Communities in Focus: Bluegrass

Community Coordinator Trisha Tubbs gives us the scoop on local bluegrass.

Jamming at the 2010 Wintergrass Festival; photo © Bellevue.com

Jamming at the 2010 Wintergrass Festival; photo © Bellevue.com

Who is your community?
The Bluegrass community is a diverse group of people who share the common bond of loving bluegrass music, love to play the music (at least 50% of bluegrass fans also play/jam), and love being a part of the Bluegrass community. Fans range in age from 3 years old to over 90 years. It’s not uncommon to see three or four generations of people having a great time jamming together. Although its roots are in the agricultural culture of the Southeast, the community is comprised of people from all walks of life. Loggers, college professors, carpenters, judges, teachers, students, retirees, ethnomusicologists, professional musicians (besides bluegrass, many fans are country, rock, pop, and jazz musicians….and even classical musicians such as Yo Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer), etc.  A surprising number of bluegrass people are professors and/or are in the computer/software industry. Some of these people grew up with the music, while others came into it with the Folk boom or through friends or through TV programs or movie soundtracks (O Brother Where Art Thou, Bonnie and Clyde, Deliverance, etc.) Politically it has a double skew (both conservative and liberal). Demographic studies show that bluegrass fans are more educated than the norm, they tend to be more interested in gardening than normal. The community has strong values (community, faith, helping others, environment).

The music also has a growing international fan base, particularly in Europe, Japan, and Australia. While not mainstream in the Black and Hispanic cultures, there has been a growing fan base in these cultures, too, mainly with those who love diverse music and acoustic stringed instruments.  It appeals to people of all skill levels because it is easy for a beginner to pick up, yet expert musicians love it because its improvisational breaks provide a way for a musician to showcase his/her expertise. For vocalists, it provides a great outlet, too, often with thrilling three and four part harmonies. There’s a lot of variety in the music……Gospel, waltzes, hard-driving, heavy jazz influence, acoustic country, etc.

Bluegrass Regulators' Luke Dewhirst

Luke Dewhirst of The Bluegrass Regulators

What can audiences at the Festival expect to experience at your showcase?
An exciting range of styles showcasing some of the top bands in the Northwest and the diversity of styles that they represent.  We will be starting with some of the roots of bluegrass… folk/Appalachia/duets/harmonies starting with Cliff Perry and Laurel Bliss. Down the Road is a trio who will reflect the transition into bluegrass with a combination of Carter Family, old time acoustic country, folk and bluegrass songs.  Northern Departure will showcase a combination of the youth in bluegrass movement (hot pickers!) and traditional bluegrass with some contemporary and pop influences. The last band, The Bluegrass Regulators, is the youngest band and shows the future of where bluegrass is going.  These are award winning pickers with a very sophisticated sound…incredible musicians and singers.

How long has your community been involved with Northwest Folklife?
The bluegrass community has been involved with Northwest Folklife since its inception. Phil and Vivian Williams helped to found Northwest Folklife and the Seattle Folklore Society.  They have been involved with the Seattle and Darrington bluegrass communities for many years, as well as with other music communities such as the Old Time Fiddlers and contra dancers.

How did you first get involved?
I first went to Northwest Folklife when we moved to the Seattle area in 1979. We took our instruments with us and met folks to jam with. My husband then played with several bands and started performing at Northwest Folklife. I’ve been a volunteer for so long I can’t remember how I started getting involved, but at some point thought there needed to be a bluegrass showcase concert since a number of other genres had special showcases at Northwest Folklife.

How are younger or newer folks getting involved?
Young people get involved in many different ways. Some of them are taken to festivals by their parents and grandparents, and join the jams. Some are in family bands and have been on stage since they could barely walk. Many festivals have youth bluegrass workshops or camps. Many people get involved because their friends are involved, and they find a welcoming community. There are a lot of baby boomers who are getting involved in the music. These are people who have more free time now that their children are out of the house, and they find that they have the time to pick up an instrument. They find that it’s easy to get started in bluegrass music and that there are jams every week throughout the state, as well as private jamming parties. Many of the festivals have “slow jams” and beginner workshops, which helps them to meet other beginners. There are also a number of bluegrass camps that take place, some bluegrass courses at experimental colleges, and a couple of bluegrass courses at Shoreline Community College.

Three things you’d like people to know about your community and your cultural traditions and arts:
1.       This is a great community that cherishes the tradition of its music while also appreciating innovation; it welcomes newcomers and encourages beginners, while it also embraces stellar musicianship (some of the top musicians in the world are bluegrass musicians); and it loves its music, especially singing and playing; musicians jam all night long when they get together.
2.       Bluegrass is a uniquely American music named after a person, Bill Monroe. The roots of the music, though, come from Anglo/Celtic music, Southern gospel, African spirituals, African banjo, jazz, folk and pop.  It is a roots/folk music that is most frequently learned by ear and/or are taught to others by pointing out the chords to be played based on the Nashville chord numbering convention.
3.       The bluegrass community is very family oriented.  Festivals involve lots of campers with jams at different campsites, or if indoors, jams in every nook and cranny (halls, elevators, hotel room, etc.). They’re great places for people of all ages to roam around in a safe environment. 

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Bluegrass: Hot Pickin’ and Harmonies at the Northwest Folklife Festival
Saturday, May 29 | 7-10pm
Bagley Wright Theatre

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