him swell just a bit. I already respected him for basic reasons of politeness, but watching him work took that to a much more genuine level. As the years passed, he taught my brother, Matt, how to play the guitar, and I know that Matt couldn't have had a better teacher. He's a fantastic player and a wonderful person. And he's got Bobby to thank for a lot of that.
Bobby Thompson died about a year ago from complications due to multiple sclerosis. He fought it for almost half of my entire life. I watched he and my mom fight that disease so hard...so hard and so long. I am struggling now to put together a sentence that explains what they went through, but that just is not possible. Quite simply, I am humbled. As much pain as they faced as a couple dealing with his MS, it was met with equal amounts of love. It was a lot of pain and it was a lot of love. Still is, of course.
I am grateful to have known him as well as I did. He and my mom loved each other so much. Of course, she still hurts missing him. And so do the rest of Bobby's friends and family members. He was a pretty special guy. I miss him, too.
Bobby's CD: Thompson Picks