As I started to unpack the box, my stomach was in knots. I knew what was inside, and I didn’t want it.
It occurred to me to simply throw the box and its contents in the trash.
When a friend said he was going to ship this to me, I said, “Please don’t.”
He works for a guitar manufacturer in Kentucky that also makes mandolins. Sometime back I let it slip that I used to play the mandolin.
This was long ago, back when I was a kid in the early 1960s.
My mother wanted me to play. She dreamed that my brothers and I would be big Country music stars. The pressure and the verbal and physical abuse were often unbearable.
I wrote about this history years ago in CityBeat. There’s no point in telling the story again.
To sum it up, I ran from the music. I stopped playing that expensive Gibson A-Style mandolin more than 30 years ago.
I kept it for along time, taking it out of its case to look at it sometimes, but never for long. Looking at it reminded me of my mother, and it hurt.
I finally sold the mandolin, but memories often resurfaced.
Back in the late 1980s when the Bruce Hornsby song “Mandolin Rain” would come on the radio, I’d turn it off. The song is about a different kind of lost love, but love nonetheless. I didn’t want to hear it.
The mandolin my friend sent me came in a vinyl case. As I took it out, the name Trinity River was engraved at the top of the neck. It was an F-Style, Florentine — a fancier mandolin than my old pear-shaped Gibson.
I leaned it up against the wall in my apartment, again feeling pissed that my friend had sent it to me.
I felt offended. Hell, if I’d wanted a mandolin I would have gone to a music store and purchased one myself.
Over the next couple of days, I spied it once in a while leaning against that wall, discovering in myself that it didn’t hurt to look at it. It wasn’t that Gibson A-style. It wasn’t from my mother.
One day I started to wonder if it was in tune. I found an old pick in a drawer, picked up the mandolin, sat in a chair and hit a G-chord. It was terribly out of tune.
It all came back, relearning how to tune those E, A, D and G strings. I didn’t have a pitch pipe, but at least the mandolin would be in tune with itself.
One of the first songs I learned to play when I was 7 years old was “Coming Round the Mountain.” I started picking out the song. I still knew where my fingers were supposed to go.
Some days later, I went online and ordered a pitch pipe along with some picks. I also ordered a set of Martin mandolin strings. Good strings can make even a lower-priced mandolin sound good.
I play a little bit every day now. At first I relearned songs I played as a child: “Over the Waves,” “Home on the Range,” “Wildwood Flower” and others like that.
Sometimes as I play these songs I remember how my mother would watch me and how her face would be frowning if I hit a wrong note. Now it doesn’t matter. It’s alright to make mistakes.
I’m teaching myself other songs lately. “Dueling Banjos” isn’t really that hard to figure out, and neither is the theme song from The Waltons.
Local singer/songwriter Kim Taylor does a great version of Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight.” I can pick that one now too. Kim, if you ever need me in your band, my rates are very reasonable.
Actually, I’m totally kidding. I have no desire to ever get back on a stage again.
Just because I’ve always had an ear for music doesn’t mean I wanted to be a performer. I wish my mother could have understood that.
Sometimes when I play my Trinity River mandolin, I think of my old Gibson A-Type. I know my mother paid a lot of money for it. Maybe it was her way of telling me she loved me.
She died without ever saying those words.
There I go, starting to repeat a story that’s already been told, but what was once such a burden for a 7-year-old kid has turned into something fun for a 54-year-old man.
I love playing the mandolin now. Some things do change as you get older.
A few days ago, I called the friend who sent me the mandolin and thanked him for his kindness. He’s a guitar player, and we talked some about the songs I’m learning to play.
He wants to get together soon and jam. I told him that would be great but to give me some more time. It’s been more than 30 years since I’ve really played. I’m still a bit rusty.
I thought about asking him if he somehow knew that getting me to play the mandolin again would be good therapy, but I didn’t. Some things you don’t talk to other guys about.
A couple nights ago I went on YouTube, found a video of Bruce Hornsby’s “Mandolin Rain” and gave it a listen. I still thought of my mother, but I got through listening to the song without crying.
Hell, that’s a start.
CONTACT LARRY GROSS: [email protected]