Ever since attending the E.R. Murray family reunion a while back, I have been reminded of the importance of tradition in daily life. Little things, like the taste of a watermelon rind pickle. Big things, like — now that we’re done with futbol, can we get back to football?
Thanks to FIFA for including us in the World Cup world party. It was nice to have the quadrennial on our side of the planet so we could goof off at work watching, but in the end, I fear we as a country are no closer than in 2010 or 2006 or even 1930 to becoming suckers for soccer. We demand more out of a ball than just kicking it. We want to punt it, pass it and, goal line willing, spike it.
The SEC, courteously waiting until Hoover streets were cleared of all the confetti thrown by jubilant Germans, kicked off the football season this week with Media Days, also known as the Cavalcade of Kerfluffle. Coaches and representatives of Earth’s most powerful football conference are parading before the press corps to recycle every platitude available to a contemporary college athletics program, ranging from, “We’re looking for improvement this season on both sides of the ball,” to, “Our biggest challenge this year is to find improvement on both sides of the ball.”
(Except, of course, when Les Miles is talking. The LSU coach might be the only one in the game who necessitates closed captioning for his media confabs.)
A somewhat more interesting tradition, at least for Crimson Tide fans, takes place Friday at 6 p.m., when the Shelby County University of Alabama Alumni Chapter will present its annual “Bama Bash.” No hoity-toity need apply. There is robust barbecue and, likely, beans. It is not held in some sterile hotel conference suite, but in the Hog Room at Heart of Dixie Harley-Davidson in Pelham. It costs but 10 bucks to hobnob with former Tidesmen such as Greg McElroy, Darwin Holt, Tyler Watts, Jeremiah Castille and other stalwarts. What’s more, unlike SEC Media Days, all the proceeds from the Bama Bash refill the chapter’s scholarship fund, which has done an impressive job in previous years of helping kids afford to go to the University in the first place.
The only thing missing there will be live music, and luckily there are more decorous places in Birmingham to enjoy that commodity, foremost among them the spot known as Moonlight on the Mountain.
Bluff Park is already a pretty quiet neighborhood, but owner Keith Harrelson enhances it with his “listening room” on Shades Crest Road. Nothing against Iron City, WorkPlay or your favorite club, but in such venues, the conversations are often as loud as the music. Moonlight on the Mountain continues a tradition of rapt attention being paid during performances (begun at his previous room, the Moonlight Music Café in Vestavia Hills). If you want to actually hear the music you pay to hear from a singer or instrumentalist, you’d better hope he or she is booked at Moonlight on the Mountain.
Now that I think about it, though, the act I heard there Sunday night was actually interrupted pretty frequently by the audience. The group seemed to take it in stride. In 43 years of performing, Three on a String must have gotten used to being drowned out by laughter and applause.
The legendary trio, performing as a quartet Sunday night with the addition of original bassist Andy Meginniss, is the closest thing Birmingham has to a house band. The set we heard Sunday night would not have been out of place at Homewood’s Lowenbrau Haus, where Meginniss, guitarist Jerry Ryan and banjo czar Bobby Horton made their bones in the early 1970s, but thematic consistency is just one reason audiences have been supporting the band all these years.
Another reason is the genuine delight these musicians take in being onstage together. They have learned the master craft of making a song or a bit sound fresh, no matter how long it may have been in the set list. Their performances are not rote, but right.
Three on a String taps into a lot of different musical traditions. The group opened Sunday night with “Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy,” a hit for Red Foley in 1950, then followed that with “Grandma’s Feather Bed,” a hit for John Denver written by fellow Lowenbrau Haus regular Jim Conner, a native of Gadsden. There was also “Orange Blossom Special,” “Stars Fell on Alabama,” “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and six more songs, and that was only the first set. Not bad for what alternate bassist (and Jerry’s son) Brad Ryan called “working with the elderly.”
Humor is another Three on a String tradition. One hundred years ago, music and comedy mixed on the stages of Birmingham’s many vaudeville houses and movie theatres, a holdover from minstrel shows of the 19th century. Comedy remained a part of country music shows, where Minnie Pearl and Stringbean became as famous as the pickers they performed with. The 1960s folk music resurgence also embraced musicians with shtick, most notably Homer and Jethro and the Smothers Brothers.
All of the Stringers are quick with a quip, but they particularly enjoy sketch comedy, wherein Bobby might perform both parts of a dance duo at a high school gym or the Ryans might bring a shaggy-dog story to life as swells loitering outside the city hall in Holly Pond. Sunday night, the audience was even treated to a vintage recitation of several “Them Poems,” originally written by “Classical Gas” composer Mason Williams, who also wrote for the brothers Smothers.
So, to sum up — Alabama football and Three on a String: still playing. Audiences for both entities: still loving them after all these years. Traditions, even including World Cup soccer: not bad to celebrate whenever you can.