Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
‘To me, the bluegrass music is the Gospel music’
Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the Aug. 24, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)
In retirement, St. Charles parishioner Ernie Vollmer has discovered a deep-seated love for bluegrass-style Gospel music. (IR photo)
Not many blocks from Audubon Park, on Spokane’s near northwest side, amidst many trees and much shade, is the home that Ernie and Carol Vollmer have lived in since 1961. The couple’s three children are long grown and gone.
At 69, Ernie is slender, tanned, sharp of eye and quick of wit. On a summer day fast building toward a triple digit temperature, he greets a visitor with a firm handshake and an offer of coffee or ice water.
A lifelong Catholic and alumnus of Gonzaga High School and Gonzaga University, Ernie retired in June 1992 after a 30-year teaching career, mostly in sixth grade, at Blair Elementary School at Fairchild Air Force Base, just west of Spokane. Prior to that, in 1980 he retired, with the rank of major, from the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. Along the way, he completed a master’s degree in Education at Gonzaga University.
Ernie and Carol Vollmer are long-time members of Spokane’s St. Charles Parish. There Ernie serves on the board of trustees, helps with the parish’s annual Christmas dinner for the poor and homeless, and is a much-involved member of the Knights of Columbus.
You won’t talk with Vollmer for more than five minutes, however, before he reveals a personal passion: In retirement, Ernie is an avid fan and player of bluegrass music. His cherished guitar, which he bought 10 years ago, is rarely far from his side. After several years of learning, practicing, jamming, and playing with a local band, Don’t Fret It, Ernie insists that getting involved with bluegrass music contributes greatly to his ongoing zest for life and, on an even deeper level, to the strength and vitality of his Catholic faith.
“After I retired,” Vollmer says, “the biggest change of all was the music, bluegrass music, that I had nothing to do with before that. I didn’t even like bluegrass music. I had been retired two or three years, and Dan Gore,” a Spokane musician and music teacher, “was having a class through the community college. I think it was just called ‘Bluegrass Music.’ The description (of the course) said that he would talk for an hour, and then the group would play music for an hour. It said, ‘Bring your guitar, upright bass, banjo, fiddle, and mandolin.’ When I took that class, it opened up a whole new part of my life that wasn’t there before.”
Bluegrass music, Ernie says, “and the people who are in it, and the events that they have, have changed everything that I used to do. I don’t even remember what my life was like prior to that, but it was not as full as it is now.”
Ernie says that he reflects “all the time” on the impact that bluegrass music has had on his faith since he has been retired. As an example, he offers lyrics from “Angel Band,” a mid-19th century song now more widely known since it was used in the film O Brother Where Art Thou? “The thought of ‘Angel Band’ is in my head,” Ernie says, and he recites some of the song’s lyrics with conviction: “I’ve almost reached my heavenly home, / my spirit loudly sings. / The holy ones I hear them come, / I hear the noise of wings. / Oh, come, angel band. . .’
“Wonderful!” Ernie says with a smile.
Coincidentally, “Angel Band” bears a remarkable similarity to the English version of an old Gregorian Chant Catholic funeral hymn, “In Paradisum.” So maybe it’s no accident that Ernie finds “Angel Band” meaningful. Compare the lyrics from “In Paradisum”: “May the angels lead you into paradise; / may the martyrs greet you at your arrival / and lead you into the holy city, Jerusalem. / May the choir of Angels greet you / and like Lazarus, who once was a poor man, / may you have eternal rest.”
Ernie reels off the titles of some of his favorite Gospel bluegrass songs: “’The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn.’ ‘I’ll Fly Away.’ ‘Go and Do the Same.’ This one says, ‘Long ago, a man did travel from Jerusalem to Jericho.’ It asks, ‘Who is your neighbor?’ It goes on to say, ‘I see a man in desperation / out on the street most every day. / But like so many people / I turn my head the other way. / Who will show the hand of mercy?’
“These kinds of thoughts are in my head all the time,” Ernie continues, “because of this music. There is no doubt that I am more alive because of bluegrass music. Maybe I would have found something else that would have been the equivalent, but I don’t think so. To me, the bluegrass music is the Gospel music.”
In his role on his parish’s board of trustees, sometimes Ernie participates in decision-making when it comes to spending parish funds. “There are three of us,” he explains, “and we get together and, say, the question is, ‘Should we spend more money for a scholarship for a seminarian?’ We ask, ‘Is this fiscally responsible to spend $500 more?’ – and of course, the answer always is ‘Yes.’ We don’t want to spend money down to zero, but spending $500 for a seminarian is just a good investment.”
He says, “I believe in Jesus Christ, and through bluegrass music that idea is reinforced over, and over, and over. And just the idea of believing in Jesus Christ there are lots of other things I would believe in with that as my core belief. When I’m at a (music) jam, I don’t talk about being a Christian, and leading this way of life, but hopefully, through the music I’m getting that idea across. I like doing these songs, and the songs have this message.”
Ernie Vollmer loves his Catholic faith and he loves being Catholic. “Carol and I need the support of the Catholic Church in our lives,” he says. “I, in turn, will participate in the Catholic Church, stay with it, I’m in it for the duration. I’m not getting out. It was nice to go to my 50th class reunion and see all these guys that still go to church. We’ve stayed with it, large groups of us, although not all of us.”
Then, in a final, reflective moment, Vollmer adds: “I think the people who have dropped by the wayside, I’m sure that they just feel like a part of their life is gone that they used to have. Carol and I have just chosen to stay with it. Yeah, I’m staying with the church. I need the church. I like the support, the encouragement maybe I could call it, that the Catholic Church provides. I’m going to be there.”