At my first Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in 2009, I planted myself in front of the Banjo Stage for a stellar Sunday line-up that ran, in order: Darrell Scott, Hazel Dickens, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, Del McCoury. (Overcrowding and shot nerves meant skipping out on Emmylou Harris for an Old Crow Medicine Show hootenanny in one of the festival’s less claustrophobic areas.)
It wasn’t that long ago, but it’ll never happen again.
In fact, it can’t. Nearly half of the 2009 Banjo Stage line-up is gone.
So, too, is festival founder Warren Hellman, who made the whole thing possible – and free to the public – just for the love of the music and the thrill of taking the stage to pick with Earl the way he did that day.
Hazel Dickens passed away in April of 2011. We’ve lost Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, and Warren Hellman all within the past six months or so.
Their legacies live on, of course. You can still listen to their records, look at their pictures, watch whatever video footage of them exists. (Here’s a good clip of Doc and Earl together.) You can hear from the people they influenced. But you can’t see them in person anymore. If you didn’t do it then, you missed your shot.
Yet if you had asked me in 2009, I’d have told you that I watched that Banjo Stage line-up with great excitement but no particular sense of urgency. That a Doc Watson or an Earl Scruggs or a Hazel Dickens could ever cease to walk this earth seemed more an abstract possibility than a real-world threat.
Less than three years later, here we are.
George Jones has been in and out of the hospital with an upper respiratory infection. When you hear that, you send out your prayers… and secretly assume that everything will be fine. Because, well, he’s George Jones. People like George Jones have health scares, but nothing ever comes of them. How could it? I mean, he’s George Jones. What, is there going to be a world without a George Jones? Inconceivable.
But, frankly? At 80 years old, George Jones is already beyond life expectancy. If my 82-year-old grandma were in and out of the hospital with an upper respiratory infection, I’d be terrified and bracing for the worst. And she’s no more or less human than George Jones.
I hope they’re both around indefinitely. But at this stage, every passing year is a gift.
The same goes for Merle Haggard, 75, who has had his share of health scares in recent years. And Glen Campbell, 76, who is publicly succumbing to Alzheimer’s. And Loretta Lynn, who skipped straight from 77 to 80 in about a week. And Ralph Stanley (85) and Del McCoury (a still-very-spry 73), the other seniors on that Banjo Stage bill. And Ray Price, whose birth certificate puts him at 86 even as his voice refuses to age. And Willie Nelson, a relentless road dog even at 79. And Grand Ole Opry icon Little Jimmy Dickens, 91. And Don Williams, 73, who has a fine new album out today. And every other country legend, too.
They are all, improbable as it seems, mortal.
Better do everything you can to enjoy them while they’re here.