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Bluegrass Festivals: Pickin' on a Phenomenon By Ben Fitzgerald
For the uninitiated, a stroll through the campgrounds of a bluegrass festival may appear more like a hillbilly music convention. From South Carolina's Merlefest to Colorado's Telluride to Maine's Thomas Point Beach, bluegrass festivals across the country are thick with fiddles, banjos, guitars, mandolins, double basses - and the occasional dobro. Most of which will never see a stage.
And then there's the singing. Everyone's doing it, and most are good. "I think John Hardy just came back to town," says a gray-bearded fiddle player as he kicks out a couple of 'taters. Without missing a beat he is joined by a banjo player and two guitarists, all singing at the top of their voice. They each take a lead break and the banjo player interweaves a crisp, high-tenor harmony on the choruses. It's effortless. There's a clear and strong connection between the players that can be heard in their music and seen in the smiles they exchange. Yet amazingly, they only met 30 minutes before. Throughout the festival, scenes similar to this one are taking place. Regular, everyday people making music together - sharing their passion, baring their souls.
This is bluegrass.
You are unlikely to find this story told of any other form of music on Earth. So what is it about bluegrass that inspires its fans to pick up an instrument and learn to play it? At this year's Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, an indoor winter event held at the Sheraton Tower Hotel in Framingham, MA, I endeavored to find an answer.
The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival is missing a number of familiar festival elements. There are no tents, no torrential downpours, no blaring sunshine, no cooking smells, no grass or mud beneath your toes, and no loud-speakers declaring "ICE!" Yet it is unmistakably a bluegrass festival. What makes it so? Lots and lots of pickin'. In the hallways, in the lobbies, in the elevators, and in dozens of open-doored rooms. With virtually all six floors being occupied by bluegrass fans, it is a humming bee-hive of music.
As I wander the halls with my banjo, I am welcomed into the room of Chuck, an old-timey musicians planing an open backed banjo and a fiddle. When asked about what makes this kind of festival so unique, he says "Friendly people. Free spirited. I mean just listen to them playing out there in the hall." As with everyone who was asked this question, there's a pause before he answers. Not because he doesn't know the answer, but because its something we all take for granted. We're a part of it. To go to a bluegrass festival is to be an active participant. None of us are merely spectators. And that's appealing.
Up on the fourth floor, I discover Steve teaching Julie to play guitar. She only knows three chords - C,G and D - but that's enough to have a go at "Will the Circle be Unbroken." Steve takes the lead, I back him up on banjo and Julie, who picked up the guitar only weeks before, makes a positive contribution to the song.
Down in the performance hall, Pete Wernick, one of bluegrass music's most respected banjo players, is sitting at the back of the room selling his wares and casually chatting with fans. I asked him why so many of us are picking up an instrument. "People see how much fun you can have without having a lot of skill, and it's very enticing to see people who do have a lot of skill. The thing about learning bluegrass is that the first rung is so close to the ground. Great bluegrass music only uses three chords. If you know the words, you don't have to be very skilled on the instrument to do the song." This comment reminds me of a favorite one-liner of Ron Thomason, lead man for Dry Branch Fire Squad, "There's a thin line between playing Old Timey music and not being able to play at all." Perhaps a bit of an overstatement, but the point is well made - this kind of music is doable.
Back on the third floor, a larger group of about 15 people have gathered in the elevator lobby, it's a large space and the acoustics are good. A couple of seasoned musicians are leading the songs, but everyone is playing and everyone is in time. Near the back of the group, an older man in a black sailor's cap takes a break on the banjo. It's Bill Keith, arguable the second most important contributor, after Earl Scruggs, to bluegrass banjo. People recognize him but he's not being mobbed. They'd much rather be jamming with him.
"There's a real nice ambiance at a bluegrass festival," says Pete Wernick. "With most types of music, there's the audience and the performers very clearly demarcated from each other. At a bluegrass festival, it's not uncommon for the performers to spend time jamming with members of the audience. People are gathering together to do human things that are often so lost in society." I asked him if he thought it was this level of approachability that inspires so many to want to play the music.
"Yeah. It's really a togetherness thing where people want to share something that's really good. I mean, someone who was in my jam class stepped out of the room and some bluegrass star was in the hall looking for a jam. And even though my student wasn't very advanced, he got to jam with this famous guy."
I also had a chance to speak with Mike Breem, the President of Connecticut's Podunk Bluegrass Music Festival, about what makes the festival atmosphere so unique. "It's joyful music. It's simple, acoustic music that's stripped down and very soulful. I think it nourishes people on a level that the stuff they here on the radio does not. We realize that to market our event, we have to convince new people who aren't into this music that bluegrass isn't about Deliverance. I give away a lot of free tickets, because I know if you come once you're going to be a fan. It pays off for me 95% of the time."
Kevin Lynch, a professional bluegrass musician and the current owner of Joe Val's Gibson mandolin, says of the bluegrass crowd, "They're not crazy, they don't mob anybody. Not like those country people. It's a different mindset." His take on why so many people want to play as well as listen? "There's something about hearing a banjo. I've heard lots of people say that it was the banjo that first got them into the music. When I was a kid, it was the sound of Earl Scruggs' banjo on television that got my attention." He then proceeded to give a spirited demonstration on his mandolin!
For my own part, I'm with Kevin. It was the banjo that caught my attention. But the decision to learn the banjo came from a deep desire to create the kind of music I loved listening to - to contribute, to actually sit on the front porch and "pick n grin." However, I think Pete Wernick, who has lived and breathed bluegrass for most his life, provides the most truthful explanation with his own personal account. "For me, it's kind of like church. I want to get deep experiences and appreciate the greatness of this world. And for me, it comes to a head at a bluegrass festival, outdoors in a beautiful rural location. It's a deep rooted sound and feeling that touches my heart."
And perhaps that's just it. Bluegrass - and everything it has to offer - touches the heart.
But don't get the impression that bluegrass festivals are only for musicians. There are plenty of fans too, there only to watch and listed to the national and local acts that do play on stage all day long, and well into the night. Each of the festivals mentioned above draws over 10,000 listeners each year.