A folk song was playing on the radio as my friend Joe babbled on about whatever was on his mind. We sat on the chairs in the living room, killing time and having a drink.
“The piano sounds nice on this song.”
“Yeah. I tried to play the piano once, but it never worked out too well. I guess I’m just not cut out for playing music,” I replied.
“Hmm. My cousin plays the banjo. He lived in West Virginia for a while, and was always saying some legend that people used to talk about down there. Not sure exactly what it amounts to, though.”
“Interesting,” I said. “What is it?”
“Apparently, there’s some musical legend down there. No-one knows exactly who he is. He plays the banjo and he has a nickname, though.”
“What?” I asked.
“The Banjo King of Madison.”
I laughed to myself.
“Madison, West Virginia. When you hear him, you’ll know. There is nobody alive that’s as good as him.” Joe was quite serious.
“Where does he play?”
“No-one knows. It’s a secret.”
“I bet someone just made that story up. It can’t possibly be true.”
“I think it is true, myself. Can’t be super sure, but it seems possible that some random guy out in the country could get amazing good at the banjo and no-one would even know. Definitely possible.”
“Maybe,” I said. No matter how I tried to resist it, the seed was planted in my mind, and it would only grow bigger from there.
At first I shrugged it off, thinking it was some myth to entertain children. There are no kings anymore, anyways, and if there were, wouldn’t they be famous already? There’s no such thing as a “secret” master musician. That would be ridiculous.
I went through my life normally, but had a sort of hollow feeling inside. The feeling began to slowly eat away at me. Some small part of my soul was urging me on, like an enthusiastic childhood friend.
Finally, I gave in and talked to Joe about it again.
“I want to know. Are you really sure about this Banjo King? You aren’t just making it all up?”
“Well I bet I can find out if that is a true story.”
“You’ve definitely read a lot of Sherlock Holmes. That would help.” We laughed.
“I’m serioud, though.”
A few weeks after that, I departed. It was a long, tiresome drive into the town of Madison. There was a motel I could sleep at to rest from the drive. The next morning, I had a nice breakfast at the Waffle House. I spent a few more hours exploring the local rivers and parks. After that, I scoped out all the buildings in the town and decided to start with the library. I got out of my car, and to my surprise, a man exiting the library opened the door for me and stood behind it as I entered the library.
“Thanks,” I said.
I walked in and took notice of the woman sitting behind the counter.
“Can I help you, sir?” she asked, rather quietly.
“Maybe. I’m from New York, and I just took the long drive down here. Nice town. My friend told me this legend about the Banjo King of Madison. Do you know anything about that?”
“Well, it’s been a legend for a good while,” she laughed. ” I used to hear such a thing when I was younger, but ain’t no-one’s been talking much about the Banjo King lately. I ain’t sure if there even IS a Banjo King, to be honest. And if there is, I ain’t sure he lives around here. I do know a banjo player that lives on State Street, not far at all from here. I suppose I could give you his address, and you could start there.”
“Thank you very much,” I said. After browsing around and looking at the rather unique books in the library, I returned to my car and drove to State Street, feeling somewhat like a fool.
Shortly, I pulled up to the address and knocked on the door. The house was almost in the middle of town. Something about it did not look “country” at all. A middle-aged man named Nate answered.
“How are you?” I asked.
“Good. Lookin’ for something?”
“Well, it’s kinda funny, but I’m looking for this guy called the Banjo King. Do you know of him?”
“Nice. I might have heard of that a long time ago. I do actually play the banjo,” he replied, with a bit of pride. “Come in. Maybe I’ll play you a song.”
I wondered if this man was the Banjo King. There was a chance of it. We talked for a few more minutes, then he took his banjo out and played a tune.
He dug around for an ungodly long time for his music. Once he found it, though, Nate played a song that was highly technical, dark, and rather mystifying. I watched his left hand move up and down the banjo, playing many notes at a pretty quick pace. He followed the music precisely, with a stiff gaze. It sounded nice.
“Sounds good,” I said, as the song finished. There was something lacking, however. Maybe there just wasn’t enough soul in the music.
“Well I hate to take up all your time,” I said. “I’d better go. But do you know any other people that could possibly be…”
“Oh,” he replied, slightly disappointed. “I suppose you could go to my dad’s friend’s house. I haven’t heard him play, but my dad says he’s a great banjo player.”
“Thanks a lot!” I said. “Nice to hear that song.” But it didn’t quite feel right. Maybe I just don’t know good music when I hear it.
Next, I headed out into the sticks, somewhat excited at the prospect of meeting this banjo-playing hillbilly, but also nervous at the same time. The drive was actually quite far, and I got lost a number of times. Eventually, I found the old run-down house, which was beside a hill on the right and a valley on the left.
I rang the doorbell, but it didn’t work, so I ended up knocking instead. An old bearded man who was somewhat slouched-over answered the door.
“Who the heck are you?” he asked rudely.
“Nate sent me here. I’m looking for someone called the Banjo King.”
“Ain’t never heard of no Banjo King,” replied the old bearded man. He spat some tobacco juice right on the rug. “Ain’t never heard of no Nate.”
“Don’t you play the banjo?” I asked. I felt increasingly desperate, and even scared.
Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.
“Hmmph.” The old man looked me over good. “S’pose I’ll play you jus’ one song. Shouldn’t just be prattin’ on about lookin’ fer some stinkin’ Banjo King that don’t even exist, though. Rude.”
I snickered at the hypocrisy. The man shut the door, hopefully searching for his banjo. I waited on the porch for at least ten minutes, enjoying the warm weather and vibrant natural wildlife in the area. The meadows and treetops were so lush and green, and I heard a chorus of bugs singing everywhere I looked.
After almost an eternity, the door opened, and my host appeared with a moderately-worn banjo in hand. He walked over to a chair on the porch and put the picks on. After some preparation, he began to strum an old-timey bluegrass song.
“Well I got all them chickens
got ’em in the coop
Well I got all my memories
sittin’ in the chair
But I ask you for some new ones
And you say love ain’t there
My wifey says I’m boring
her eyelids start to droop
And if you ask me
that’s some horse poop
Keep rollin’ on, creek
Keep rollin’ on
Keep rollin’ creek
from dusk till dawn”
There were a few more verses. The song was pretty engrossing, but just a little bit too hillbilly-like and trashy for me. I still liked listening to it, though. The music in the Appalachians was way different from what I was used to.
You’ll know it when you hear him. I thought.
“Maybe you wanna play another one?” I asked, instantly regretful of opening my mouth.
“No thanks. I said one song, and one song it is.” He spat again.
“Umm,” I replied, awkwardly. “I know you hate this whole idea, but are there any people you know that could possibly be considered the Banjo King?” I was at the end of my rope. I knew the man in front of me was not the Banjo King, even though he might be a good banjo player.
He looked at me with steely old eyes.
“Nope. You’ll have to go back to wherever yer’ from.”
“New York,” I replied.
“Yew Nork er’ whatever. See y’all later.” He shooed me off.
I drove away, honestly pretty happy to not be dealing with rude people anymore. A feeling of sadness sunk over me as I drive, however. I had not found the Banjo King. He was a myth, after all.
The sun was setting, and the temperature was dropping somewhat. I tried to find the main highway to take me back to New York but found myself lost.
Clouds moved in and it became stormy. The wind picked up significantly, and the visibility dropped until I could barely see past the windshield. I saw a figure avoid my car by a few inches. I started. It was a deer.
“This is way too dangerous. I’m gonna fall right off this mountain road and roll my car four times, if I keep this up.”
I pulled over and put the parking brake on one of the straighter stretches of road. Everything was pitch black and I was seriously out in the sticks. I didn’t even know if there were houses anywhere in the area.
“I’ll maybe just go to sleep in the car, if I can possibly manage,” I said, becoming increasingly nervous. Sitting there as the minutes dragged on and on, I never got any more tired. There was just too much sadness, anxiety, and fear in the air.
A horn honked loudly as a huge truck barely avoided my car. It jolted me. I reluctantly turned the car back on and kept driving. The road forked and I ended up taking the smaller fork in the turn. There was woods on both sides of the car.
Trees kept passing by the dozen. I hoped there weren’t deer, or worse, out. After a few tense minutes, a fallen log obscured the road in front of me.
“Darn it all to heck,” I said. I stopped the car and decided to roll the log out of the way. It was quite small.
Suddenly a flashlight shone on me.
“Who are you?” said a young voice.
“Don’t mind him” said an older voice.
I turned around, and made out two figures, a younger boy and his father.
“Sorry. I was trying to get down this road, and got stuck. I’m trying to find the interstate.”
“Good luck!” said the father. “Good thing we found him, right, Billy? Sorry. What’s your name?”
“Well, I don’t really need to talk right now. Sorry. I’m just trying to clear the road up.” I stumbled over the words.
“It’s fine. You won’t be gettin’ anywhere with this storm as it is. The Almanac predicted it would be bad.”
“Yep,” echoed Billy.
“Come inside for a spell.”
“Ain’t it a little late?” I asked, surprised by my sudden decrease in verbal literacy.
“No. Just barely eight. And it’s fine with us if you come.”
“All right,” I reluctantly agreed.
I walked through the mud to the porch, took my boots off, and walked into the large, square living room. There was an old TV and a few couches in it and a frail old man who might be the grandpa of the little kid.
“Getcha’ somethin’ to drink,” said the father. “Pepsi or sprite or beer?”
“Pepsi,” I replied. “If you don’t mind.”
I got my drink and sat down on the couch. The little kid, maybe ten or twelve years old, talked to me constantly about his friends, his school, hunting, the television, and whatever other things entered his mind.
“Who is this ‘ere person?” asked the old man.
“Some stranger,” said the kid. “Car got stuck.”
“Oh. What’s he look like?”
“Got black hair and ain’t that tall,” replied the kid.
What a strange conversation.
“Yeah, mister. So my friend said you shouldn’t do that to frogs. I don’t really care, though. Oh, and I play the banjo. Some people call me the Banjo King. Pretty cool, huh?”
Wow! Maybe it’s true! thought my inner believer. That would be great.
“I’ll take it out and play something.” I wondered if the kid was telling the truth. He seemed sincere. A few minutes later, the kid was holding an extremely antique, beautifully-made banjo and plucked a few notes on it. He started to sing an out-of-tune and very slow version of Blue Moon of Kentucky. I yawned.
Nope. He isn’t. Now, can I please get out of the darned house? I thought spitefully. I was getting very homesick, and completely regretted wasting all my money on such an ill-advised trip.
The kid finally finished his aggravatingly bad song.
“Do your relatives call you the Banjo King?” I joked.
“Yep,” said the kid, smiling. I laughed quietly. Suddenly, the mood shifted.
“Give me that darned banjo,” said the old grandpa, grabbing around blindly in front of him. “Where is it?”
He must be as old as Abraham, I thought. This’ll be funny.
“My grandpappy’s blind,” said the kid. “Needs a cane too, but I love him anyways.”
Here it goes. Another stupid-ass banjo song. If he can’t even see, how could he possibly play anything good? I thought.
The kid handed the banjo off to the old man.
“Didn’t know you could even play banjo!” the kid said. “Can you?”
“Shh,” whispered the old man, cradling the banjo like a precious baby. He patted it lightly. The mood shifted more.
I heard a beautiful, shimmery sound as he twisted the tuners and got the strings in perfect alignment.
Cool, I thought. It’s something.
The old man grunted, and there was a tense, waiting moment of silence.
Suddenly, a raucous cacophony of beautiful sounds started to burst out of the banjo like the choirs of Heaven itself. I felt tears well up in my eyes as the beautiful melody emanated from the banjo, starting fairly simple, but then becoming more and more complex. Waves upon waves of complicated maneuvers built on each other, gradually increasing the intensity of the song. After the music had almost reached a beautiful climax, there was a moment of silence. Then, the song began anew, with even more rapidity, as the man’s fingers moved with otherworldly speed and viciously attacked the strings. His left hand moved up and down the fretboard in a frantic blur. Each note blended into the others yet improved the whole of the song at the same time.
The kid, who had previously considered himself a good banjo player, stared blankly with his mouth wide open, unable to even comprehend the profoundness of the music.
The song became even swifter and more intricate. I was totally lost in the impenetrable complexity of it. I could barely even breathe. Then, there was a change. The old man played the Grand Finale of the song, a lighting-speed finish to put the icing on the cake of the most amazing banjo song ever. It ended with the highest note a banjo had ever played, which was so high that not your ears, nor your brain, but only the depths of your soul could hear it.
After the song was a long moment of silence.
“Wow.” I said, flabbergasted. I felt unworthy to even interrupt such a sacred silence.
“You are the Banjo King.”