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Bluegrass shows go on in every corner
Weekend!Nightlife: On the Rocks
“It’s dark as a dungeon way down in the mines,” two men sing, in a sad, wavering harmony. One is playing a fiddle and the other a guitar. They’re standing in a circle of men and women who are strumming and picking along on banjos, Dobros and mandolins. When the song reaches the next chorus, a woman joins in singing as she thrums a standup bass that is a good foot taller than she is.
It’s a moment of poignant communion in the incongruously vast and sterile lobby of the Oregon Convention Center.
It’s Friday afternoon, the first day of the RiverCity Bluegrass Festival, and the huge hall will soon be overrun with fans of local bluegrass, and of headliners Emmylou Harris and Asleep at the Wheel.
What sets these fans apart from those at other music festivals is how many bring their own instruments along with them.
I’m watching the first permutation of what will be an endless grouping and regrouping of sessions during the course of the festival. Kathy Boyd, leader of the band Kathy Boyd & Phoenix Rising, is in charge of the official jams, but others will spring up wherever there’s room, she says.
Later at night, they’ll head over to the Red Lion across the street, where jam circles will fill the bar, overflowing into adjoining conference rooms and blocking traffic in the hallways.
“Jams are a great place to expand yourself,” Boyd says. “It’s a great way to meet people and to learn how to get better on your instrument.”
She points to two men with fiddles who are facing each other in the center of the circle, heads bowed forward, watching each other intently as they play. “The challenge for them is to do something fun like that – not do the same thing the other person’s doing, and not clash either,” she explains, adding that the two fiddlers met for the first time only minutes ago.
Beginners learn at the fringe. . .
Bluegrass draws on a wealth of traditional songs, hymns and well-known standards. Its name comes from Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys, the band that forged the style from earlier American folk music.
The bluegrass instruments of choice are guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, bass and Dobro. Portable and non-electric, they lend themselves to impromptu performance.
“Anybody can come, anybody can play,” Boyd says of a bluegrass jam.
But there are unspoken rules. Participants stand or sit in a circle, and take turns calling out songs and taking the lead. Those who are less confident remain on the outskirts, strumming more quietly and following along.
“Usually what happens in a jam is a group will start – four or five of us – and people will ebb and flow, they come in and leave, they swap instruments,” Boyd says.
As I watch, 9-year-old Dustin Hohl approaches the lively circle of 11 or so adults. He stands at the outer edge of the group, listening and plucking cautiously at a mandolin.
His dad, Jason Hohl, stands farther back, watching. The two of them discovered bluegrass together about a year ago, the elder Hohl says. Dustin wanted to learn fiddle – he’s been taking piano lessons for a whole year in preparation, and he’ll have a fiddle in his hands any day now.
It takes all kinds. . .
Mason Smith also is a relative newcomer; he took his first music lesson two years ago, at the age of 53.
It was gospel music that drew him in. He was starting out on the mandolin, he says, when his music teacher pointed out to him that he could sing. Now he’s a member of the Oregon Bluegrass Association, and is busy promoting an upcoming bluegrass gospel night (7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 20, info at www.oregonbluegrass.org).
He stands out from the crowd in a natty western ensemble. “Some day I want to entertain,” he says, “and if you want to entertain, you gotta look good.”
In his dark western-cut jacket and vintage tie, he forms quite a contrast to the baseball cap, shaggy beard and brightly tie-dyed T-shirt of Tom Tower, a lifelong banjo player.
As a member of Phoenix Rising, Tower is here to jump-start the weekend’s jams, and also to offer a seminar on overcoming stage fright. He’s a professional counselor and a banjo teacher, and the two callings came together when he realized that for some, anxiety is a real barrier to the joy of playing music.
Jams pose no pressure. . .
For the shy, the setup of a bluegrass jam offers a way to sneak up on performance. You can hover on the outskirts, insert yourself by degrees. And of course, everyone else is playing, too.
It’s a supportive environment, yet one that encourages modesty – at the end of a song, no one claps.
Jamming is such an important aspect of a bluegrass festival that some people never even make it to the official performances. They’re too busy out in the lobby (or down the hallway, or over at the campground) teaching each other how to play “Dark as a Dungeon.”
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