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A ride with Pony Express

By Billy Corriher

For Buddy Ashmore, it doesn't get any better than gathering with his friends for some bluegrass pickin' at the cabin behind his house.

"We'll come out here at night, when it's real quiet. We'll light a fire and have a pot of cowboy coffee on the stove," he says. "The atmosphere is perfect."

Ashmore, 67, and the members of his band, Pony Express, have been playing at his cabin for six years. He brought the 125-year-old structure from Dublin, Ga. to his home in Jonesboro about seven years ago.

Ashmore had to take the cabin apart and reassemble it piece by piece. He put a tin roof on top of the wooden planks and hung oil lamps on the walls. Light from the cabin's only window falls on a small iron stove.

When he thinks back on all the places he's played the last 30 or so years, Ashmore says the quaint cabin is one of his favorite venues.

"Some of the best pickin's probably been in this room," he says between puffs of his pipe, leaning back in his old hickory rocking chair. "The acoustics are perfect."

Brad Laird, mandolin player for Pony Express, says the cabin reminds the group of the roots of bluegrass music.

"The cabin takes you back to the time when bluegrass music originated," Laird says. "It kind of gives you the feeling of the music."

Bluegrass was popularized by the legendary Bill Monroe, who combined influences from old country music, blues, traditional Scot-Irish music, and early gospel singing. In the 1930's, Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys introduced America to their fast-paced, high pitched type of music, later termed bluegrass.

Ashmore's old-fashioned cabin is fairly small, but big enough for the members of Pony Express to pull out their instruments for some laid back bluegrass.

The band, after playing one of its tunes, "Sittin' on Top of the World," tries to explain its own musical stylings.

"I guess we're a little bit different than most bluegrass groups," Ashmore says. The group's music is a mix of traditional bluegrass and "more progressive" bluegrass, he explains.

"Honestly speaking, the old bluegrass at the beginning doesn't do that much for me," Ashmore says, suggesting that the contemporary kind of bluegrass his band plays is "more pleasing to listen to."

Randy Godwin, Pony Express' bass player, describes the band's sound as "bluegrass with a bit of country."

Banjo player David Ellis says he plays primarily in the style of banjo legend Earl Scruggs, who used three fingers to pluck the strings. But, having played for 24 years, he can play in almost any style.

Ashmore has also been playing since he was very young.

"I guess I've had a guitar about all my life," he says, adding with a smile, "but that don't make me a better guitar player."

Although he can't quite remember, Ashmore says he thinks his first guitar was a Stella or Sears Roebuck model. He traded a rifle, a Christmas present from his dad, for the guitar when he was 12 years old.

"That's something I regretted, but I really wanted a guitar," he says.

Ashmore says his aunt was the first one to teach him the chords in the old country song "Show Me the Way to Go Home."

"Our first pickin' parlor was an old chicken house behind my grandmother's house," he says. "After that, you pick up things here and there and it just evolves."

All the members of Pony Express grew up in the Clayton County area, and after they kept running into each other at bluegrass festivals, they decided to reform Pony Express, a band Laird started in 1981.

Ashmore invites a lot of people to pick at the cabin, but the guys in Pony Express just sounded good together.

"Whenever Buddy meets somebody, the second thing out of his mouth is ?You need to come down to the cabin,'" Laird says, the rest of the band nodding in unison. "We've had a lot of great pickers play in this cabin."

The group plays every Thursday at Motorhead's Bar and Grill in McDonough, and Laird said the steady gig has given Pony Express a dedicated local following.

"That's what makes a place fun," he says.

The band also plays at bluegrass festivals around the Southeast, but Ashmore says playing with other pickers in the parking lot outside the event is the best part of any festival.

"You won't meet an overall better group of people than the people who attend a bluegrass festival," he says. "Boy, when you get back to those festivals, you see people you haven't seen in a year. It's kind of like a family reunion."

The community of bluegrass musicians is like "one happy family," Ashmore says, with different generations often playing together.

Fiddler Mike Estes says many young people are now becoming interested in bluegrass.

"I'd like to see even more young people interested in our music," Estes says.

Ashmore says that ever so often, movies like 2000's "O' Brother Where Art Thou?" will bring bluegrass music back into the mainstream.

"Every time the general public saw it, they loved it," he says.

Having been interested in bluegrass for so long, Ashmore says he's seen generations of great players.

"I'm old enough to have seen a lot of ?em go," he says, mentioning bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe and others. "You hate to see ?em go, but they leave their mark."

And though Ashmore is getting older, he doesn't plan on putting down his guitar any time soon.

"I reckon I'll pick as long as I can."