Authors: Pamela Warren
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters,
places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are
used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead,
is entirely coincidental.
my husband Kris and my son Gabriel,
Tom Bibey for encouraging me to write this book,
my mandolin teachers,
Tarnower, Alan Kaufman and John McGann.
Maggie Mae Williams sat in the back row of
Sanders Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, high above the stage, and watched
as her band set up their equipment and prepared for sound check. She had sat
up there dozens of times in the past to watch concerts. She especially
remembered concerts by Sam Bush and David Grisman, mandolinists who had
profoundly influenced her own playing. She would never have thought then that
one day she would be performing with her own bluegrass band on that same stage.
Maggie was bone-weary. This was the second to last show
of their tour. They had played a series of one night stands, crisscrossing the
country over the course of a long, hot summer, playing every bluegrass festival
and club that would have them. She was feeling tired and lonely. She couldn’t
wait to get home, but she wasn’t quite sure where that was any more.
Spencer, the guitarist, looked up suddenly and saw her
huddled forlornly. She was bent slightly forward so that her long blonde hair
covered her face. He knew her well enough to know that she was probably crying.
“Maggie, get your butt down here and play a couple bars
so we can check how your mandolin sounds in your mic.”
She rose slowly, and walked stiffly down the long stairs
to the stage that awaited her.
Maggie’s career as a musician had started
inauspiciously. Like a lot of children in her elementary school in a suburb of Boston, she was encouraged to take up an instrument in third grade. Money was tight and her
older brother was already playing the violin, so her parents decided she could
play his instrument. Unfortunately, the violin was old and beat up and the
tuning pegs kept slipping. It was almost impossible to keep the thing in tune.
She found it frustrating, but she still enjoyed playing. She took lessons for
nine years with an elderly violinist who played with the Boston Pops orchestra.
He wasn’t very strict and she never practiced, so she didn’t make too much
Because she took lessons through her school, she was
expected to play in the orchestra. She liked playing in the orchestra, but
hated the conductor whom she considered to be a bully. He had extremely high
and unrealistic expectations of his less than talented young musicians and
would constantly humiliate them. One by one, all the violinists dropped out of
the orchestra until by high school there were only two violinists left. Maggie
may not have been that talented, but she was persistent so she ended up being
first violin and concert mistress of the orchestra which made her feel
embarrassed since she knew it was undeserved.
But what she really liked to do was to sing. As a child
she would sing herself to sleep every night. This was a time when folk music
had become popular in the Boston area, so she was exposed to traditional music
in school and in summer camp. She liked songs like “Erie Canal”, “Shenandoah”,
and “Goober Peas”. She would run through her repertoire every night before she
As she got older, Maggie loved to sing in the high
school chorus, but she could only sing in girl’s chorus because orchestra met
at the same time as mixed chorus. She also sang in the youth choir at church
even though she wasn’t religious. She enjoyed this, especially singing the
carols at Christmas. She had to get up early every Sunday to sing at church
which was a big sacrifice for an adolescent, but it was a trade-off she was
willing to make.
When Maggie got to college, she didn’t seem to pursue
music in any way. She didn’t join the orchestra or chorus. She did secretly
sing along with records in her room, but that was it. She had become very
dissatisfied with playing the violin because she couldn’t improvise on it, she
could only read music. One of her girlfriends in the high school orchestra had
turned her on to a progressive bluegrass band called Seatrain. The lead singer
and guitarist in that band was Peter Rowan. He had grown up near Maggie’s
hometown and had gone on to join Bill Monroe’s bluegrass band. It was an
incredible opportunity for a kid from the northeast to play with the father of
bluegrass music. But gradually Peter had moved away from traditional bluegrass
towards playing in a more progressive style. Seatrain combined elements of
bluegrass and rock music. The fiddle player in that band was Richard Greene. He
was an incredible musician who was able to improvise extended solos of
cascading notes on his violin. Maggie longed to be able to play like that, but
she felt it was impossible, so she just sort of gave up.
At the end of her freshman year in college, Maggie met a
young man named Doug who played electric bass guitar in a country rock band.
She had found that she gravitated towards musicians, if she couldn’t play
herself, then at least she could enjoy being around the music. It was the
1970’s and communes were popular, so she moved in with Doug and his band into a
large Victorian house in Lexington, Massachusetts. It was a duplex and Maggie
and her friends rented one side of the house. Almost everyone on that side was
a musician and they all played loud rock music in the basement every night. The
constant loud noise drove away the people who lived on the other side of the
duplex, which was fine with Maggie and her friends. Soon the entire house was
filled with young musicians. The band set up a rehearsal space and recording
studio in the basement. It was definitely a lot of fun.
The two guys in the band who played guitar, Spencer and
Michael, were pretty bad at first. They could play chords but couldn’t take
decent breaks. But after playing for several hours every day for a few years,
they started getting better. Their vocals however left something to be desired,
so Maggie started helping them out with some background vocals. The band played
a lot of Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers and progressive country rock, and Maggie’s
voice sounded good singing that kind of music.
The band started getting some local gigs, playing in
dives in the outer suburbs in the beginning. There were some memorable gigs,
the biker bar up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire where everyone kept asking for
some tune called “Boogie ‘Til You Puke”. No one in the band had ever heard of
it, so the guys just made up some tune and improvised words on the spot that
went something like, “Turn up the juke and boogie ‘til you puke.” The bikers
didn’t appreciate this creativity though and threatened to beat up some of the
guys in the band.
Another unforgettable night, they played at a seedy bar
next to a rank smelling stream near Fort Devens. The club was run by a woman of
dubious reputation and was filled with surly soldiers. It was tough for Maggie
to get up in front of these people who were drunk beyond comprehension and
definitely not in the mood to listen. Then again, she supposed it gave her a
sort of freedom, she didn’t have to worry too much about how she was singing
since they weren’t really listening anyway.
The band played depressing gigs like these for a few
months while they honed their chops, and then they started getting gigs at
clubs in Cambridge and Boston. One of their favorite places was the Zircon, a
laid back club in a storefront on a back street in Cambridge. You had to know
that the place was there, but it was a favorite hangout of local musicians.
Patty Larkin, a local blues musician played there. She was a revelation to
Maggie - a woman who could not only sing but play guitar extremely well too.
Maggie also got to see blues legend Bonnie Raitt play at Jack’s in Cambridge. Bonnie immediately became one of her heroes - gorgeous, sexy, an incredible
singer and guitarist. She had it all.
That first night at the Zircon was quite a lesson for
the band. They didn’t get paid to play, they passed the hat. Unfortunately,
only five people showed up. The band was paid $15 for the night to be split up
among the five members. They were also compensated with free drinks, not a
great benefit considering they had to drive home after the gig.
The five people in the audience loved the music though
and the manager gave the band a second chance and invited them back. The band
learned from this experience and next time they invited their friends and
filled the club. Very slowly, the band, which was now called Lost Highway, built up a small following.
Then they started to get some bigger gigs at some of the
clubs in Boston that catered to students. Most of those places were pretty
funky. One night the band went out in an alley in back of Cooper’s Down Under
during a break to smoke a joint and ended up having to dodge rats that swarmed
out of a dumpster. No one was anxious to play there again after that.
The band mostly played progressive country rock, but
Spencer, the rhythm guitarist, was also interested in bluegrass music. He
bought a mandolin and played it occasionally on some of the tunes. Then one
night after a gig, Maggie discovered it was strung just like a violin, but it
was a lot easier to keep in tune. She realized that she could sort of play it,
although she wasn’t too facile at handling a guitar pick. She started fooling
around with it more and more, until finally Spencer just gave her the
mandolin. It was an inexpensive Harmony mandolin, but still it was a generous
gift from someone who didn’t have a lot of money.
Spencer started showing Maggie how to play the mandolin,
how to hold the pick and play a few basic chords. She had tried to teach
herself the guitar at one point so she wasn’t totally inept. Then he started to
lend her bluegrass albums and turn her on to the great bluegrass bands of the
past and their repertoire. Spencer showed Maggie how to play some of the Bill
Monroe standards like “Wheel Hoss”, “Raw Hide”, “Roanoke” and “Blue Moon of
Kentucky”. Then they moved on to songs by Flatt and Scruggs like “I Wonder
Where You Are Tonight”, “Don’t This Road Look Rough and Rocky”, and “Why Did
You Wander”. Spencer especially loved the Stanley Brothers, songs like “Man of
Constant Sorrow”, “Rank Stranger”, and “How Mountain Girls Can Love”. His
favorite Stanley Brothers song however was “Little Maggie”. Spencer liked to
tease Maggie about this song. Every time Lost Highway would introduce Maggie to
the audience, Spencer would quietly play that tune in the background as a joke.
Maggie was too shy to play the mandolin with the band
for a while, and she was still singing mostly backup, but she was starting to
attract more and more attention. This didn’t go over too well with some of the
guys in the band, especially the lead guitarist and vocalist, Michael. During
the breaks, people would come up to Maggie and tell her that they liked her
singing. The women would be admiring and friendly, and so were the men, but in
a different way. Maggie didn’t think of herself as anything special in the
looks department probably because she had been teased by her three brothers all
her life. But she was quite attractive, tall, thin and blonde. She looked
good up on stage. Maggie started to get a lot of invitations and phone numbers,
which didn’t make her boyfriend Doug the bass player too happy.
One day the band was offered a gig to play a wedding in Greenville, Mississippi by a friend of one of the guitarists. It was to take place on New
Year’s Eve 1981. The band didn’t have enough money to fly, so they decided to
drive down in the band’s decrepit old blue Chevy van. The band spent the first
night in Maryland sleeping in the family room of a house that belonged to a
friend. The second night they rented two rooms in a rundown motel in North Carolina. They shared four beds between eight people so there wasn’t much privacy.
Everyone was tired and cranky from the long hours of driving. Maggie ended up
throwing a beer bottle at Michael that night after he made a little crack about
her weight. She purposefully missed him, but he didn’t know that and afterwards
he treated her with more respect.