Learning to Play a Little Bluegrass Might Do You Good
The Myth: Bluegrass music grew organically from the hills and hollers of Appalachia. It is the province of the rural South, where people grew up listening to it, picked up instruments that happened to be lying around the house, and began playing the music they had heard all their lives.
The Truth: Bluegrass music can begin with three chords and a song. Almost anyone who hears its catchy rhythms and intricate improvisational interplay can enjoy making bluegrass with others who are so inclined. Bluegrass offers a world of music that captures those who listen to it, encouraging everyone to join in.
Bluegrass is as old as a tune, and as new as tomorrow. It can run the gamut of skillfulness in the same way that skipping a stone across a pond can lead to pitching in the major leagues.
I suspect that most people who learn to play an instrument in America begin in elementary school programs with singing and simple blowing and striking instruments. It’s a shame that school music — and physical education — programs have diminished, often being seen as unnecessary and expensive extravagances in these competitive days of big sports and marching bands. School boards seem to ignore the fact that music provides huge learning and social benefits to both body and mind. Nonetheless, there are some schools that offer bluegrass music as part of their programs.
In Centerville, Ohio, Doug Eyink has built an enthusiastic string ensemble called the Centerville HS Alternative Strings to play bluegrass music he’s transcribed. In this video, they play at Musicians Against Childhood Cancer, an annual benefit festival for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital held in Columbus, Ohio, with Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out.
Never mind that some of the most engaged people I know are avocational musicians who devote major time and effort to learning to play a multitude of instruments, while becoming teachers, doctors, lawyers, and even high-level musicians. Some even become professionals. As populations have moved from rural/agricultural to suburban and urban settings, learning an instrument has become more institutional and organized. This column focuses on some examples of places you can easily become involved in acoustic music, especially bluegrass music.
Perhaps the prototype bluegrass development program grew out of a small music shop in Tampa, Florida, owned by Tom Henderson, called the Bluegrass Parlor. Asked to provide some music for a country show in Tampa, Henderson, who is also a radio disc jockey, put together a group of performers for the show that succeeded expectations. They were called the Bluegrass Parlor Band.
The Bluegrass Parlor offered an instrumental program that developed players like David Crowe — former IBMA board chairman as well as a Nashville attorney — and Aubrey Haynie, who is one of the busiest and most respected fiddle players in country and bluegrass music. More recent graduates include brothers Cory, Jarrod, and Tyler Walker (Cory and Jarrod are now on tour), as well as dozens of people who are now primarily recreational pickers and still involved in music. Sadly, changes in the city of Tampa and Tom Henderson’s passing led to the closing of the Bluegrass Parlor.
After running a retail music shop in the Charleston suburb of Monck’s Corner, South Carolina, Chip Chipman now runs the Bluegrass Academy there. He writes, “I retired four and a half years ago and closed the retail operations because I had so many students. The store conflicted with teaching, which has always been my passion. I have three other part-time teachers assisting me now. The students range 5 to 85 years old. We are now in a stand-alone building, with four separate teaching areas.” Chipman is the recipient of South Carolina’s Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award for his advocacy of bluegrass music.
In a more urban setting, the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago is a renowned center for spreading music and teaching folk traditions, practically from birth to the grave. It’s catalog shows 19 different classes relevant to bluegrass music within its huge scope. A look at the school’s catalog gives an idea. Greg Cahill, long-time leader of Special Consensus and another former IBMA board chairman, frequently offers workshops and classes there. Here’s a list of bluegrass classes being offered at Old Town this year.
John Prine was an early participant in Old Town School of Folk Music, while he was still a mailman living in the Chicago suburbs. Banjoist Ben Wright of Henhouse Prowlers studied there too.
“The Old Town School is indeed where I learned to play the banjo,” Wright told me in an email. “I happened by the store one day with some money burning a hole in my pocket and spotted a banjo in the window. Within a week I was signed up for lessons, and, little did I know, on my way to a career in bluegrass music. The OTS is a role model for a lot of schools across the country and even the world, I believe. They have weekly jam sessions and bulletin boards specifically set up to help people find other musicians to play [with or] start a band with.
“I think places like the Old Town School are crucial for budding musicians,” he adds. “I travel the world playing music now and people always balk at the fact that we’re from Chicago. [They ask,] ‘Isn’t that a blues city?’ With the Old Town School and other resources — like Down Home Guitars in the suburb of Frankfort — it really gives people that want to learn a way to find other people to play with. Nothing makes you improve faster that playing with other musicians.”
Since February, I’ve written two specific columns about learning to play bluegrass: one on jamming and, last week, I focused on the importance of the family band. It’s clear that bluegrass is deeply woven into the musical fabric of not only America, but, now, the world. The European World of Bluegrass is an active organization associated with IBMA, and there is an active bluegrass festival and performance world from the British Isles to Eastern Europe, behind what was once called the Iron Curtain. Meanwhile, a bluegrass subculture has existed in Japan since World War II. Some of our biggest stars in country music, as well as rock and roll, have been influenced by bluegrass: George Jones, Mick Jagger, Dolly Parton, Patty Loveless, Jason Isbell, and many more. Bill Monroe and those following him have been influential.
A quick Google search reveals the number, variety, and cost of using your computer to help you learn to play a bluegrass instrument. My search was done for guitar, but searches for mandolin, banjo, bass, fiddle, or Dobro yield plenty of beginner help.
Scientific evidence, particularly the work of Daniel Levitin and Oliver Sacks, suggests that music supplies physical and neurologcal benefits way beyond merely giving pleasure. So pick up a bluegrass instrument, learn to play three chords, start to sing a little, go to a festival this summer, discover the fun, jam a little, go to a slow jam workshop, play and sing with others, allow the some version of bluegrass music to infect your soul. You’ll find yourself smiling more often and maybe even feeling better about humanity.