I pressed the dusty keys of the old upright near the entrance of the barn. It let out a brace of discordant notes in the close summer heat and left little finger silhouettes in the dirt on the ivory. ’I shouldn’t be here,’ I thought, ‘and it won’t be long until I’m found out.’
The barn was out the back of a farmhouse around the back roads of Leitrim. It had been converted into a studio, but it seemed to have fought valiantly against the conversion. Rusting car parts and stumped farm tools scattered around the stony garden surrounding the weathered building. It was the perfect place to commit to record The Dirty Blues Band, a ramshackle troupe of charismatic and talented players from my hometown – with me in tow as the great pretender.
The night before, after several pints, I’d enthusiastically accepted an invitation from Colly (the harmonica player, fresh from the oil rigs off the coast of Scotland that day) to tag along for the trip and play a few tunes. After several pints more I’d enthusiastically erased all memory of the invitation until the following morning when I was being bundled into the back of a car in the early morning sun.
I sat on a school-chair in the studio room clutching my heavy tenor banjo, nervously surveying the snaking cables that ran eternally in and out between meshes of knots and sockets, while everyone else stood around talking and drinking cans. I was dishevelled, hungover and inadequately equipped with an instrument designed primarily for traditional music rather than the bluegrass and folk we were going to be playing. I was intimidated by the quality of musicians around me, even though I considered them all good friends. The engineers voice came through from the control separation, abruptly ending my anxious stupor.
‘Ye ready to take a run at one now?’
The other musicians took up their positions settling into their seats and propping themselves just in front of their mics.
‘We’re ready. Wait, does everyone have a beer?’
An affirmative murmur and a final swig from the eight players. The room fell quiet with palpable anticipation.
‘Okay, we’re ready. Worried Man, in A.’
With a few train shuffle chucka-chucks of muted guitar strings and an an ascending bass line we pulled out of the station and our train bore down into the heartland of American roots and folk music, navigated by Kev, a man whose voice was aged in a cask of moonshine for fifty years before he was born. The bass beat like railway sleepers and the harmonica wailed like forlorn train whistles. Keys were established just before count-ins, and the tempo was determined by the mood of the room. My nerves fell away almost instantly. Everything began to make sense – the patterns, rhythms and changes took their place in an overall understanding that I’d never before been able to comprehend as twenty year old kid in an indie band.
The band didn’t release the album for a few years. When I got my copy, I flipped it open and saw my name in the in-sleeve and smiled as the memories of that sunny Saturday afternoon came rushing back. I put the CD in and listened. In the final mix, my banjo tracks were either buried in the mix or taken out completely.
I never bothered to find out why. It didn’t matter to me. Whether or not I was on the record was irrelevant to me. When we recorded that album, I had been playing music for six years, but it was that Saturday afternoon in an old barn in Leitrim I became a musician. Michael McCullagh (Meb Jon Sol)