Sunday, January 20, 2008

Rivertown Bluegrass Society, Conway, SC

There aren’t any national bands here, no headliners, no frills. There’s just good bands and knowledgeable fans making good bluegrass music, jamming, and enjoying listening. And, in the end, isn’t that what bluegrass music is all about? On a regular rotation in Lumberton, Lynches River, Fayetteville, and here in Conway local bluegrass societies hold their monthly meetings. For a bluegrass fan or pickers, there’s an opportunity nearly every Saturday all year round to make and listen to bluegrass. The Rivertown Bluegrass Society meets on the third Saturday of each month in the Burroughs and Chapin Auditorium of Horry-Georgetown Technical College along U.S. Route 501 just east of Conway, SC. Jamming begins at around 3:00 PM, there’s an hour of open stage at 5:00, and three bands begin their shows starting at 6:00. The evening winds up shortly after 9:00 and everyone can be home in bed by ten. This pattern is repeated at bluegrass societies across the country, and this, truly, is where bluegrass lives.

A drought has been plaguing the southeast, so it’s hard to begrudge the region this much needed rain, but a chilly rain fell all day Saturday and it was hard to get out and get going. Inside the college, though, the environment was friendly and welcoming. After renewing our membership, buying our tickets, and contributing to the 50/50 drawing and the cake raffle we select our seats and go to find the jamming room. I pull out my banjo, get cold feet and put it back in its case, then pull it out again. After tuning, I take a seat and boom-chuck along as a group of much better pickers sing and pick, choosing four different keys for four successive tunes. It’s good ear practice for me, but I really can’t keep up. I notice other pickers also of lesser experience around the periphery, but there’s no place for a slow jam in this setting. Soon bands begin to come in to warm up and the jam breaks up. Later in the evening I return a couple of times and there’s always a group in the small room jamming as well as folks listening appreciatively.

In the main auditorium bands began playing at 5:00 o’clock sharp. Since there were four of them, each only had about fifteen minutes on stage, but that gave them a chance to perform and the audience an opportunity to hear local friends and pickers in front of a microphone. It also served as an opportunity for some performers to warm up, as they were members of bands on the regular lineup. At six, McRoy Gardner, vice-president of the Society, introduced the Toby Creek Bluegrass Band. This band, hailing from the Charlotte, NC area is a relatively new combination of pickers, all of whom are pretty experienced. Due to the injury of their mandolin player, Bob Toppin, who played in four different configurations on Saturday night, filled in. This band played a selection of bluegrass standards leavened with a healthy dose of bluegrass gospel competently as the audience filed into the auditorium.

The next group provided the musical highlight of the evening. Bill Jordan and Southern Bluegrass is based in Fayetteville, NC. The band presents itself well and chooses its music from well-known standards leaning toward groups like Seldom Scene and The Country Gentlemen which were ground breakers in bringing bluegrass into the modern era during the sixties and seventies. As with many bands appearing at such events, this band does not have much of a web presence, making it difficult to gather information about them. Bob Jordan, on bass, is the senior member, although band-mate and long time friend Al Callahan serves as emcee and lead singer while playing a solid rhythm guitar. Callahan has a pleasing stage presence and keeps the act moving along. Southern Bluegrass features two players worth mentioning. Joe Pessalano plays a clear, well-modulated mandolin and sings both lead and harmony as well as contributing to the emceeing chores. He’s young and is worth keeping an eye on. J.K. Godbold is an accomplished banjo player and contributes a strong stage personality, too. The two combined on rousing versions of Blackberry Blossom and Dueling Banjos. Godbold’s humorous efforts to mimic the guitar line culminating in the familiar race-off at the end were effective and interesting. Rocky Springs on Dobro put in a guest stint on Blackberry Blossom. Groups like this can be found throughout the bluegrass world; people with day jobs who play at a level just below the touring bands, but know the music, the audience, and how to perform. Bluegrass music provides such an uncertain income and transitory lifestyle that making the decision to become a touring player represents a big risk and significant downside.

Mickey Sellers (Rivertown Board Pres.) Recieve
Recognition from Vietnam Vets

Palmetto Bluegrass
Palmetto Bluegrass, a local group made up of pickers from Horry and nearby Georgetown counties, was the final group on the bill. With McRoy Gardner acting as emcee for the group as well as for the entire evening, Palmetto Bluegrass offered a country flavored bluegrass often favored by local folks. Banjo-guitarist David Smith, familiar to those attending jams at Rivertown, picks well and has a fine high baritone singing voice with a crooner timbre and a little vibrato, unusual for bluegrass singers. He offered a banjo composition of his own called “Mexican Bluegrass” that had a distinctly south-of-the-border sound to it. His granddaughter, Cameron Oviedo, sings a competent country song and very good harmonies while supporting the bands rhythm on the mandolin. Kenny Cameron plays a solid bass and offered a really amusing shaggy dog story that’s better heard than described. A highlight of this band was Bob Toppin flat picking a resonator guitar. Toppin has had a long career in bluegrass, leading service bands and spending a good deal of time as a sideman in Nashville before settling in Conway. His work on the round neck resonator tuned to a regular guitar tuning raised the question of why more bluegrass flatpickers don’t choose this option as way to get more high quality sound from their instruments. Toppin is likely to throw in humorous musical motifs at any time, bringing happy chuckles from those listening carefully.

The evening ended with a Grand Finale, a feature reaching back to the earliest days of bluegrass festivals, when Bill Monroe would get on stage and narrate the history of bluegrass music by bringing living legends to the stage to play. These finales would culminate in a large and exciting jam. The Rivertown program ended with a finale which filled the stage as performers and audience alike joined in singing “Will the Circle be Unbroken.” These events often end with an extended drawing for cakes donated by members, the 50/50 drawing, and other door prizes. This rather quaint effort helps support the event while giving attendees a chance to get something back besides the music. At large festivals, the 50/50 can rise to substantial numbers. Local bluegrass societies offer lots of inexpensive entertainment, provide musicians a place to pick together, and create a family environment for an enjoyable time. Rivertown has expanded its offerings with a couple of small one-day festivals and picking days combined with church suppers. If you’re visiting in an unfamiliar area, whether it’s California, New England, Florida, Minnesota, Ohio, or Texas, Googling the local bluegrass Society or Association is likely to yield lots chances to listen or participate. Give it a try.