Comedy / A music festival / A barometer / 847w
In an alarming turn of events at the first annual Ole Time Fiddlers and Bluegrass Festival of Oregon, one member of the Idaho-based trio The Murder Banjos turned up dead in the gentlemen’s restroom, the victim of an apparent bludgeoning round the head. While waiting for the police to ascend the mountain, the twenty-six other attendees agreed silently never to mention the irony, and began to size one another up from their various positions inside the old lodge.
There was Dolly Ledger, called the Emmylou Harris of Pacific Northwest bluegrass, who was rumored to have had a now-soured relationship with the dead man on her way to the top of the game. Perched on the edge of the stage, she looked like a startled blonde deer. At some point she had shed her powder blue cardigan, and some wondered if perhaps that was because it had been spattered with Jamie Kloss’s blood.
Carl “Crank” Stevens, jaw harpist and Dolly’s biggest fan, knew that Dolly couldn’t have killed Jamie. Crank knew because he had been keeping a watery eye on Dolly all day, and she hadn’t left the main hall other than to reapply her Candy Coral lipstick in the ladies’ room. Crank was sitting in one of the folding chairs, legs in a wide V, holding his jaw harp loosely. He had been the one to come upon the dead man, and he was finding it hard to reconcile what video games had told him about violence with the actual thing.
Crank was being watched closely by Scamper McFee. Scamper was, at eighty-one, the oldest person in attendance, and the object of some admiration among the group, because he actually could say that he hailed from Appalachia (well, near enough to it, he usually added). He played the fiddle poorly and sang even worse, but a better flatfoot dancer there never was in Ashland, Oregon. Scamper knew the look of a man scorned, and he’d seen it clear as day in the face of the sweaty jaw harpist—there couldn’t be much for a man like that to lose by doing something foolhardy. Scamper took a sip from his flask and glanced at the old brass barometer on the wall: the needle was twitching, a storm brewing.
Sid Tuck was watching the barometer, too. Where Scamper was the oldest, Sid was the youngest, and he’d come to the festival in search of his true banjo master (having found banjo masters hard to come by in his hometown). He’d driven his wheezing beater sixty miles and overpaid for a truck stop BLT to get there and meet The Murder Banjos, not the local cops. Just as worrisome was the fact that he’d set his banjo down just before the entire hullabaloo had broken out, and now he couldn’t find it. The falling pressure of the storm system would throw his brand new strings out of whack if he didn’t find it soon and loosen the pegs.
Liza Coleman had been trying to talk to Sid all day, but nothing was working out for her—not that anything ever did. She’d bought two small bottles of commemorative strawberry moonshine with the intention of taking them home for her mantle, but now she was finishing one of them off on a bench by the popcorn machine. Why would such a handsome young man ever look at her? She was probably old enough to be his mother. And now this terrible murder; the day was just ruined. She reached into her bag for the second bottle, but then remembered she had left it on Sid’s banjo case as a gift, hoping he would look around and she could smile coyly. Stupid. She took the thunder personally.
The dispatcher called the lodge’s landline: the officers were delayed because of heavy rain.
Tanisha Carmichael, a singer-songwriter from Salem, could have sworn she’d seen Scamper McFee enter the men’s room just seconds after Jamie Kloss’s final trip in. And wasn’t it true that Jamie had been from western Tennessee—real Appalachia—or was that just a rumor? Tanisha had heard yelling in the men’s room and had come running out of the ladies’ with the back of her skirt tucked up into her blouse. Later, a man had helpfully pointed it out to her, before asking if she recognized him. She hadn’t, and he’d looked pretty put out by the fact.
Scott Marshall, a security guard who wasn’t feeling very secure in anything, was standing in the main hall doorway and thinking he hadn’t been paid enough for this.
The two remaining members of The Murder Banjos, Sid Tuck’s would-be mentors, sat together at the back of the hall with a sack of popcorn between them. The rain was now falling thick and busy outside, and both headlining musicians heard it patter at the windows to the tune of “Jasper Jail.” Mitchell Cusa was loosening the strings on his new instrument. Laurie Jones, now the second-best banjoist in the group, let her head loll back and thought that victory tasted a lot like strawberries.
While researching for this piece, I came across a reference to the murder banjo, and I thought, “Well, there it is.”
This is one of those stories that I wish I’d had more time for. It was really enjoyable to write, and I liked a lot of what I had going, but the ending was more rushed than I wanted. I may not even want that ending.
Clearly it’s pretty dark comedy–there’s only so light you can get with a murder. I think I should have avoided naming the victim, in retrospect, and hinted at some discord (ha) in TMB earlier on. But some of the darkness and absurdity worked here, I think. Certainly it was something I’d never tried before. And although I poke a lot of fun at it, I actually enjoy bluegrass quite a bit. I think its traditions are cool and if there actually is a bluegrasss festival in Oregon, more power to’em. And Hamper McBee was an actual person.