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Bluegrass 101

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Here is a familiar sight at most all bluegrass festivals. What's a bluegrass festival, you might ask? It's where hillbillies go on weekends, particularly hillbillies with Winnebagos full of Budweiser and banjos. Those of lesser means arrive in cars next to which they set up "camp" consisting of a tent, folding table, lawn chairs, ice chest, Coleman stove and Coleman lantern. Some of these camps even have quaint little names like "Camp Chardonnay" and "Camp Rude," which are quite prestigious and sought-after places to be at 3:00 in the morning when it's impossible to sleep because the entire campground is literally crawling with "pickers" (bluegrass musicians) exhibiting varying degrees of ability and inebriation.

And here begins your education in the world of bluegrass festivals. They are great places to go, even if you don't have a porch, let alone three dogs. You can take your kids there. You can relax and be entertained there. You can forget about your job there. You can make a lot of new friends there. You can take on a new appreciation for an interesting form of music there. There are just a few things you need to know before you go to your first one so you fit right in.

Let's begin with a bit of vocabulary. "Pick." That's both a noun and a verb. The gerund would be "pickin'." The third-person noun person who's doing the verb part, i.e. the musician, would be a "picker." The noun part, at least as regards a banjo, guitar, mandolin or Dobro, would be the singular "pick" or the plural "picks." To get real nitpicky, one uses fingerpicks and a thumbpick for banjo and Dobro and sometimes guitar. One uses a flatpick for mandolin and guitar.

Bluegrass instruments (5-string banjo, guitar, stand-up bass, fiddle, mandolin, and sometimes Dobro) are acoustic instruments. This means that you don't have to plug them in anywhere, which is very convenient at a bluegrass festival where the nearest wall socket is probably three miles away. This is one major difference between a bluegrass festival and a rock concert. Rock musicians have to have electricity in order to be heard which is why you never hear them jamming in the middle of a campground (thank goodness). Bluegrass musicians do use microphone amplification on stage so they can be heard in a large area, but they can also be heard acoustically in jam sessions without any electricity at all.

Needless to say, the stage isn't the only place where music happens at a bluegrass festival, but the stage line-up is supposedly what brings the hillbillies out of the hills. Believe it or not, there are dozens and dozens of bluegrass bands who tour all over the U.S. and even the world and actually make a living doing it. Certainly not a living like, say, Michael Jackson makes, but a living nonetheless.

So, several famous bands and several not-so-famous bands are generally hired to play at a bluegrass festival. They perform on a big outdoor stage in the middle of a big field. The band members are mostly men (hence band names like "The [Your Home Town Here] Boys") and they usually wear matching three-piece polyester suits and loud ties and great big cowboy hats. The festivalgoers wear shorts and bluegrass-oriented T-shirts. (You should buy such a T-shirt as soon as you arrive at the festival so you don't stick out like a sore thumb wearing a shirt that says something like "Hewlett-Packard.") The audience sits in their low- backed lawn chairs atop their blankets out in the big field, and right smack dab in the middle of the audience is the soundman who is visible from anywhere so that everyone can give him dirty looks until he stops the guitar from feeding back and gets the fiddle mike working. Sometimes this only takes an hour or two. Sometimes it takes an entire weekend. Sometimes it never gets straightened out at all.

The bands start playing at about 9 or 10 in the morning, and the stage music continues until around 10 at night, with short breaks for meals and workshops. Some people actually sit there in the middle of the big field all day and only get up to buy a burrito or visit the fiberglass one-holer. They have no idea where their kids are, and they don't really care either. (The kids are probably down by the lake listening to heavy metal on the radio and trying to rollerblade in the mud.)

(picture of campsite jam coming soon)

Even though the stage music goes on all day, there is still a lot of other music happening throughout the campground. As you walk from the big field to your campsite to restock your rations, you'll probably pass six or seven "jam sessions" where people are "pickin'." Sometimes these people don't even know each other. How are total strangers able to just up and pick with each other like that, you ask? Well, seeing as bluegrass is not exactly your everyday form of music, it has a somewhat limited repertoire. There are "standards" which virtually every picker knows how to play - for example, "Rocky Top," "Fox on the Run" and "Salt Creek." (By the way, these are not good songs to request from the stage bands. And never, ever, request "Dueling Banjos" from anybody.)

Occasionally, some of the members of the famous bands come out to jam with the festivalgoers in the wee hours of the morning. This is because the famous bands travel around in big buses which are littered with smelly socks and dirty dishes, and the famous musicians need to get out of there occasionally in the interests of their health. Fact is, even though it's very nice of these famous musicians to come out and pick with the public, they're really out in search of free beer and food, so be prepared to oblige them if they show up at your camp.

Some bluegrass songs have lyrics and some are instrumentals. At jam sessions, each picker gets to "take a break" (play a solo) on the instrumental tunes, sometimes even two breaks each. If there are more than five pickers at a jam, as there often are, one instrumental can last for about half an hour. If nothing else, this is good physical exercise for the pickers.

As for bluegrass lyrics, most all bluegrass songs are about things like cabins and mountains and mules and train wrecks and bludgeoning one's girlfriend to death. Some songs, particularly those written by a fellow named Jimmy Martin, are virtually incomprehensible. Among Jimmy Martin's classics are such songs as "I Pulled a Boo Boo," "Skip, Hop and Wobble, Rattle, Ramble and Roll, "Goin' Ape," and "Singing All Day and Dinner on the Ground." Enough said.

(picture of really gross ice chest coming soon)

By the third day of a festival, a noticeable odor hovers over the festival grounds. There is no more ice in the ice chests, and some ice chests even have warm, waterlogged baloney and cheese floating in them. Because hot water, if available at all, is usually in very short supply, showers occur less frequently than one might like, particularly considering the dust. And, depending on the efficiency of the festival staff, the fiberglass one-holers on Sunday are either just barely tolerable or entirely out of the question.

I once arrived at a festival after it had been in progress for several days. I stood next to a man who looked as though he had been there for quite some time. He started sniffing the air, sniff-sniff to one side, sniff-sniff to the other, and then he turned to me and asked, "Did you just get here?" I told him I had. "I knew it. I thought I smelled soap."

There is also a general sense of sleep-deprivation as the festival draws to a close. Because of the incessant jamming, most festivalgoers are only able to get two or three hours of sleep per night. If you must get a good night's sleep, you would be well- advised to stay in a motel, but don't tell anyone and don't use too much soap.

You're now just about ready to fit right in at a real bluegrass festival. There are just a few phrases you need to master first. If you practice these over and over, no one will ever know you're not a real hillbilly.

(Audio files under construction.)

Phrase #1: "Let's go check out them pickers over there."

Phrase #2: "Nobody can pick a banjer like Earl." ("Earl," not to be confused with "URL," refers to Earl Scruggs, the world's most famous banjo player who frequently appeared on the "Beverly Hillbillies" TV show.)

Phrase #3: "That guy can flat walk that bass."

Phrase #4: (Roll your eyes and say this after someone plays a really hot guitar break:) "I could do that."

Phrase #5: (Whenever anyone mentions Bill Monroe, who is known as the "Father of Bluegrass Music" and whose name is dropped all the time, say this:) "Bill who? HAR HAR HAR!"

Finger Picks

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