A major appeal of the bluegrass scene is the picking. Go to a metal concert, and when the show’s over, it’s likely the live music will stop – drums are packed up, stringed instruments loaded into their cases, the musicians are off to the bar or the tour bus.
Bluegrass is different. Nine out of 10 times when a professional touring bluegrass musician comes off the stage, that musician is likely looking for a pick. Maybe it will happen backstage, at a fan’s house or, if at a festival, the beloved campground.
It’s a major draw to the scene for both musicians and fans, something that continues the sharing of decades-old songs that are valued treasures of the public domain while providing a musical platform that connects musicians and builds community.
“Jamming brings it all together,” said Steve Labowskie, local bluegrass musician and regular late-night festival picker. “It’s keeping the songs and traditions going while still bringing in new life and creativity by bringing in new people.”
The whole jamming scene, however, isn’t easy, nor is it available for anyone with an instrument to go crashing the pick. There are rules and etiquette to acknowledge, nuances that are likely better to learn in the friendly confines of a class and not during a haunting version of “Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake” at 3 a.m. on Reservoir Hill.
Colorado Bluegrass Hall of Honor member Sue Coulter has been a bluegrass educator and jam-leader for close to 30 years. Coulter has organized a bluegrass jamming class taught in downtown Durango; it’s a crucial guidebook to all levels of the bluegrass jam – from the jam-friendly songs to the obvious but to some out-of-reach requirements of playing in time and being in tune. It also serves as a vehicle to help with the biggest obstacle in anyone’s musical path: fear.
“A lot of people are just really afraid, they come to a jam and they’re just petrified to do anything in front of people,” Coulter said. “And so it’s trying to get them comfortable in a jamming situation, and once you get comfortable, then you start having fun. It can be a life-changing experience for people, to come out of the closet or from under the stairs and actually go out and play with people. Bluegrass is community music, it’s not something you do by yourself.”
What this class will accomplish is the opening of musical doors, from helping people get through musical nerves to the building of your musical repertoire. It teaches a universal musical language spoken from festivals in the American West to festivals in Budapest.
“There’s a whole group of standard bluegrass songs that everybody knows,” Coulter said. “You can go to any bluegrass jam in the country or in the world and people will know these songs.”
If anything, the jams serve as a vehicle to keep pushing the music, from turning newbies onto the scene while keeping longtime veterans engaged in the music. The music picked in campgrounds at a festival or at someone’s party after a bluegrass show is at times just as, or more important than, the music heard on a main stage. Its been that way in bluegrass since day one.
“Jams are crucial in helping the beginners learn, and many of us enjoy helping the music be kept alive. However, once you are an accomplished picker, the jams serve as a way of taking the music to a higher place. I don’t know of any form of music where it’s fairly common for an aspiring up-and-comer to tell tales of actually playing with one of their heroes in a jam-type situation,” Labowskie said. “The jam really solidifies the music and the musicians, keeps the music pure while also keeping it vibrant and exciting. You just don’t hear of dubstep jam circles after a show.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.