I’ve been a fan of Chris Wagoner and Mary Gaines for ages, starting from the first time I saw Chris singing and fiddling for Harmonious Wail over 20 years ago. In the intervening years, they’ve played with Common Faces, Moon Gypsies, and amassed a long, impressive list of sessions with local, national, and international artists. So when I saw them play at Backwoods Fest with the Ray Johnson Band a few years ago, I started fantasizing about them playing with me.
As I sat in my living room writing out a ukulele set list for this year’s Backwoods Fest, I again dreamed about having Chris and Mary accompany me. There were a few songs on my list that I’d heard them play before – jive stuff by Louis Jordan and Nat King Cole that they could probably play while getting a root canal. Would my heroes be there? Would they play?
Yes, I’m aware that a logical person would simply call them up and ask, but I have this maddening habit of wishing things would work out the way I want them to – without actually doing anything to help them along. What a dope. But I was also aware of the informal nature of Backwoods – anyone on stage may find themselves being accompanied (for better or worse) by other musicians.
This year, I arrived on Saturday afternoon, pleased that it hadn’t started raining yet (rain is one of the most consistent of Backwoods attendees). After applying the bug spray and hugging several of old friends, I picked up my guitar and ukulele and made my way to the stage to find out who would be playing next.
Almost exactly as I had imagined it, Chris and Mary appeared and began unpacking their instruments just as I took the stage. Would they get set up before I was finished with my set? More importantly, would they play?
It was Mary’s cello that I heard first, laying down a bass line for Straighten Up and Fly Right. I was over the moon. After the second verse, I turned and gave her a nod, stepping away from the mic as she took a solo. I was giddy. After another song or two with Mary, Chris had finished plugging in his pedals and tuning his various instruments. Finishing out the set with both of them playing behind me on songs by Stevie Wonder, Hank Williams, and Mikey Dread was an experience I will never forget. Thankfully, my friend Reid Johnston (leader of the fabulous Ray Johnson Band) shot a few minutes of my set on his phone. You can hear Mary join in towards the end.
When Chris and Mary went to get some food, I switched to guitar and played another set. I was still giddy.
I had just played with the best.
Where do I go now?