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By Jennifer Miller
October 22, 2014
Jason Schneider

I stood in the music store beside my then boyfriend, looking up at the banjo on the wall. For $600 I could take this “starter” instrument home and indulge my new obsession with bluegrass. Six hundred bucks wasn’t an outrageous price, but I was in my late twenties and inconsistently employed. The purchase felt grandiose, especially for an instrument so often derided. Question: How do you know if the stage is level? Answer: The banjo player is drooling from both sides of her mouth. Reluctantly, I handed over my credit card.

Not long thereafter, in the fall of 2007, I left my boyfriend of eight years. He liked the status quo; I wanted to get married. The split was tough. We’d shared everything—an apartment, friends. Now I felt isolated and lonely. I wanted to let loose, to dive into my newfound singledom. But I’d been in a relationship for so long, I didn’t know how. Then I remembered the banjo.

It hadn’t occurred to me to play with other people. I wasn’t very good, and I lived in New York, not Tennessee. How many bluegrass musicians could there be in the Big Apple? As it turned out, a lot.

The open jam I discovered at a West Village bar was like nothing I’d ever experienced. At least 20 musicians—guitarists, fiddlers, mandolinists, and, yes, banjo players—stood in a circle, taking turns improvising and singing while bar patrons drank and laughed and applauded. Overseeing the operation was a 70-year-old Dobro player in a cowboy hat who called himself the Sheriff.

As I lingered outside the circle, a grizzled guitar player noticed my discomfort and offered to help me follow the chord changes. I was a disaster, but it didn’t matter. For the first time in a long while, I felt like part of something.

I returned weekly, often playing until two or three in the morning. I learned to take solos and belt out songs like a Nashville diva. I made new friends and dated new men. If I ever felt alone, I had a place to go, though I wasn’t often lonely anymore. After a while, my bluegrass friends urged me to trade up for a new banjo. I’d have to pay a couple grand, they said, but I’d love the sound. I considered it, but why spend more? For $600, I’d gotten a fresh start and a life filled with music. That was all I needed.

Jennifer Miller’s first novel, The Year of the Gadfly, was published in 2012. Look for the bluegrass bar in her next book, out in 2015.

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Advertiser Disclosure

The purpose of this disclosure is to explain how we make money without charging you for our content.

Our mission is to help people at any stage of life make smart financial decisions through research, reporting, reviews, recommendations, and tools.

Earning your trust is essential to our success, and we believe transparency is critical to creating that trust. To that end, you should know that many or all of the companies featured here are partners who advertise with us.

Our content is free because our partners pay us a referral fee if you click on links or call any of the phone numbers on our site. If you choose to interact with the content on our site, we will likely receive compensation. If you don't, we will not be compensated. Ultimately the choice is yours.

Opinions are our own and our editors and staff writers are instructed to maintain editorial integrity, but compensation along with in-depth research will determine where, how, and in what order they appear on the page.

To find out more about our editorial process and how we make money, click here.

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