When I was a little boy, my great aunt, MaryNell, introduced me to a rather peculiar instrument –– the mandolin. Often relegated to the distant fields of Kentucky or orchestral chambers, it serendipitously found its way into my hands.
It was the first instrument I learned to play, somewhere around 6 or 7 years old. Honestly, I was not a fan. It looked funny, sounded strange, and the action on the neck was rather high. It required more strength to press down the rusty strings than my little fingers possessed.
Beside the need for callous development and finger dexterity, I did not find bluegrass or southern gospel music to be in any way cool. The Gaither Vocal Band was a far-cry from the rock anthems I enjoyed. My musical preferences leaned more toward Genesis, Journey, and Eagles. However, Aunt MaryNell was undeterred.
She was an endless reservoir of encouragement. I remember sitting next to her on her piano bench with mandolin in hand. We would play through a simple tune dozens of times. At some point in the song, she would stop, smile down at me and say, “That was beautiful, Andrew. Let’s try again.” But I, in fact, knew it was not “beautiful.” Quite far from it. I was largely unable to get the chords to ring true. But that’s how she was. Always encouraging and ever-patient.
She was an amazing pianist. Her style always reminded me of the Wild West saloon scenes in movies. But we both shared a love for Jack Johnson’s music. Soon after she first heard his album, In Between Dreams, she set out to learn the song “Banana Pancakes.” It was an amazing amalgamate of musical genres. We shared a lot of laughs over that album.
In 2011, she passed away. It was a devastating loss to our entire family. She was a matriarch and a friend. It seemed surreal for a long time. I often found myself almost turning onto her street to say hello, but as if roused from a dream, I would suddenly remember. She was gone –– and the realization and emotion would wash over me again. I suppose that’s how we often find just how much of an impact someone has made in our lives; the hole they leave behind.
In 2015, I bought a mandolin of my own. I had been thinking about it for several months and decided to take the plunge. The first time I picked it up, I thought of Aunt MaryNell and all our lessons on her piano bench. I knew she would be happy I decided to play again. I wanted to honor her and her eternal patience with my mandolin playing. I named the mandolin, Nell. It means, “The Bright and Shining One.”
It’s a beautiful instrument. I was happily surprised by how much easier it was to play than I remembered as a boy. My fingers are now far stronger and calloused from decades of playing both bass and guitar.
I began practicing 2+ hours each day for several months. I found myself on a journey of unlocking the beautiful mysteries hidden inside an instrument I long ago dismissed. I was quickly falling in love. I had never thought the mandolin was a versatile instrument, but I began finding several artists who were venturing into uncharted waters. I took it upon myself to follow in their wake.
At this point, I have played at one wedding, dozens of worship sets, one studio recording, and a couple of Irish sessions. I love how the mandolin cuts through a mix with growling chops and twinkling highs. I recently had the opportunity to lead worship with a few friends at Revival Group in Redding, California. They both played guitar while I played mandolin. I absolutely loved it.
I have had several people approach and tell me they have never liked banjo or mandolin before they heard me play. Quite the compliment. I once counted myself among them. The mandolin is interesting in that way. It first appears to be a one trick pony with little to offer, but if given the chance, it surprises you immensely.
I have been wanting to make a leather mandolin strap for quite some time. I started the project almost two years ago, but time got away. I finished it early this morning. The strap has some Sheridan patterns and the name “NELL” tooled upon it. I think Aunt MaryNell would like it.
She taught me far more than some simple mandolin chords. Through her example, she taught me to love God, love people, love music, and to love life –– laughing all the way.
Aunt MaryNell, I want to say thank you for sharing your passions with me and your endless encouragement. It has all meant more to me than I was ever able to say.
I’m still pickin’.
I love and miss you.