Steve Gulley’s Acoustic Music Camp, 2018
Lincoln Memorial University

Seven in Steffey’s class: six teenagers born strumming
mandolins and me decades older, clutching
a mandolin I bought on time.  

Adam changes our strings, old cheap to fine new, and straps
his handmade leather on my mandolin to free my hands
from struggle to play.  

Still, I’m lost by the third note of Soldier’s Joy. Pick it slow,
Pam, Adam says, work it a lick at a time. It’s a marathon
not a sprint.  

Summer-hot sun slides down Kentucky-side mountain allows
for dusk-breathing cool on Tennessee side. Teases
an invite to LP concrete porch. Folks circle up and tune.  

From my open window, I eavesdrop
on a guitar and a 5-string banjo in heated conversation.
Three times I start to the door with mandolin in hand  

and three times I stop. A sorrow-filled
fiddle tune draws me lonely from my room to porch
right into Trey, a just-turned-eighteen old soul.  

Where’s your mandolin?
In my room. I can’t change chords as fast as y’all.
Ain’t no shame in learning. Go get it.  

And I did.  

Trey waves me to a seat tucked close to him. In the shadow
of youthful boldness, I sit quiet and hope no one notices me.
Folks pour in from Harlan and swell the seams of LP’s porch  

with 5-string banjos, guitars, fiddles, and two upright basses,
one plucked by a five-foot tenor of a woman, the other, a foot
taller man, bristly-white beard trailing over blue bibbed overalls.      

Only one other mandolin—Trey’s daddy. Trey calls a tune
and a key. And then a glorious rush, like when a race track
starting gate springs open, pure pulsing electricity breaks.

 It’s fast. Too fast for chords but not strumming. I dampen
my strings and listen to the heartbeat of the tune and strum
off-beat and on, and a rhythm I made up that just felt right.  

Trey leans close, Nice chops.
His dad fist-bumps me.
And later in the dark of my room, I look up the word chops and smile.