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The Person Here: Guest Writer Joe Jacobi Remembers Bluegrass Booster Fletcher Bright

Photo by Jim Pankey

Editor’s Note: Chattanooga businessman, fiddler and music philanthropist Fletcher Bright died on Christmas day at the age of 86. (Full obituary here) He was a founder and funder of the free 3 Sisters Bluegrass Music Festival, which held its 11th edition last October. Bright was also a founding member of The Dismembered Tennesseans, a band that’s lasted across seven decades. For these reasons and for his mentorship and counsel to emerging artists, Bright received a Distinguished Achievement Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association last September. This weekend we saw a remembrance posted at the personal blog of speaker and writer Joe Jacobi of Ducktown, TN and thought it captured why so many regarded Mr. Bright so highly. We asked if Joe would expand on a few ideas and let us post his essay.

I can’t imagine that it is a common occurrence in the bluegrass music world: a few musicians unload their acoustic instruments from a private jet after returning home to Chattanooga, Tennessee from a gig at a remote music festival in mountainous Appalachia or from the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

I picture the musicians out on the tarmac dividing up the pay from that night’s performance: $50 per person? Maybe $100? Ahhh, a bluegrass musician’s economic reality. All of the money pooled together wouldn’t have covered more than a few minutes of flight time in this aircraft.

A private jet is an ultimate luxury status, right? It symbolizes flying above the clouds and playing by your own rules.

But, it was not so for this particular aircraft’s pilot - and owner, Fletcher Bright.

This plane, a derivative of Fletcher’s success in real estate development, was all about moving his art out of the clouds and back down to the soil, into the hard-to-reach places where meaningful work is done to realize meaningful results. To Fletcher, what truly mattered progressed through tiny moments. Fletcher made these tiny moments happen for decades - for himself and for each individual in his presence.

Unless you lived in Chattanooga and its bookends towns of Lookout Mountain and Signal Mountain, Tennessee - you probably didn’t recognize the name Fletcher Bright, until you met him. He preferred it that way.

At a young age, Fletcher and his band-mates in the Dismembered Tennesseans chose a path of traditional business and family lifestyle over the pursuit of musical fame. That decision offered more of a contrast and context to the time he and his band-mate friends did spend on stage engaging audiences and creating music.

If you ask almost anyone who knew Fletcher, I can almost bet their first meeting was charming and understated.

Our friendship began in the early Fall of 1996 when a message was left on our land-line answering machine at our home in Copperhill, Tennessee. We picked up the message remotely from the road at a payphone in middle of somewhere Indiana. It went something like this: “This is Fletcher Bright, I read here that you are offering workshops in fiddle and the instructor is one Bruce Molsky. Please call me back.”

My wife, Lisa, giggled. What a strange name, Fletcher Bright. Think it’s a prank?

She returned his call, and sure enough, he snagged the very last student slot in our ten-person Appalachian Arts Weekend Workshop at our little bed and breakfast.

This wonderful man showed up with his equally wonderful wife Marshall. He spent an entire weekend learning old time fiddle from a master of the art, never uncasing his own fiddle until the very last hour to twin a few tunes with the instructor. It took everyone in the room by surprise, especially Bruce Molsky.

After it was all done, Fletcher humbly packed up his fiddle in his two-fiddle case and asked Lisa if perhaps she would consider having him teach one of our workshops, but in bluegrass fiddle.

In the Spring and Fall of 1997 and again in 1998, Fletcher taught these workshops, in addition to launching my wife into a professional bluegrass music profession. Because he taught her as much about playing a good song kickoff or fiddle break as he taught her how to run a band with class and to entertain an audience from the stage.

I visited with Fletcher a few times in his real estate office in downtown Chattanooga. There were no giant display boards of his company’s shopping mall plans or models of completed or planned downtown live/work/play projects. But, there were a lot of fiddles. And he seemed to always welcome the opportunity to pick up one of those instruments and play it.

Upon hearing the news of Fletcher’s passing on Christmas morning, Lisa, who looked up to this man like no other in the 25 years I’ve known her, said, “When you were with Fletcher, you were all that mattered. No next appointment, no schedule. Just you. As long as you needed.”

And if you played music with Fletcher, in his office or at a workshop or in his kitchen, that was even better.

It takes a realization that the path of the person here is not the other person. You are the person here.

To be the person here is to practice mindfulness, presence, empathy, gratitude and creativity when nobody else is sitting across from you so that maybe you can be a little more present when they are present.

I’d love to tell you I have this one figured out. I don’t. And, Fletcher’s passing is a haunting wake-up call for me on how I have a ways to go to be more attuned to the person here.

For that, I am grateful, Fletcher. I am grateful that you aimed your jet aircraft high and then always returned it back to the soil to serve the person here. Thank you for your beautiful flight.

For more about Joe Jacobi, visit his website.