BIG JAM on Little Friday
Half a dozen men lean back in creaky rattan chairs on the cracked concrete porch of the old Custis General Store, the plucking and tuning of guitars and banjos drifting through the open door as they talk of blues festivals and after-parties, neighbors doing poorly and the black cat taking up half a bench.
She’s 13, the cat. A truck barrels by.
“Lucky 13,” a man says.
“Her brother was my cat,” says another, sipping on his Rolling Rock.
“I guess he got hit or ran off.”
Ol’ Fred is doing better, someone says. Throat cancer, so it’s lucky that long-ago mandolin player is an oncologist. There’s another mandolin player now – Mandolin Dave – but he’s in lawn care. There’s Flute Dave, too, but that’s a different guy. Self-taught, Flute Dave is. Can’t read music.
They talk about how it’ll be time to chop firewood soon, even though it’s hitting 90 inside the store. There’s no air conditioning in there, just fans moving dusty air over sales counters – remnants of when it sold things.
The shelves are still there, too, chockablock with old tins and canisters, antique glass bottles and the occasional urn. There’s a platform stage and a collection of cane and Windsor and wingback chairs. A mandolin hangs on the wall, along with a couple banjos, plus saws and sleds and vintage signs. Two upright basses stand next to an old copper fire extinguisher.
The store’s pine ceiling is high, so acoustics resonate: the perfect place to jam, which is exactly what groups of amateur and professional musicians have done here Thursday nights for 16 years.
The Custis General Store was built in the 1890s, hard up against Craddockville Road, south of Craddockville and north of Davis Wharf on the Eastern Shore. And for a good 100 years it carried everything from shoes to oyster knives. “Sold beer out the back door, too,” says Bill Aeschliman, its current owner.
Aeschliman and his wife, Candy, bought it in 1995, in part because her name is stenciled in gold on the window, right alongside “tobacco” and “Coca Cola.” They raised three kids upstairs and built chairs in the workshop below, using maple for the turned parts and poplar for the seats, plus good oak to bend for the backs. Together they made about 180 over 20 years. They called it the Chair Place, but Bill never removed the stencils – even though Candy’s no longer with him.
A white 1978 Alfa Romeo convertible chokes to a stop and Eddy Dixon unfolds his lanky tattooed frame. He’s wearing a black beret, bolo tie and suede moccasins, the cuffs of his crisp jeans turned up just so. He had his own band in New York and played lead guitar on the Grammy-winning Twin Peaks theme song, so he is easily the most famous of the musicians here. But nobody holds it against him.
A truck full of women drives up.
“The groupies are here!” Dixon says.
“Hey, baby!” one of the women calls out. “Do I need to get you a glass of wine?”
She returns with a red cup and apologizes for the hole punched in the side. She’d been taking soup to a neighbor and wanted a clever way to attach the spoon and crackers. “Drink from the other side,” she suggests.
“That’s just an accident waiting to happen,” says one of the men, fetching a Solo that doesn’t leak. A truck slows, the driver waves. “You playing tonight?” he calls to the group.
Journey’s Any Way You Want It rolls out the door, the beat a little loose, the voices roughened by time and cigarettes. The song falters. There’s laughter and debate over the key. “Nobody knows the damn words!” Aeschliman says.
Charles Groves, who goes by “Barry,” says his hellos and carries his saxophone inside. He splits his time between the Shore and Northern Virginia, and he drives down when he can.
“I took two of ’em and I’m making one,” Dixon says of the Romeo. He found them in a field where they’d been sitting for 28 years. “When I opened the hood there was nothing but straw and a possum looking up at me.”
He redid the brakes, got the engine running. Come fall he’ll sell it and earn enough to live on for a year.
The band switches to Bo Diddley’s Who Do You Love? Groves’ saxophone wails, overwhelming the guitars, but he’s dragging out those notes and then blatting like a horn. A flute trills over the top.
Dixon wanders inside and lifts the upright bass from its stand. He picked up the instrument in 2003, after moving here. There were already 10 guitar players banging away during jam sessions and he figured they didn’t need another. Someone had bought the bass but no one knew how to play it. He taught himself.
The song ends with a banjo flourish.
“There’s no banjo music in the key of E,” Aeschliman says, “so I’ve had to learn to pick in E to play with you guys.”
“So you can teach an old dog new tricks!” someone yells.
Aeschliman starts finger picking and the musicians stumble their way into Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms. “Now where were you last Friday night?”
Aeschliman sings. “While I was lying in jail … Walking the streets with another man … Wouldn’t even go for my bail.”
Everyone laughs. “Come on,” he says, “help me sing!”
Heads bob over instruments. Young women dance in the heat. Locals in scattered chairs sing, “Roll in my sweet baby’s arms. Roll in my sweet baby’s arms.”
There are six musicians here today. Sometimes there are as many as 12. Fifteen’s too many: The
guitars start knocking necks.
Aeschliman’s in charge, but if he’s camping, they’ll come anyway. They know how to turn on the lights and the fans and make music without him. One at a time they take the lead, naming the song, dictating the key and the chords, then starting in. Sometimes vacationers stop by, especially fiddle players. A few weeks back a couple in an RV pulled up, vacationers from North Dakota. Sat in. Played stuff that was new. Left.
“You never know what direction the music is going to go in on any given night,” says B.K. Kurzbard, 70, a guitarist who’s been coming here since 2008. The rules are simple. No electronics, no rap or hip hop, and definitely no spoons or anything that’ll pull people off the beat.
Troy Butler, 43, who lives up the road, started bringing his boy to the jams when he was 2 or 3. Little Nathan would whip out his harmonica and dance and play on stage. “When he was 5 and 6 years old some of his best friends were 65 or 70,” his dad says. They’d even let him finish Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall.
Right at the end, whoever was leading would give Nathan the nod. “If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding,” he’d call out. “How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?”
“We have to be pretty wound up to play that one, though,” Aeschliman says.
Aeschliman and Candy moved to the Shore in 1989 for his job managing Virginia Landing, a private, gated campground. Six years later, the company wanted to transfer him to California, but the Aeschlimans had three teenagers in high school and didn’t want to move.
They bought the old store, moved in upstairs and turned Aeschliman’s woodworking hobby into a business making Windsor chairs. He would carve and turn and bend and glue. Candy would sand and paint and buff – plus handle the customers.
But on Thursday nights Aeschliman and his buddy, Tom Wescott, would pull out their guitars. They were joined by Allen Caison, and later by Dixon and others. Then someone got the bright idea to play a benefit for the local cancer society. They formed the Turkey Pen Pickers, “a bunch of old guys playing Jimmy Crack Corn kinda stuff,” Dixon says, “and here it is, 13 years later and I still come here every Thursday night to play.”
More musicians joined, and for a while it got too big, with people partying into the late hours. That’s eased back with age and experience. The events self-regulate now, Aeschliman says. They know enough not to drink too much and get rowdy.
Aeschliman, 67, is gentle and soft-spoken, his gray hair slicked back, his shoulders and arms still strong from 20 years of chair-making but also from hauling Big Joe, the banjo he made out of hard maple. The thing is heavy, about 28 pounds. Its face is mylar stretched over metal, same as a drumhead. There’s an armrest on the side to keep his forearm from muffling the sound.
Aeschliman spent 300 days along the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam with the 101st Airborne, a tour that left him with PTSD. He got some medals, he says. “And a lot of therapy.”
When he turned 50 he gave himself a banjo for his birthday, and it became his therapist. “Instead of sitting around thinking about all of that stuff that I couldn’t control I was thinking about the banjo,” he says, “and that’s a hard thing to learn.”
He was so bad at the beginning that Candy made him take the dog and go practice in the camper. Candy died suddenly in 2004. A few years after, Aeschliman walled off part of the main room and moved downstairs, leaving the upstairs for his daughter and son-in-law.
“There were five of us up there, then four, then three, then just me, and it was way bigger than I wanted,” he says. Plus, he was tired of humping firewood up those stairs, and the only heat for the whole building comes from two woodstoves. It’s good that his son-in-law hauls it now.
Over time the chair business faded. He didn’t enjoy it anyway. The sawdust isn’t good for his one lung – Vietnam-era defoliants gave him a cancer that cost him the other one. Today’s generation wants to buy Walmart chairs and that’s OK. It leaves more time for music.
The store has become a place for young people to socialize on what locals call Little Friday. Maybe they bring an instrument. Maybe one day they get brave enough to get up on stage.
“They figure out pretty quickly that there are no critics here at the Chair Place; it’s just a place to play with others,” Aeschliman says. “We all are just trying.”
Troy Butler eyes the mandolin on the wall. He’s been practicing at home but he doesn’t feel like he plays well enough to join tonight’s group – “I can’t hang with these guys; they’re too tight,” he says – but one of these days he will.
For now it’s Kurzbard’s turn to lead and he calls for the Beatles’ Love Me Do. The audience sings along, chins dipping as they reach for the low notes. Aeschliman shouts out, “Sax!” and Groves’ sax wails into a solo. “Banjo!” Aeschliman yells, and his fingers fly over the strings. “Flute!” he calls out, and high notes dance over top of a slightly plodding rhythm line. The song ends and the audience applauds.
“I figure we’ll be doing this for another 100 years,” Aeschliman says, and wipes sweat off his forehead. “Who’s up next?”
Check out our video on The Chair Place.