The Picking Contest

[This was first published in 2006]

The Picking Contest

Here’s a contest story for you. I hope you’ll indulge me. This is a true story.

I moved from Meridian to Jackson in 1984. There was a certain guitar store in South Jackson that had caught my eye a time or two, but I had never patronized. I was listening to the radio one Saturday morning and heard an announcement about a flatpicking guitar contest that was being held at that store. I had just moved to town, was absolutely bored that morning, and decided I would go down and enter the contest, enjoy the festivities, and meet some other flatpickers.

When I got there, there were about 10 people in the store. It seemed that there weren’t going to be many contestants and fewer listeners. I registered for the contest, and sat and waited for things to start. Of the 10 people in the store, three made their small purchases and left. There remained 7 of us; that would be the store owner, three people who had been asked by the proprietor to serve as judges, contestant number one and his wife, and me (contestant number 2). Since first prize (the ONLY prize) was a can of guitar polish and a set of Martin strings, not a lot of folks turned out for this competition, though I doubt doubling the prizes would have created more interest.

All of the other folks knew each other, and were old friends; but no one knew me until I introduced myself all around. While I was treated courteously, it was not without some suspicion.

Contestant number 1 started the contest. He did not flatpick at all, but played an excellent Merle Travis style, which I enjoyed very much. I wish I could remember his name. He was about 75 at the time, and a very courteous person, as was his wife. When he finished his two tunes, it was my turn.

I played a couple of songs, and played them very well. Contestant number 1 and the judges and the proprietor seemed to really enjoy it. The judges and the store owner then went back to the back room of the store for deliberations about the contest winner. I thought this was rather silly, but they seemed to be taking their jobs as judges seriously. In the meantime, contestant number 1 and I thoroughly enjoyed talking about music, work, and life in general.

When the judges and proprietor returned, the judges would not look at me, but avoided my gaze. The proprietor asked me to step into the back room with him so he could talk to me. When he and I got to the back, he explained to me that they did not know me, and for all they knew, I might be some professional contest picker who went to all the contests to spoil things for the local folks, much like a pool hustler/gambler might take the paychecks of the local husbands, and thus food from the mouths of the local children.

For that reason alone, though they had all agreed that I was the better picker and had picked a circle around contestant number 1, they had decided to award the prize to him, but, furthermore, they all really liked him and wanted him to win, and they just couldn’t let me, a total stranger to them all, waltz in there and win the whole thing.

The proprietor was expecting some kind of protest from me, thus the stern look of concerned seriousness on his face, but he got none. I thought this was one of the most amusing things I had ever been in the middle of. They were laboring hard, to the point of being willing to do the wrong thing, all for the benefit of their good friend, contestant number 1. It was certainly more fun than the yard work which was the only other thing on my Saturday agenda.

When I smiled, there was a great sigh of relief from the proprietor, and I then told him I would be happy that I had placed second to such a great picker as contestant number 1, and by all means, award him first prize with my blessing.

I went back out to the front with the proprietor, where everyone could tell by the looks on our faces that things went as they had hoped, and I was received more warmly by the bunch and was offered a cup of coffee (which I accepted) while contestant number 1 and his wife basked in the hearty congratulations that came from all those around (including me!).

I suppose I hung around for another hour or so, visiting with the proprietor who by this time had become a friend. I also continued to chat off and on with contestant number 1, who never for a single instant thought of himself as anything less than the champion guitar picker in all of Jackson, Mississippi.

I remember, as I was leaving, it had started to rain. With my guitar case in one hand, and a cup of coffee in the other, as I started out the door to rush to my car, contestant number 1, with the biggest grin I think I’ve ever seen on a mid-septuagenarian, said to me, “You know, you really never stood a chance to win this contest. I’ve won it here every year for the last five years! Can’t nobody beat me here!!”

I told him that the minute I heard him grab the first note, I knew it was over for me. He smiled even bigger, and his wife grabbed me and gave me a quick hug for being such a nice boy.

I went back often to that guitar store. The owner was a bit eccentric, but a very talented singer and songwriter; just my kind of Saturday morning visit friend.

Contestant number 1?? Of course I asked about him every time I went back to the store. For several weeks, the word came back that he was fine. Then, for another couple of weeks, the answer I got was that there had been no word from him. The next week, I got word that three weeks earlier he had had a massive stroke, and had died just within the past few days. I was very sorry to hear that.

I know this:

Contestant number 1 went to his grave as the five-time reigning champion guitar picker of Jackson, Mississippi, with no mental reservations about the honors and duties that were his because of that title. He expected the accolades as his just desserts and bore the duties and responsibilities thereof with an easy and admirable grace.

He died in the arms of his very lovely and loving wife.

He died with the comfort of knowing that he had four friends that would have cast caution to the wind to honor him and defend him from any evils, strangers, or perils within their reach.

He died having made one more admirer.

He certainly was a winner in everything that counted!

What I don’t know:

What I don’t know is about myself. In retrospect, what seemed so easy in the face of the loss of a can of guitar polish and a set of strings might have been extremely difficult had the winner’s prize been more. I do know that I’m glad it wasn’t a hundred dollar bill! What winning or losing that $100 might have cost me is incalculable.

©2006 Mississippi Chris Sharp

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