Honorary Doctorates - 5/2/2015

     Leigh and I will be presented with honorary degrees of doctor of fine arts by the State University of New York at SUNY Plattsburgh on May 16th.  A lot has been running through my mind as the date approaches.  As with any achievement, my first thought was, “Wow, I wish Dad could have seen this.”  I know he’d have chuckled and made some kind of joke about it, but I also know that deep down he’d have been proud.  Mom has always been easy to impress.  Maybe too easy, but I love her for it.  Dad used to pick on her about “puffing up like a peacock” over anything Leigh, Erin, and I did.  Dad was, at least outwardly, harder to crack.  He’d have attended the ceremony, too, I think.  I graduated from Plattsburgh State in 1993 but did not attend the graduation ceremony.  Where was I? Picking stones with Dad, doing spring’s work on the farm.  Ask Leigh about that the next time he says I was more an observer than a worker on the farm.
     Mom and Dad made a lot of sacrifices so that we get to do what we do for a living today.  Mom brought us to lessons for a year and half at Dick’s Country Store in Churubusco in the early 80s with the wonderful Eric O’Hara.  He was fresh out of college and had a lot of patience for a couple of pre-teen farm boys.  Our parents listened to us practice and I’m sure it wasn’t pleasant for the first few years.  We went to our grandparents’ house on many a Friday and Saturday night, and they helped fuel our progression.  Our Finlayson aunts, uncles, and cousins would often be there, and the stories we heard between the songs would make my sides hurt.  There was always laughter.  We also started playing in church and Reverend Finley encouraged us to start singing because “words are important to people.”  The congregation was patient and encouraging.  As we improved on our instruments, our parents made sure that we would get better instruments.  I remember attending a one-day festival with Leigh and a veteran musician kind of shaking her head that a fourteen year-old had a Martin.  That guitar was purchased from Dick Decosse, our old friend and supporter, at Dick’s Country Store.  I remember coming home from school to find a 1976 Gibson RB-250 banjo on the bed in our music room ordered from Gruhn Guitars, all the way in Nashville, Tennessee. I remember playing that banjo for a few years not wanting to admit to Mom and Dad that it had a disappointing sound.  Many instruments made in the 70s were subpar, but I knew the sacrifice they had made to buy me what they thought would be a wonderful banjo.  One Saturday morning a few years later, I played a Flatiron at Dick’s.  I came out to the truck and told Dad about it.  He asked, “Is it better than your Gibson?”  I told him that it was.  
     “Do you really need it?”
     “I think I do.”  
     Dad kind of grimaced, but he worked something out with Dick and bought the banjo for me.  He sold a cow to help pay for that banjo, the same as he did to help get his little sister back home from Florida at one point.  Our father did a lot of great, selfless things that no one knows about.  He did them quietly.  There is honor in that.  I now feel guilty for asking for that banjo, but I made good use of it and played quite a few shows with it.
     I am proud that whatever Leigh and I have accomplished has been together.  We are a team.  We slept in the same room on the farm, slept in the same dorm room at college, and often room together now on the road.  We get along very well for a pair of brothers so close in age.  We rib each other a lot on stage, but I am so proud of Leigh and love working with him.  His lead singing and guitar playing is so soulful, and the power in his tenor still makes me smile after all these years.  The guy can write a song, too.
     I am also proud that the State of New York, not known for being a bastion of bluegrass, is recognizing what we do as a ‘fine art.’  Truth is, New York has a lot to proud of for what it has contributed to the bluegrass tradition.  Tony Trischka, Bela Fleck, Bill Keith, Claire Lynch, Smokey Greene, Junior Barber, and many more have made their mark.  The Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival is one of the best in the world, an event more than a festival.  Bill Knowlton has had a bluegrass radio program in Syracuse for 45 years!  Yeah, he’s a curmudgeon who wears funny clothes and has a strange affinity for cowbells, but we like him.  Yeah, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder growing up when kids would make fun of the banjo, but the genre in which the instrument flourishes is being shown great respect here.