Friday, January 12, 2007

Bluegrass Societies - The True Grass Roots

On almost any Saturday night in locations around the world, a bluegrass enthusiast can find a jam session or a concert to attend as a player or fan. Many of these events are sponsored by a local or regional bluegrass society staffed by volunteers for the love of the music. Some of these organizations are large and provide broad and varied programs as well as information about events throughout their region. Others are small, struggling organizations that sponsor a monthly jam session or a small concert, usually featuring a local group that sometimes gets paid. Regardless of size or level of penetration in their area, these societies share certain characteristics. Their function, however, is practically universal – they are committed to supporting and encouraging the spread of bluegrass music.

Typically, a local bluegrass society has a monthly meeting which is open to the public. The evening’s format generally begins in mid-afternoon with a lengthy period of jamming by different groups spread out around a room, building, or parking lot. In the early evening, on stage there is a period when local bands can perform for those in the audience. Sometimes these groups invite players in the audience to join them. Finally, the evening’s formal program is introduced. There may be two or three bands, with each playing one or two sets. If there’s a featured band, it will play two sets. Sometimes the featured band is a recognized regional or national band, usually a little below the first rank. Because there is such a deep well of bluegrass talent abroad in the land, the quality of music coming from the stage is higher than a person new to bluegrass might expect. Dedicated bluegrass pickers and fans know to expect a day of good music from jamming to professional performers.

Let’s take a look at several specific bluegrass societies. The Boston Bluegrass Union stands as the major source of bluegrass information and programming for all of New England. Its concerts, held in the lovely National Heritage Museum in suburban Lexington, MA, present groups like The Seldom Scene, the Claire Lynch Band, and The Grascals with admission prices in the twenty dollar range. BBU’s largest annual event is the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, which in 2006 won the IBMA bluegrass event of the year award. In addition to these large, audience oriented events, BBU sponsors a monthly jam and disseminates information about regular jams around the entire region. Its mailing list keeps members up-to-date on all bluegrass events in New England. While people around the nation don’t think of New England as a center for bluegrass activities, a scan of BBU’s web site reveals that there are bluegrass activities available year round. BBU also sponsors activities for “Kids in the Schools,” “Adult Education” and a “Kids Academy” at the Joe Val Festival. This comprehensive program is run entirely by volunteers.

The Foothills Bluegrass Music Society is located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Founded in 1987, their mission statement says, “As we near our third decade of success, the FBMS continues to offer a myriad of concerts, workshops and theme based social gatherings throughout the year. Operating on the volunteer efforts of our membership, we take pride in presenting warm and inviting, family friendly musical experiences open to the entire community.” This year their concert series highlights have included Tim O’Brien, Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, and Michael Cleveland/Audie Blaylock and Flame. Pretty good for a local bluegrass society. A feature of their program is an active bursaries (scholarship) program for young musicians. Each year Foothills provides financial support for young musicians to attend workshops and seminars across North America. How better could an organization support the growth and development of bluegrass music?

Bluegrass Australia
functions as a coordinating bluegrass and old-time music association for an entire continent. Bluegrass Australia’s web site is owned by the Bluegrass and Traditional Country Music Society of Australia and provides integrated bluegrass information about a number of Australian events as well as links to events and associations in the U.S. For instance, a link to the Balyana web site introduces a band providing bluegrass activities in Queensland, New South Wales and pictures a lovely set of perfect waves. Here bluegrass fans can combine the music with great surfing. This site, as you might expect, highlights bluegrass activities in Australia while keeping people apprised of bluegrass activities in the U.S. and other centers around the world.

My first contact with a bluegrass society came when I discovered The Rivertown Bluegrass Society in Conway, SC. As winter visitors in Myrtle Beach, my wife and I heard that there was bluegrass music available in the area, and one cold winter day we traveled the ten miles west to Coastal Carolina University for a concert. We were entranced by the music, joined the society, and moved further along our trip of discovery in bluegrass. Rivertown sponsors a monthly concert series with jams, open microphones, and featured bands. At present, it is a more modest organization than those described here, but is working hard to expand its program and outreach. As its web site indicates, there is a bluegrass jam sponsored by a local society within an hour or two’s drive every week of the month in the area. But in this small organization can be found the strength and joy of bluegrass music. Bluegrass, despite how difficult it is to play well, must be played. The richness of bluegrass music lies in the true grass roots, the local jams, concerts, and small festivals dotted across the country and, now, around the world. Bluegrass music truly grows from the grass roots.