I have a secret life as a musician.

Last week I traveled to Oregon to perform in the 2019 North American Jaw Harp Festival over four days.

What an adventure this trip was, and it was my second time attending this national festival.

I wasn’t able to go last year as I had been just laid off work and thought it would be unwise to spend any money at that time. This year, I could afford a plane ticket, got a free ride from the airport and even a free place to stay in a campground in Cottage Grove, Oregon.

The journey began on Wednesday as I got up way too early at 1:30 a.m. and readied for the day ahead. I was ready to go by 3 a.m. but didn’t leave for the airport until 5.

There is truly something wrong with me in the morning as I can’t wait to jump out of bed and get going. Yep, I’m one of those dreaded morning people.

Cate drove me to the airport, gave me a sweet kiss and I was off.

I transformed from Jim to “Ol’ Uncle Jim” the Jaw Harp player from Arizona.

I had a connection in Salt Lake and landed in Eugene shortly after noon. One of the festival organizers picked me up and we traveled 25 miles to Cottage Grove with a short lunch stop along the way.

We went to Walmart and bought some cheap camping equipment, arriving at the campgrounds around 3 p.m., just 5 miles outside of town. Everything was going as planned.

As I was setting up camp, I suddenly smelled it — marijuana was in the air.

Yes, it’s totally legal in Oregon and everyone is smoking it everywhere. It was actually banned in the federal campground we were staying in but that didn’t stop anyone. I also do not partake in the use of marijuana.

That evening I was able to catch a ride into town. There was a jam session going on at a local pub and a group of us jaw harpists decided to crash the event.

The locals were less than excited to see us with our twanging contraptions. Pretty soon, I was jamming right along with the band and the “old-timey” bluegrass music they played. The magic started to flow and I am totally a bluegrass player.

They seemed to really like my harpin’ and I picked up several friends that evening in the pub.

Thursday night was our opening performance in one of the bigger downtown bars. We took the stage at 5:30 but there was no master of ceremonies, so of course I took the job because I am an introvert trying to become an extrovert. I had the impromptu privilege of organizing the evening, getting the performers on stage and introducing each act. It was actually fun as I overcame my shyness.

The festival officially began on Friday and crowds of people started showing up for our festival downtown at the Opal Arts Center.

Now, jaw harpin’ isn’t exactly popular and two years ago there were only about 10 of us in attendance. Around 150 harpists showed up Friday and I was given the duty of running the sound board.

The quality of talent this year was really up as many “youngsters” have suddenly joined our society. I’m more of the seasoned player, not one of the young beatbox players.

Things went really well the opening day of the festival and I was able to perform a 30-minute set.

The big day was Saturday.

After freezing all night with an insufficient sleeping bag in 40-degree temperature, I woke up early and walked the half mile to the showers. Upon arrival I noticed something just wasn’t right. There were children everywhere.

A large church group had taken over the campsite next to the shower. Needless to say my 10-minute shower took me an hour of waiting just to get in.

I diverted to another bathroom on the way back to shave and went back to my tent to get dressed.

I was ready for the big day of the festival.

As I was arranging for a ride into town and scrounging for some food and coffee about 11 a.m., two park rangers appeared.

They had seen someone in our group walking around the large federal campgrounds smoking marijuana. The rangers evicted all 150-200 of us at 11:15 a.m. and everyone had until 2 p.m. to get out.

The problem was the festival stage was expected to open by noon.

While I was very upset that we were all evicted, we also had nowhere to go thanks to a Garth Brooks show 20 miles away that evening. All hotels and campgrounds were full for hundreds of miles in all directions.

I broke camp, packed everything quickly, arranged for a nearly impossible ride into town and got my opening performer, Jamie, packed and into the car.

We made it to the stage just 10 minutes late and the show went on.

We really didn’t have any idea what we could do to fix this. We had nowhere to stay but we just couldn’t deal with that problem at that time. Everyone was upset, mad and totally on edge.

One of the attendees at the festival is a very spiritual Native American woman named Helen.

As I was running around frantically trying to reorganize this mess of a festival, she pulled me aside.

Helen told me that whether I realized it or not, I was one of the “elders” of this group and I must do the right thing and direct what would happen next.

What wise words she shared with me. The famous term “the show must go on” is true.

Before the end of the evening our festival was a huge success with quality performances never before seen.

The day began in disaster but ended in magic. I was even blessed to win the grand prize in our group’s raffle that evening. I won a new jaw harp that is one of the best harps in the world.

The really good news is that Jamie, who is from Kansas, and I were given a spot to stay inside a wonderful home on the golf course. We had warm beds that night and hot showers in the morning.

The entire town stepped up and found places for the evicted people to stay or camp. Most people ended up camping in yards around town that night.

I left early Sunday to fly out of Eugene but my flight was delayed more than two hours. It luckily didn’t impact my connection in Seattle.

Jamie wasn’t as fortunate.

His flight into Denver was later in the day and it was delayed by weather. By the time he did get to Denver, there was no way to get to Kansas. He spent the night sleeping on the floor of Denver International Airport.

Jamie finally arrived home late Monday afternoon.

I had a fantastic time at the festival despite Saturday’s adversity. Overcoming everything that went wrong was the most important thing about my trip.

I could have dwelled on all that went wrong and felt sorry for myself. Instead, I joined with my friends and, together, we found success.

I was never so happy to get home to my life in Arizona Sunday evening.


Justice reporter Jim Headley can be reached at jheadley@pinalcentral.com.

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