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Brother Oswald’s Lick

November 27, 2006

My friend in the Army said he was going to take paratrooper training not because he liked jumping out of airplanes, but because he liked to hang around with the fellows who jumped out of airplanes. I play music not because I’m a musician, but because I like to hang around with musicians. Playing music is a lot less lonely than trying to write.

Thinking about playing music always scared me. How was a fellow ever supposed to fit all those notes in there where they belonged, I always wondered. It must take “talent,” I thought, and I knew I didn’t have musical talent. I flunked accordion when I was a child, after all. My friend Doug, who plays guitar and banjo and fiddle, would disagree. He would say, “It’s not talent, it’s practice.”

Doug convinced me and another friend, Ed, that it would be fun for us to play music together. What was the worst that could happen? What did we have to lose? So we started getting together on Wednesday nights after work, 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. Yes, there was some beer involved. Doug picked the banjo. Ed was learning to play rhythm guitar. What should Tom do? Well, thought Doug, who was leading this adventure, it might be best if Tom played dobro. Every place you stop the Stevens steel across the strings over a fret on the neck of the dobro, that is a chord – open is G, the fifth fret is C, the seventh fret is D. It won’t even make your fingers sore.

What else do you need to know? That the dobro is like a guitar with a hubcap on it, a resonator guitar? That the strings are set up high enough you can’t push them to the frets, but instead you make notes by sliding the steel to different places on the string? That you wear a thumb-pick and two finger-picks on your pickin’ hand, and have to learn to do forward and backward “rolls” and other such picking patterns? No – you don’t want to know too much too soon.

If you’ve got a guitar and a banjo and a dobro in the band, you have to play bluegrass. You know that, don’t you? And you have to play “Wabash Cannonball,” because Brother Oswald played it, and he was the old dobro player’s dobro player. “Wabash Cannonball” was his signature piece. And if I was going to play dobro I had to show Brother Oswald some respect by being able to play the song he made his own.

Learning lead for that song was difficult enough for a fellow like me, who worries every note into place, but finally I got to the point I could do it. I could break out of backing up the singer into my own “From the great Atlantic Ocean” going up the strings and back.

Yet I had not mastered Brother Oswald’s turnaround between verses, where he licked and slid his way from the G note at the fifth fret on the high D string across all the strings here and there to the lowest G on the thickest of them. He started it at the last word of the verse and ended it just as the band wanted to enter the next verse; he did it in time to the music, and he made it fit. Or maybe he made them add two measures to the standard turnaround, cuz he wasn’t done yet.

And, if you’ve heard him do it, you know it’s a wonderful lick. He was a remarkable dobro player and a funny guy. He had to be funny, because in those old bands the dobro player was also the clown. Yet I didn’t know enough about playing dobro to clown around, that’s for sure.

We played together for weeks and months and years, every Wednesday night after work, Doug and Ed and I, playing the old songs, learning some new songs, trying some new things. Somewhere in there I resolved to learn Brother Oswald’s turnaround lick for “Wabash Cannonball” and stick it in when no one expected.

Home alone before work, I would listen to Brother Oswald play the lick, and try to play it myself. I listened and tried it. Rewound the tape, listened again, tried it again. Listened and tried.

It was another Wednesday night. We had opened our beers. We had played maybe “Mountain Dew,” maybe “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad.” Doug kicked off “Wabash Cannonball,” sang that first verse, hit the last word of the last line. And it was like Brother Oswald was there in the room with us, taking the steel down the strings all the way to that bottom G.

Doug looked up. Ed looked up.

“Wu-hoo!” we said, and we kept playing.

“Do it again,” Doug said.

And Brother Oswald did.

“Take the lead now,” Doug said, and I did. And I ended it with Brother Oswald’s lick.

Playing music was never the same.

by Tom Montag of The Middlewesterner


For more information on the dobro, see here. For more about Brother Oswald, see here.

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  1. November 27, 2006 at 9:42 am

    This makes me happy. Not only the story of it, which is wonderful and well-told, but also the turns of phrase, the way it fits as I read it to myself. Bravo. Well-soloed, sir.

  2. November 27, 2006 at 1:19 pm

    Wonderful, heartwarming and a well-written real-life story, Tom! It really hits home for many of us who feel we don’t have musical talent, especially a singing voice – “It’s not talent, it’s practice.” A musical instrument can become that voice with hard work, as you write. This inspires me to get back to the piano that I’ve neglected for many years.
    But 11 pm to 4 am?!!

  3. MB
    November 28, 2006 at 4:54 pm

    Wu-hoo! As one who’s struggled to learn guitar, I sure can relate to this. Well-told, Tom!

  4. November 28, 2006 at 11:28 pm

    Love this. Thank you.

  5. November 29, 2006 at 11:54 am

    Terrific, both the telling of the tale and the musical achievement. I’d never heard of the dobro, now I want to hear what it sounds like. There should be a sound clip added to this piece, Tom, of you and your friends playing that Wabash Cannonball.

  6. John
    January 8, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    I was just assigned Oswald’s version of Wabash Cannonball by my dobro teacher. I hope I’m up to it. I didn’t start learning dobro till I was over 70.

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