Thursday, October 7, 2004

Jam sessions a staple

Bluegrass enthusiasts: 20,000 gather

By Bruce Schreiner
The Associated Press

LOUISVILLE - Francine Michaels was accepted like an old friend as she plopped down by two strangers - a Georgia preacher and a teenager from Canada - and started picking on her mandolin.

Soon, the three were leaning toward each other, their feet tapping in unison - the preacher strumming guitar, the teen playing fiddle.

They shared a musical kinship, and lively bluegrass tunes flowed as if they had played together for years.

"I stopped in here and said, 'Do you mind if I play,' " recalled Michaels, a promoter-songwriter-singer from Tarentum, Pa.

"They were doing such a fine job, and they were in tune, which is very important. And we started jamming."

Spontaneous jam sessions fill hotel hallways with music this week at the annual World of Bluegrass, a seven-day event that draws more than 20,000 people to Kentucky, a state synonymous with bluegrass music.

The impromptu pickin' and singin' lasts well past midnight.

Musicians - professionals and amateurs - stroll the halls of a downtown hotel-convention center, listening to music and looking to join in.

"This is one of the best settings for bluegrass because it's a relaxed atmosphere," said Bull Harman, a guitar player with the Missouri-based bluegrass band Bull Harman and Bull's Eye. "Everybody's like, 'Hey, let's do this one' - and they join in."

Banjo player Craig Korth was welcomed into a jam session, even though another banjo player was already picking.

"What you do is sort of loom for a minute," he said. "You do a little bit of a vulture thing and circle around, and then if someone says, 'Hey, come on,' you join in."

Korth came all the way from Calgary, Alberta, to join in the celebration of music he considers "an American art form."

"In Canada, we totally embrace it and try to play it as true to the original as we can," he said.

Korth, who plays in a group and hosts a bluegrass radio show, said there's no feeling of competition at jam sessions, just camaraderie.

"There's a set of standards that almost everybody knows if you play bluegrass," Korth said. "It's so easy to jam because you just holler out a name and a key, and then you just go because everybody knows it."

Showing off would be worse than hitting a wrong note.

"The only thing you don't want to do is take your instrument out and bash, and just wail on it and make a ton of noise," Korth said.

Down the hall, Michaels strummed bluegrass favorites with the young Canadian fiddle player and the guitar-playing preacher. One selection, "Whiskey Before Breakfast," drew a quick disclaimer from the Presbyterian minister. "I don't recommend that practice," the Rev. Andy Adams of Milledgeville, Ga., said with a smile.

Adams said he takes a week's vacation so he can attend the bluegrass event, figuring to "keep up my skills and meet a lot of friends."

Matt Hotte, the 15-year-old fiddler player from Alberta, said the event was "like Christmas all week."

Their impromptu performance drew admirers who stopped to listen.

Dennis Strope of suburban Louisville said the jam sessions are high quality. "On a scale of one to 10, I'd say it's usually eight to 10."

"It's clean, it's pure," said Strope, a guitar player in a bluegrass band. "It's like a basketball game, if you have two people you have a game. If you have a fiddle and a guitar, you have a game."

The weeklong event includes a trade show, a Fan Fest and the International Bluegrass Music Awards. The events attract plenty of promoters and record company wanting to keep tabs on up-and-coming acts.

The event has been held in Kentucky since it began in 1986, first in Owensboro and then in Louisville. This year's rendition is the last in Louisville; the show moves to Nashville, Tenn., next year.

In the close-knit world of bluegrass, the talk between jam sessions was of gathering in Tennessee in a year to keep the music going.

"I'm sure we'll see each other down the road somewhere, God willing," Michaels said.


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