I cannot remember exactly when I first heard the John Hartford tune Homer the Roamer, but judging by the timestamps on the various MP3s, PDFs of sheet music and Band in a Box files I have, it must have been sometime around 2005.
Back then, a website called Bluegrass Box held a repository of thousands of live recordings of bluegrass artists (search for this website now and you’ll find something very different). I would spend hours searching through the archives, listening to all sorts of concerts, jams and demos.
And so it was on Bluegrass Box that I discovered a recording from 2000 of Chris Thile and John Hartford jamming together. I had started playing mandolin in 2004, primarily inspired by Thile, and so at that point in time I would search for everything he did and geek out over every lick and note he played. I loved listening to this session, the pure enthusiasm in just about everything Thile and Hartford played and said during the 90 minute set was infectious. Thile was the eager, young student on mandolin, clearly in awe of his hero, whilst Hartford on fiddle came across as an avuncular mentor, as keen to learn as to teach.
It was one track in particular that stuck out for me. Homer the Roamer, a twisty three-part fiddle tune, penned by Hartford but never recorded by him. Thile’s (very successful) attempts to learn the tune on the fly are incredible to my ear, but even better is his passionate and intense response when it draws to a close – “Oh my gosh! What is that called?! I LOVE it! Did you write that? Oh my gosh!” – before asking for a copy of the sheet music so he can go away and learn it properly.
So, for years, I obsessively wanted to learn how to play this tune, but I was far too much of a novice to do so. I hadn’t yet learnt to play by ear to any great effect, and there was no way to find tab since the tune did not seem to exist in any form besides on this one bootleg. Nobody seemed to know about it at all.
As time passed however, the tune seemed to gain some sort of momentum. It was recorded on a Jim Wood album, and rumours started circulating on the internet that a tribute album to Hartford would include it. In the very early days of social media (hello, myspace) I was able to contact Jim Wood and Mike Compton who both graciously sent me copies of sheet music for the tune. The two versions were very different, which only served to confuse me further, but I was extremely appreciative of their help and kindness.
The tribute album did materialise, and did indeed include the tune. And then Darol Anger also included it on his E&A project. There are now multiple versions on Youtube featuring all sorts of instruments and arrangements. I thought Homer the Roamer might have been lost with Hartford’s death, but to paraphrase Brooks in The Shawshank Redemption, “now, it’s everywhere…!”.
I am not quite sure what happened next. I can play the tune now, but I have no recollection of how that came to be. Years of osmosis from various means of attempting to learn it must have got me there in the end. I listen back to that Thile & Hartford recording now and realise, it’s not simply the tune itself that I fell in love with, but Thile’s effortless, flawless improvising over a tune he has never heard before.
And I realise no matter how much I practice, I won’t ever be able to do that.