Forever Bluegrass

20080809_untitled_43448Day 1: Raccoon Mountain

Afternoon shadows stretch across the mountain campgrounds high above the Tennessee River, less than 10 miles west of Chattanooga, when Steve Maxwell emerges from his RV. His graying black hair is still matted down by last night’s ball cap, his mustache uncombed. He squints without his glasses. On the table against the brown and beigeToyota Dolphin, a grimy propane camping stove fires a skillet piled with salted country ham and diced potatoes. Half a dozen biscuits are browning in the toaster oven. Breakfast at 2 p.m. on a Thursday.

If this feast seems like a little much for one 66-year-old man and his girlfriend, Jean, it is. Jean cooks plenty for the campers in the neighboring lots and for any passersby who are feeling peckish after lunch or simply can’t muster the resolve to pass up a warm ham biscuit. And for those who linger for more than a minute beneath the Dolphin’s makeshift tarp awning, Steve will climb inside and return with a Ball jar and a grin that is short one tooth.

“Smoothest you’ll ever taste,” he says.

Maxwell takes a pull to help jump-start the day. He was up until dawn lugging his bass fiddle from camp to camp, joining in to play and sing bluegrass around the fire. He’s known some of the musicians for decades; others he met just last night. But it’s hard to find a stranger at the Boxcar Pinion Memorial Bluegrass Festival, where every corner of Raccoon Mountain echoes with the same string-and-descant music and every camper and truck — with license plates from Tennessee to Missouri to California — is plastered with the same white sticker reading Forever Bluegrass beside the silhouette of a man, peacock feather in his hat, leaning on a bass fiddle.

The sticker on the Dolphin’s rear bumper is practically worn into the chrome. Maxwell first met Boxcar playing the dance halls and fiddler conventions in and around Chattanooga in the late 1960s. Twenty-five years Maxwell’s elder, Boxcar was something of a role model, who loved his cold cans of Pabst almost as much as slapping his pawn-shop bass, “Ole Yeller.” To know Boxcar was to know his three daughters — Inez, Ruth and Cindy — who, even as grade-schoolers, tagged along to every show. Maxwell was especially fond of Cindy.

“She had that long curly blond hair and she was always dancing and grinning at us,” says Maxwell. “I’d say she was flirting, but she wasn’t quite old enough to flirt.”

Just about everyone on this mountain has a Cindy Pinion story. Maxwell has several, but his most mythologized is set in the late 1990s, after Boxcar had died: Maxwell was leaving a late-night picking session at Inez’s house in Flintstone, Ga., down in the valley below Lookout Mountain. Maxwell had left his instrument case at home, so he set his 1950 Kay bass in the back of his pickup and headed home. After turning off of gravel onto the main road, he hit a bump, and caught air. He heard a crash like an empty piano crate being dropped from four stories up, and looked in the rearview to see shards of his bass fiddle scatter across the pavement in the red brake-light glow. He got out to find his precious Kay in dozens of pieces. Disgusted, he threw a couple of the larger chunks in the truck bed and drove off, abandoning the rest.

Once Maxwell got home, he was paralyzed with anger. But his girlfriend at the time called the Pinions. Cindy and Inez grabbed flashlights and trudged through clay mud up to their ankles as they scoured the roadside and gathered every splinter of the old bass. They collected the pieces Maxwell had picked up and shipped a box full of kindling to an Atlanta craftsman.

“That’s just bluegrass people,” Maxwell says today. “That kindness is just such a pervasive thing … you don’t think about it it’s so common.”

Maxwell tosses a paper plate of biscuit crumbs into the trash and climbs back into the Dolphin. He returns with the 1950 plywood Kay bass fiddle, intact, standing strong, a good foot taller and a few inches wider than its owner — and with a worn finish and a few chips in the varnish, in just as good a shape.

A cool summer breeze sweeps across the grounds, carrying the cries of a mandolin and the pings of a banjo from a nearby campsite. Maxwell puts on his ratty brown Boxcar Festival ball cap, cradles the old Kay, and sets off to find the source.

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