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Ralph's Top Service

At eight o'clock at night in an Englewood industrial park, a single streetlight casts a milky glow on a simple wooden sign. It reads: "Ralph's Top Service."

Although Ralph's, at 2890 South Zuni, is a custom counter and cabinet shop, the scene inside this evening has little to do with home improvement. Half a dozen people stand among workbenches and stacks of plywood, but their hands hold musical instruments, not power tools. Instead of the scream of saws and the pounding of hammers, the sweet, earthy sound of bluegrass music fills the room.

A handwritten placard that hangs from the ceiling reveals just what's going on here. "Welcome to Ralph's Bluegrass and Country Western Music Jam Session. Tonight is number 563."

Ralph Haynie, who's both the proprietor of Ralph's Top Service and a founding member of the Bluegrass Music Preservation Society, has changed that number on a routine basis for more than twenty years. On the first and third Thursdays of every month since 1975, Ralph has played host to one of the longest-running bluegrass jams in the country. Yet he's the last person who would put on airs. A stout 68-year-old with a resonant voice and a soft-spoken manner, he greets a pair of visitors with an unassuming "Hi, y'all. Make yourselves at home."

While the night's players tune up their acoustic guitars, banjos, mandolins and fiddles, Gay Eggenberger, 84, takes Ralph's advice. He doesn't come to pick, just to listen and enjoy the good cheer. "I've been coming here for about thirteen years now," he says. "I make it every time."

Rueben Zeller, another member of the listening contingent, tries to do the same. He hangs out at Ralph's for one reason: "Therapy. What's more relaxing than sitting around with down-home folks playing music? The people here are without pretensions. And this kind of gathering is such a rare thing in our society today."

Eggenberger and Zeller are joined by several other observers, who talk, laugh and swap stories like old friends. But as the instrumentalists find their places in the center of the room, the audience members quiet down. A musician counts to three, and he and his fellows slide into a bluegrass number. Guitars strum, banjos jangle and a fiddle sings. Over it all, a high, lonesome, four-part harmony rises up: "Let the world keep turning/To your hearts be true..."

The jams weren't this good at the beginning, Ralph admits. A native of the San Luis Valley who's been married to his wife, Jeannine, for 48 years, he moved to Denver after a brief stint in the Navy and several years spent driving trucks. Once here, he worked for Gates Rubber, then began building cabinets for a living. He opened his own shop in 1965 and inaugurated the jam sessions a decade later. "I love this music, and I thought we needed a place to get together," Ralph remarks. "But when we first got started, I sat around many a night waiting for somebody to come in and pick."

After a few months of sparsely attended jams, a few local radio stations and the newly formed Colorado Bluegrass Music Association helped spread the word. John Morrow was among the first to check out the scene. At the time, he played fiddle for a local band, the Possum Trotters. "We were the number-one bluegrass group in Colorado," he notes before adding, "Of course, we were also the only one in the state at the time."

Soon, Morrow was joined at Ralph's by many of the region's finest acoustic musicians, including several national fiddle champs. What's kept many of them coming back, Ralph believes, is the low-key atmosphere and the absence of either musical showboating or one-upmanship. "People come here to have a good time and play what feels good to them," he contends. "Nobody's here to show anybody up."

The conversation that follows the end of the first song illustrates Ralph's point; the pickers chat about chords and licks, not about who burned whom. As their discussion continues, four guitarists, including Verna Mullins, head to Ralph's kitchen, just off the main space. "The nice thing about playing here," Mullins says, "is that you can move to other rooms to pick with other people." After she leads the participants in a stately version of "I'll Fly Away," the quartet rolls through a few more gospel standards, with everyone singing a verse or taking a solo.

Art Harrington, a 39-year-old mechanic at Ralph's for the first time, wears a blissful expression as he watches these musicians. "My dad died a few years ago," he says, "and we played this kind of music. We thought we were the only two people in Denver who did." He concedes, "I felt a little intimidated at first, but the folks here made me feel right at home."

"The folks" are a varied bunch. There's Larry Gilmore, a retired advertising executive who plays the washtub bass--a primitive instrument built from a galvanized tub, a walking cane and a Weed Eater cord. There's Bill Rousch, a fifty-year-old Bible distributor working on "my third banjo, my second truck and my first marriage." There's truck driver Tony Scott, a longtime regular. ("Even when Ralph had no business, he always opened his doors to us," he marvels.) And there's Denver fireman Doug Elrick, who says, "Bluegrass is pure music that seems simple but isn't. And it's the only music that hippies and old folks can enjoy together."

Chimes in Kit Mullins, who hails from Pike County, Kentucky, "If they don't play bluegrass in heaven, I ain't goin' there."

For quite some time, Ralph was afraid he would find out about music in the afterlife before he was ready. He's had his share of health troubles, including a nine-year battle with cancer of the bladder ("I whipped it," he says) and a recent stroke that makes it painful for him to play banjo and guitar. Yet his troubles haven't interrupted the jam sessions, which have taken on a life of their own. "When I was in the hospital," he recalls, gesturing at the musicians, "they called me from the shop and played over the phone for me."

The music was some of the best medicine Ralph received. He's well-acquainted with the restorative power of bluegrass; for many years, he was part of Benefit Pickers, a cadre of jam-sessioneers who performed at rest homes, cancer wards and hospitals. "When the nurses would ask us to leave, the patients would insist we stay and play," he says. "We played places where the people in hospital beds and wheelchairs all tried to get up and dance. It makes you feel real good, I'll tell you.

"Bluegrass is happy music," he elaborates. "Even the sad songs make you feel good. A guy could be singing about his girlfriend being murdered, yet there's still something there that gets your toe tapping."

It certainly has that effect on Ralph, who is going strong long after midnight. When asked if he's ever had anyone overstay his or her welcome, he replies, "No, I let the folks play until they're satisfied. Sometimes when I'm going home, I pass myself coming into work." But after a moment's reflection, he amends that statement.

"There is one person I chased out," he says. "Cloris Leachman." In 1983, he remembers, Leachman (an actress best known for her work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show) was in town for a play at the Elitch Theater and wanted to hear a little live music after the curtains closed. She and co-star Noel Harrison ended up at Ralph's and stayed all night. "Oh, yeah, she had a ball here, singing and dancing--and Harrison was a pretty good guitar player. But it got to be about 5:30 in the morning, and I finally had to tell her, 'This place turns into a cabinet shop in another hour.'" Before leaving, Leachman and Harrison signed a door in the shop. "I thought of replacing that door," Ralph confesses, "but decided to keep it instead."

The revelry doesn't drag out quite so long on this night. By 1 a.m., the group in the main room has packed up and left, and Verna Mullins's gospel gathering has called it quits as well. Up in the front showroom portion of Ralph's, a few songwriters swap a few more originals, then head into the night. Ralph bids the last of them a fond farewell.

"Did you have a good time?" he asks. "Be sure and come back to see us next time.