This interview first appeared in the March 2009 edition of the California Bluegrass Association publication The Bluegrass Breakdown
Scroll and Curl by John Pedersen
By Larry Carlin
Old-time is not a crime! But sometimes old-time music and crime can become intertwined.
The words “old-time mystery novel” may sound like a conundrum to most folks, but this is exactly what the fabulous new novel titled Scroll and Curl by Marin County music store owner and old-time musician John Pedersen is all about. Pedersen, proprietor of Amazing Grace Music in San Anselmo, has written a delightful tale about an old-time band that goes on the road to play some gigs that also gets caught up in a mysterious plot after one of the members finds a cheap fiddle at a yard sale. Anyone that has every toured or played in a band will love this book, which officially hit the streets in early February.
Even though the fictitious band is based in NY there are quite a few Bay Area references in the book. John is originally from Glenmount in upstate New York, but has been living in Marin County since 1975. He and his wife Judy have two kids, ages 17 and 22.
Amazing Grace was opened in 1970 by singer/songwriter (not the football player) Steve Young, whose song “Seven Bridges Road” was a hit for the Eagles. A few years later Young sold the store to Judy and David Crummey, and Judy ran the shop while David played in bluegrass bands such as High Country. In 1976, Judy Crummey convinced master luthier Pedersen to quit his repair job at a well known shop in San Francisco to take over the repair duties at Amazing Grace. After the Crummeys divorced, Judy continued running the business until 1982, when she elected to put the store up for sale. With obvious logic, Pedersen decided to buy the store so he wouldn’t have to move all of his stuff out of the building. 27 years later he is still there.
In 2004 the owner of the building decided to put the property up for sale. The store was in danger of ceasing to exist when film producer George Lucas bought the property partly so that the store legacy could continue. “It’s like winning the lottery,” a grateful Pedersen admits.
Currently John plays banjo, fiddle, and Irish Uilleann pipes in Marin County’s finest old-time band, The Roadoilers.
In late January I stopped by the store to talk about the book.
Is this the first book that you’ve written? Where did the idea come from to write this?
“It is my first book. The idea of the guy buying the fiddle is what drives all of us instrument dealer/repairmen. That’s why we pull u-turns, go to garage sales and haunt second-hand and thrift shops because IT could be there. But the mystery part just came along.”
When did you first get the idea to write the book? Is it something you’d been thinking about for 20 years?
“I actually started in 1995, but nobody knew I was writing it and nobody cared, so I sat down on a Sunday morning or whatever and knocked out a page or two just for the heck of it. I didn’t really have anything that was driving me. And it coincided with the first old PC that someone had given me. I started writing stories for entertainment. And this is one of the stories that I started. And I viewed it like a long joke, like you got in a car in SF and drove to Boston, where you’d deliver the punch line. So I just figured I’d just fill in details and conversation. It was a lot of fun to do.”
How did you find a publisher? I mean, I know many writers that have written books that they can’t get anyone to look at.
“I wrote the bulk of the book in two years because I had some well known writer friends that said ‘Send me your chapters.’ So I did and they were enthusiastic. So that drove me to produce more. Then they became demanding, saying, ‘You’re leaving me hanging here, let’s go!’ And one of the people was a customer/friend/mandolin player/lawyer, and she said, ‘You should publish this.’ ‘It’s not that easy,’ I replied. She said, ‘I know an agent and he’ll set you up.’ When I finished the book, she did the editing, and then she made the agent read it. And the agent took over. I totally lucked into it, being at the right place at the right time.”
The title, Scroll and Curl – both of these are fiddle terms?
“Right. It refers to the scroll of the peghead and the curl of the grain in the wood.”
The band leader, fiddler and main character is named Dan Munroe. Is this a tribute to a certain bluegrass mandolin player?”
“Actually, no. The name comes from an old-time song ‘The Jam on Gerry’s Rocks,’ which is about some lumbermen in New England that broke a logjam on a river, but also tragically lost their lives in the process. Munroe was the foreman, and he left behind a young fair maiden and bride-to-be.”
In the book Munroe calls his fiddle “Mill Valley” even though the story takes place back east. One of the band members occasionally wears an Amazing Grace t-shirt, and there is mention of a (Sacramento area bow maker) Greg Townsend bow.
“I had to get the store name in there somehow. And the fiddle that I play all the time is actually called ‘Mill Valley.’ It was made in the town in 1927, and I love the bow that Greg made for me. And the other fiddle in the book, the ‘Red Rocket,’ that’s the name of my other fiddle.”
Other Bay Area references are used, such as a band at a festival called “The Hallway Sisters” – a tip of the hat to the Bay Area band The Stairwell Sisters.
“It was a lot of fun doing this. When you are writing a book you are kind of like waving at your friends from a bus.”
One of my favorite parts of the book is the self-description of the main character. “Coupled with my steely gray hair and beard, which an artist friend dubbed the ‘moth eaten’ look, a person not familiar with my gentle nature might mistake me for someone recently at the county work farm.” Uh, sounds like someone I know…
(Hearty laugh) “Yeah, actually, that’s the way Fairfax sculptor/artist/friend Richard Shaw described me once. He is also a Charlie Poole-style old-time banjo player. He can just turn a phrase. I don’t know what we were talking about, but he said, ‘You know, you look kind of moth eaten.’ I said, ‘What?’ But then I added, ‘Yeah, well, I guess I do.’” (more laughter)
The name of the band – Sweet Evening Breeze – does not get mentioned in the book until halfway through, and it is only done so twice. Where does the name come from?
“Sweet Evening Breeze was a real band in Toronto in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, and they were just the greatest old-time band and cool guys. I located one of the original members, and he said ‘Be my guest, use the name if you like.’”
My favorite quote in the book is “But who knows what goes on in a banjo player’s mind when love is at stake?”
(Laughs) “There you go! Isn’t it the truth?”
On April 25th, the “moth eaten” John will be having a book signing at the Book Passage store in Corte Madera. If you cannot wait until then, you can buy a copy directly from him at Amazing Grace or you can obtain the book on Amazon.com.
Amazing Grace Music is located at 111 Redhill Avenue in San Anselmo. (415) 456-0414. .
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