Bass and Grass: Definitely Heaven
“I don’t want to brag about you too much and give others ideas. I’m tryin’ hard to express myself, ’cause, baby, that’s the way I feel.”
On the one hand, I’m ripping at the seams of desire to share my Bass and Grass adventure with y’all. The other hand, however, wants to stay planted firmly across my mouth, holding sacred the intimacy of the weekend’s experience. Seeing how communication is key in all relationships, I guess I’ll give in and gush for a few.
It was about this time last year that I read Fil Pate’s Facebook review of Bass and Grass. It’s a rare occurrence to see that guy open up in such a big way, so I pretty much knew right then and there I was in for the next one. Then I started seeing similar posts from friends like Nikki Talley and Mark Merritt, which only served to confirm my decision. For one full year, I waited ever so (im)patiently for the weekend of October 17, 2019, to arrive.
I’ll spare you the details of hitting I-75 and heading to the mountains of North Georgia (okay, fine, Rob Williams, it’s the hills of southwest Georgia!). Let’s just say it was an easy drive to Perry, Georgia, and it offered me up some good thinking time. You know, the kind you only get on a solid road trip, when the windows are down and the music is just right. I pulled onto the dirt road leading to the Green Bell Bed and Barn (part of the original Malatchie Farms, a sixth-generation family farm) right about 5:30 p.m. My eyes and heart were wide open to whatever the Universe was about to reveal.
As I inched up to a building I came to know as “The Shack,” a woman crossed the path of my van. “Who’s that? I bet that’s Hillary!” Through my car window, I was enthusiastically embraced by the one and only Jennie Hart Robinson. I had not even laid a foot on land and already felt like I had connected with family. I parked VANessa, made my way through the yard dog greetings, passed by Walter Forbes pickin’ on the banjo, and entered The Shack. It was there I first met Kitty and Belinda. Smiles as gentle as the wind and as wide as the road. “Home,” I thought to myself. “I’m home.”
Checking in consisted of receiving my Bassport (!) and writing out my name tag (of course mine said “HILLARYous). The Bassport became an essential element to the experience, as it contained the schedule, a map, a place for stamps as I ‘traveled’ the land, and an opportunity to record funny quotes throughout the weekend. After just one day, that thing had seen more action than my actual passport! But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Back to day one and all that came with it.
A couple of friends (name-dropping Kerri and Brett Bass) rolled in not too far behind me, and off we went to set up camp. Ample acreage allowed us to have our pick of space. I could spend all my life explaining the beauty of the property, complete with a barn, guest cabins, a lake full of bass, and pecan trees. But none of my words, no matter how much flourish they provide, will ever describe the magic of those 100 acres. No, my loves, you just gotta trust me when I say there is such a thing as heaven on earth.
With everything in place, we made our way back over to The Shack. People were gathering around, anxious to take their place in the dinner line. Here’s where it gets different. Folks weren’t just standing there chatting. Nope. They were pulling out their various instruments and jamming! Then came the ding-ding-ding of the authentic “time to eat” bell. Standing in line with Nikki Talley and Brian Drysdale, I see a framed event poster with my actual date of birth. It was like the Universe was screaming, “Girl, you are exactly where you are supposed to be. Right here. Right now.”
After eating up our taco dinner, we made our way through Dessert Town (sung to the tune of Funkytown), inhaling homemade apple crisp. I made some conversation with people who would quickly morph into friends, then ventured back inside. And there it was! Beth Perry owning the upright, Tug killin’ it on the dobro, Jared Pool getting down on the mandolin, Billy Gilmore and Walter sailing strong on the banjo, Brett Bass and Larry Keel jumping in on the guitar – full-swing pickin’ and grinnin’ going on, right there in front of God and everybody! There were several other folks in on the jam as I planted myself on the floor and fell into a smile that would firmly stay on my face for the next 72 hours. This went on for literally hours. Hours, y’all. I’m still pinching myself, glowing in the memory of all that bluegrass within inches of my ears. Alas, all good things must end, and by 2 a.m., it was time for bed.
The next morning brought a sore jaw, as my smile had apparently become glued into position, even as I slept. My friend and I made the small journey back to The Shack for breakfast. As we descended downhill, I could hear the pickin’ already going. With a couple more steps, I could even say with certainty that it was Fil Pate on mandolin. It wasn’t even nine in the morning, y’all. The breakfast bell was rung, and plates were filled.
Quick pause to talk about the food. Now, you may or may not be aware that I’m a Georgia Girl. I was born in the South, raised on grits, and know a thing or two about some good eatin’. Let me just say there was not one single time that I reached – hell, even looked – for the salt and pepper. It was the kind of cookin’ that you just instinctively know was done right. Garlic cheese grits, y’all. I don’t want to get too far off track here, but let me just say that I had seconds pretty much every meal. It wasn’t my fault.
Anyway, after breakfast came the gathering in The Barn. I had my guitar, strumming quietly to myself, with an intention of sitting to the back, absorbing the music. A man approached, squatted down, and said, “Hi, I’m Glen!” “Hi there, Glen, I’m Hillary,” was my obvious reply. Glen then told me that I would not be sitting back there by myself. “No, ma’am, you’re coming up into the circle, and you’re gonna sit next to me.” Despite my protests, I was led to a chair RIGHT THERE IN THE PICKIN’ CIRCLE! What? Me? YEP! And it was there I stayed for the morning. Embracing and being embraced. Oh, even now, my heart is pounding with an abundance of everything that is right with this world. So much pickin’, so much grinnin’, so much camaraderie, so much respect.
This group of musicians made magic happen, and I was (am still) under their spell! We broke off for lunch, mingled around for a bit, then found our way into little groups. I ended up making music with Jason Sharp and Nikki Talley. It was quite funny trying to learn a new tune with Talley as little baby Eva was running around with #flatjim! Through the giggles and photo opps, I got to play “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” with Jason, and that was just utterly awesome!
I’m going to dedicate this one space right here and mention that right about now is when the Ike Stubblefield arrived – with his Hammond B3 organ! Yeah, you need to look him up if you haven’t already.
It got a little later, and it was time to head back to The Shack. I jumped in the car with Rob Williams, and as we made our way over, we took a quick detour to the lake. He noticed that his roommate had arrived at the cabin and stopped by to make his introduction. Wouldn’t ya know that they not only came from the same part of Dayton, Ohio, but also went to the same dang high school, too! Bromance engaged! We left Pierce behind and finished our trek to the Adirondack chairs by the waterside. Within minutes, he ended up joining us, and we all rode up to The Shack. As we made the short drive, we were greeted with a breathtaking sunset, fully matched with grazing deer who, upon seeing us, put on a show of jumping and playing in the dusk’s light.
You may not be surprised to learn that, after dinner, we went right on back to the barn for more music. This time, however, it was for a concert! The opening act was Nikki Talley’s 7-Minute String Band, aptly named because she literally pulled it together in seven minutes. Up next was a surprise mandolin shakedown between Jared Pool and Fil Pate. Y’all know my mando fever was burning hot! Larry and Jenny Keel got in on a set, joined by Brett Bass. By this time, Rev. Jeff Mosier was on the property and was ready for a show of his own making. And through it all, there was Ike Stubblefield, bringing the soulful sound that only an organ can offer.
Somewhere in here I got a lesson from Brett Bass, followed by a tutorial with Jeff Mosier, Beth Perry, and Glen. I really couldn’t tell you when, because it all was just a big menagerie of blissful learning. Now all of this made my heart as full as my belly, but the highlight was yet to come. For after the concert, the smaller jam came together on the back porch of the barn. Jeff, Glen, Beth, Rob, Fil, Brett, Larry – I know I’m missing someone – jammed and jammed and jammed and jammed. One by one they fell off, choosing slumber over watching the sun come up. Next thing I knew, we were down to five of us. Goodnight, Rob. Rest well, Fil. See ya in the morning, Alex. Sleep soundly, Brett. Which means only one thing. I, Hillary Carpenter, was the official last man standing! This, my friends, is how I earned the bright red “5AM Queen” sash that I proudly wore the remainder of the weekend after it had been awarded. I should totally add that to my resume.
And now it’s Saturday. More eatin’. More pickin’. More laughter. The only major difference was the tropical storm had reached us. The night before, Jennie had told us to bring whatever we wanted for the day up to the barn. I obviously showed up in my pajamas, with my box of wine, a comforter, my Grandmama’s quilt, a pillow, and my stuffed panda bear named Charlie. I’d like to fill space here with the details of the day, but I think it can be summed up by simply saying it was a perfect day to be in pjs. As the day came to a close, there was yet another concert! The headliner was Jacksonville’s very own Grass is Dead. Finally, we got to hear Ed Richardson unleash his talent on the six-string bass! What an amazing way to say goodbye to a Saturday!
Oh, sweet Sunday. I made my breakfast plate at The Shack and, with a deep sigh, made my way to a rocking chair on the back porch. There I took it all in for one last time before hitting the road. The tastes, the smells, the sounds of Georgia accents in conversations – every morsel of the experience was seated into my soul. I knew going in that it would be life-changing. I can say coming out that I will never be the same. The confirmation that the life I’ve craved does indeed exist, if only for a weekend, is all I needed to keep on keepin’ on in my daily routine. As I drove away, I was sent off – as each guest was – with the ringing of the bell and goodbye cheers! My smile lasted far beyond the five-hour drive home. In fact, it’s still right here on my face.