In the beginning, Lyle played it on the front porch.
He played during Dust Bowl days when his family couldn't huddle around a radio or stare at a TV or drive out of Shelby, Neb. He played because music is what the Miller family did.
In the beginning, he played because it was the only thing to do.
In the end, he played it in his Omaha living room, played as his wife of 67 years listened like she was hearing these notes for the first time. He played even though he stood stooped now and even though his hearing was shot.
He played even though he had 200 television channels and also knew how to surf the Internet.
In the end, he played it despite all the other things he could do.
In between his beginning and his end, Lyle Miller did quite a few things. He fought in World War II, and he married a firecracker named Fern. They raised two striking daughters, and he worked hard at his day job, and he put them both through college.
He retired, and every winter he and Fern loaded up their possessions and he drove their camper to Texas.
His neatly groomed mustache turned white. He made more friends than you and I put together.
Lyle Miller did quite a few things in 96 years, but there was one thing he cared about that whole time.
“He loved the mandolin,” says his daughter, Karen. “It always soothed him.”
He learned to play the mandolin as a child, soon after he was born in 1917, just as his siblings all learned to play an instrument. He played it for audiences around Shelby as a teenager.
He got a gig on KHAS radio in Hastings. “The Wranglin' Cowboy,” they called him.
He took his mandolin and he packed it into a backpack and he took it with him to World War II. He played it for the other mechanics at night as they made their way through France and Germany.
He didn't smoke, so he traded his Army-issue cigarettes for hunks of bread and chocolate and money to buy mandolin strings.
He returned from the war, and he met a young woman named Fern, and he serenaded her with his mandolin. She accepted his marriage proposal. Of course she did.
He played it, and he sang children's songs to his daughters. He played them to sleep when they were sick.
He played on weekends and holidays, just a hobby he wedged into long workweeks at H&H Chevrolet, where he was parts manager.
And then he retired and started playing more, and a funny thing happened: People in the insular world of bluegrass music realized he was really, really good.
Some retirement: He joined one band, and then a couple of more, and pretty soon he was touring all across the Midwest. Bars and American Legion clubs in small-town Iowa. Bluegrass festivals in Kansas and Missouri.
He and Fern trekked south the week after Christmas every year — Lyle driving the 1,200 miles each time — and set up camp in southern Texas. Lyle joined bands there, too, and played his mandolin at every bluegrass spot in the Rio Grande Valley.
A well-known bluegrass band named Umy and the Good Times needed a fill-in mandolin. He found himself before thousands in Branson, Mo. Two shows a day, for a week straight.
Most of the other men in these bluegrass bands were in their 30s. Lyle was 65. Then 75. Then 80.
“You never knew how old he was,” says Matt Allen, who started taking mandolin lessons from Lyle in 1974. “He never looked 75. And he played like he was young.”
As a teenager, Allen's favorite band was Foreigner. Lyle turned him on to Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music and still its biggest ever star.
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Lyle played with Bill Monroe once. Of course he did. He played with Ralph Stanley, the bluegrass legend who helped T-Bone Burnett write and record the “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack for the Coen brothers' movie by the same name starring George Clooney.
He played with a hundred other impossibly talented bluegrass musicians you and I don't know. And, about a decade ago, he joined them: They inducted Lyle into the National Bluegrass Hall of Fame.
Lyle Miller played his last show with his longtime band, Bluegrass Playground, at the American Legion Hall in 2011. He was 94 years old.
Even after that, he continued to play for Fern. The couple resisted the pleas from their children to move into assisted living, staying at their little house at 50th and Pacific, the same place where they had lived for 56 years.
He continued to play for Fern until a couple of weeks ago, when his heart finally began to give out.
They showed a photo slideshow at his funeral, held Wednesday, and I sat in the back row and listened to the soundtrack. It was Lyle playing bluegrass music, of course.
I sat in the back row and marveled at this man I never met, who fell in love with one thing as a child and never, ever forgot that feeling. I wondered how much that mandolin extended Lyle Miller's long life. I wondered how much value that mandolin had added to his life.
And then the preacher rose to speak, and he said something about Lyle Miller's 96-year life that made the mourners, young and old, nod their heads in unison.
“It was a good gig,” he said. Yes it was.
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