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June 3, 2015

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Fiddlers provide a spirited soundtrack for the times

Here’s something I learned the other night: When 15 fiddlers, four guitarists and one fella on the upright bass swing into “Pig Ankle Rag,” it’s hard to think about what a mess we’re all in.

After spending an hour or so listening to the folks of the Nevada Old-Time Fiddlers Association, I kind of got a new perspective on Nero: Maybe he wasn’t indifferent to the flames; he just knew that when your republic is burning, a spirited burst of “Ragtime Annie” can take the edge off for a few minutes.

The association holds a jam session every other Wednesday night in Henderson’s James I. Gibson Library, where the “shh” rule clearly doesn’t apply to people with stringed instruments. They circle up in a small side room, nearly two dozen players of wildly varying skill levels (“but with this type of music it works!” their flier chirps), and take turns calling the tune. Most are up-tempo rags, or merry waltzes.

And so, one day after President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address (“The frustrations of Americans who’ve seen their paychecks dwindle or their jobs disappear”), two days after Gov. Brian Sandoval’s State of the State (“Nevadans are confronted on all sides with bad news”), 2 1/2 weeks after Tucson, nearly three months after the election from hell, and a couple of years after recession jitters took up residence in my brain, I dropped by. Perhaps a little simple, raucous Americana, I thought, would do me some good.

The 20 or so players are mostly ... let’s say north of 40; many of the men favor slightly archaic styles of facial hair and, judging by the announcements during a break, everyone loves a potluck dinner.

“Doug, you want to start — with ‘Angeline,’ ” the bassist said. Raising his bow, the man named Doug played the first few notes, then everyone joined in, and for the next couple of hours they proceeded to bring the yee-haw.

“This just makes my day,” said Dale, a grizzled older guy, one of the dozen or so “grinners” — listeners — on hand Wednesday, several of them regulars. Dale plays piano, not a stringed instrument, so he doesn’t sit in. But still he attends their jam sessions, driving from North Las Vegas.

The ensemble bounced through a lively “Cripple Creek” and turned in a nice, if occasionally ragged, version of “Kentucky Waltz.”

Somewhere in there, what the president said Tuesday about “all the noise and passions and rancor of our public debate” echoed in my head. Not quite as much as banjo music, fiddle music calls to mind a red-state mentality that is culturally and politically at odds with mine. Between songs I wondered how many rancorous debates I could get into in this room.

My favorite was an early number titled “Midnight on the Water.” Both pretty and melancholy, alternately lilting and insistent, it could easily have soundtracked a montage of recent American heartbreak: Images of foreclosed homes and unemployment lines; countrymen screaming at each other at political rallies; Wall Streeters pocketing their huge bonuses; Tucson.

Such is the state of our civic life that even something as innocent as a fiddle jam session can trail streamers of cultural politics, but that’s the world we live in. We are confronted on all sides with bad news.

But, of course, in its easy pleasures, camaraderie and emphasis on interplay, the gathering really recalled something else Obama said: “We will move forward together, or not at all.” It only took 19 or 20 rags, waltzes and ballads for that to sink in, after which I didn’t think about the state of the union again. They were still playing when I left, a frisky tune following me out the door.

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