It was a pretty typical Sunday evening for me. My family and I still lived down the street in the old “turn-of-the-century” house, in which we were doing some pretty extensive remodeling. Southeastern Indiana has never been very “outdoor friendly”, during the fall months on into early December. On that day, I found myself inside, perhaps relaxing after working on installing a tin ceiling in the family room. The family room at the old house doubled as my “music room”. It was here I could often be found rehearsing and researching musical and technical skills I needed to make my return to the bluegrass music scene. I had been in and out of that scene for years, since leaving the Larry Stephenson Band, in April of 1993 to take a day job at a trucking company. Never being content with sitting on the sidelines, I dreamed of being back on that stage with the right people. As a result, I decided to work on my trade and learn as much as I could. Finding free time to do that, when you’re working 70 plus hours a week, can be a challenge. To help facilitate, I managed to keep a few (local) festivals a year worked into my schedule.
While attending those few shows a year, I always made it a point to visit with musicians and friends, whom I had met years earlier in my former bluegrass career. One of those people was Dempsey Young. I recall seeing and hearing Dempsey for the first time in the late ’80’s. His style and charm immediately caught my ear. Of all the great mandolin players on the road, at that time, there was just something about him and his playing that was unmistakable. I recall one of our first encounters. I was only 15 or 16 at the time. I was shy and not-so-worldly. I recall thinking that Dempsey looked like one of my ex-girlfriend’s Dad (who was not a big fan of mine) and every time I saw him it was the first thing that came to mind. I remember mentioning this to Dempsey in my shy and awkward way. I suppose it was the only way I could think of starting a conversation with him without being obvious that I was obsessed with his mandolin playing. Dempsey got a real kick out of this and we seemed to hit it off immediately. It was then that I felt more and more comfortable asking questions and just watching and listening. Dempsey loved to get out and pick. I recall a show, in Oklahoma, where there was a great jam back stage, after the show. I sat up-close and tried to learn all I could. He didn’t seem to mind and I think he sensed my willingness to learn, but always seemed to appreciate my respectable approach. Years later, I brought a custom built mandolin I had bought to him, for inspection. He pointed out some good points and some not-so-good points about the instrument. That honesty really impressed me. I have seen many great pickers, whom I know are constantly bombarded with custom instruments, praise literally every instrument which is put in their hands. I’m sure this is mainly done out of courtesy and in hopes not to insult the builder, but I always admired Dempsey’s honesty and determination not to mislead.
That Sunday evening of December 10th, 2006, as I sat in the family room relaxing and surfing the internet on my old Dell, before the days of Facebook (I think it was actually MySpace back then), I received a message from good friend Shayne Bartley. I read it in disbelief. Shayne told me that one of our heroes, Dempsey Young, had taken his own life, earlier that morning. I was stunned. I had last seen him in July of that year, at the MACC, in Columbus, Ohio. Normally very cheery and in a wonderful mood, Dempsey seemed a bit distraught that day, even with me. He asked me a question that day that sort of took me by surprise. He asked me how I continued to go out and work “these shows”, year in and year out, for so little money. As he went on, I sensed that Dempsey had concerns of his own, perhaps money, maybe feeling like he was spending too much time on the road? I did not pry, as I never wanted to make him feel uncomfortable. I didn’t think much more about it that weekend, but simply found it odd. I later realized that Dempsey may have been the one looking to me for advice or reaching out and I just didn’t realize it at the time. That feeling will likely always be with me. In these situations, I think it’s just human nature to ask oneself if there’s something we could have said or done to prevent a friend or loved one from taking their own life. The only advice I can offer is that all we can do is just be who we are and be the best friend we can. As I stated in my last blog post, cherish those moments, because you never know if there will be more.
I decided to attend the visitation and funeral for Dempsey. I made the 8 hour journey later that week and met and stayed with friends Darrel and Phyllis Adkins (from the MACC, in Columbus, Ohio), down in Rocky Mount, Virginia. We went for dinner and then onto the visitation. I was so impressed by the numbers of people who showed up and for the courage that Dempsey’s family and band members showed for those couple of days. I think they held up wonderfully, considering the circumstances. I was also very pleased with the support shown to his family and bandmates by the bluegrass community. I’ve always felt like bluegrass people are family and this situation really proved that to me. Something positive, as a result of this great gathering of bluegrass musicians and fans, was getting to see many of each that I had not seen in years. But that positive feeling didn’t last long, as I realized how Dempsey’s death would also affect those people and made me feel sad for them, as well.
Dempsey Young was a great man, musician, and influence on my life, who left this world too soon and I’m taking this opportunity to tell my story and pay tribute, in his honor. Rest in peace, Dempsey.