“Oh, them golden slippers,— ‘Golden Slippers’ song lyrics by James Bland (1854 – 1911)
Oh, them golden slippers.
Golden slippers I’m a gonna wear,
To walk the golden street.”
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Bluegrass music drifted across the way in downtown Nacogdoches Saturday when we walked out of Dolli’s Diner.
Omaha, Nebraska and New York City have a hundred-year dispute going as to which one is the home of the Reuben sandwich. Dolli’s gets my vote as the best place in East Texas to get one.
Focusing again on the music, I recognized the well-known spiritual popularized by bluegrass musicians in the early half of the last century.
James Bland, the song’s credited writer, is also said to be the first man to put the 5th string on a banjo.
Which reminded me. My banjo needs new strings.
The tunes on the afternoon Spring breezes were emanating from the front porch of the General Mercantile and Old Time String Shop. Instrumental harmony blended in bluegrass style is a Saturday staple on the corner sidewalk outside Steve Hartz’s place of business.
A seat on the narrow concrete ledge along the front of the building was a great spot to kick back and soak up the ambiance and the weather on a great day outside in East Texas.
Hartz personifies laidback. It’s the signature mood of his business. Like his obligatory blue overalls. He even talks refreshingly slower than the frantic rush of most people in today’s digitally dumbing race-to-right-now society. And always with a smile.
The crowd varies. Saturday’s circle of pickers included Hartz playing mandolin. Other unidentified members of the group included another mandolin player, a guitar player, a banjo picker, a fiddle player, and a dog napping at their feet. Norman Rockwell would have been envious.
Speaking of fiddle players, who knows the difference between a violin and a fiddle? The correct answer would be that a violin has strings … as opposed to a fiddle that has ‘strangs.’ That’s not been confirmed by the Old Time String Shop crowd. Just knowledge I acquired by hanging out with musicians. Better than me. Which is just about everybody who plays.
Steve has been the owner and proprietor of the String Shop and Mercantile Store for 43 years that I know of. He describes it as “maybe not be the only place left in America where a fiddle tune played by a pot-bellied stove is a regular occurrence and phone calls are still answered on an old wooden crank-box phone. However, we can’t help but wonder if there is another old general store that makes and sells banjos, flutes, and wooden spoons and offers stringed instruments for sale along with things like washboards, hand-made brooms, oil lamps, mayhaw jelly, and tin toys.
“At the General Mercantile and Old Time String Shop, we don’t use a computer because our 1890s cash register works fine, and we don’t have air conditioning because there is usually a good breeze whipping through the windows. Come in and rediscover that life can still be simple if you want it to be.
“The best things in life are free,” he concludes, “but we can sell you a banjo and a cane pole.”
I know Steve has been in business at least since 1980 because I still own a banjo he sold me that year. And I know that date not because I have a good memory, but because I bought lessons with the instrument. I knew nothing about playing the banjo.
While driving back to Center from Nacogdoches after a class the night of December 8, 1980, I heard a news bulletin on the car radio. Like it was yesterday. “English musician John Lennon, formerly of the Beatles, was shot and fatally wounded in the archway of the Dakota apartment building, his residence in New York City.”
That’s how I know.
I also know attempting to learn the banjo was a significant leap for me. My ability to play music included 8-track tape players and the bass horn in high school and college bands. But what I lacked in skill, I made up for in desire. Back then, I rode a motorcycle to far-reaching parts of East Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas many weekends to bluegrass festivals because I loved the music made with stringed instruments. And the banjo was my favorite.
I persevered painfully to produce somewhat recognizable resemblances of Foggy Mountain Breakdown and Cumberland Gap before kids and moves relegated the instrument to a closet. Three decades would fly by with me still fantasizing about making music on stringed instruments. Then one day, good friend, working colleague, and singer-songwriter Thomas Morrison walked into my office and tempted me, laying a Taylor guitar on my desk. “If you really want to play, I will help you learn,” he challenged me.
There was a catch, he wanted to sell me that guitar. Which he did. But between him, master musician and long-time friend Dickie Gilchrist, and a well-worn copy of “Guitar for Dummies,” I marked progress as the day the dogs didn’t get up and leave the room when I started to play.
Today, I can navigate some simple chord rhythms to accompany a good lead player, or just entertain myself relaxing at home — with or without dogs. But I haven’t touched the five-string first object of my desire since the Regan era. I think about it whenever I stop in the Old Time String Shop on a lazy spring afternoon. Listening to bluegrass music, relaxing, and watching people passing by Steve’s place and waving. Enjoying life at the slower pace God intended for it to be lived. After I’ve eaten a Reuben at Dolli’s.
Did you know they have a picture of Steve on the wall at Dolli’s?
I told him one more time last Saturday. “I need to bring my banjo over; it needs new strangs. And I might want to try it one more time.”
Before I “walk that golden street.”
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Aldridge columns are published in these Texas newspapers: The Center Light and Champion, the Mount Pleasant Tribune, the Rosenberg Fort Bend Herald, the Taylor Press, the Alpine Avalanche, The Fort Stockton Pioneer, and The Monitor in Naples.
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