Out of the blue
The Northern Nevada Bluegrass Society has been showing people what mountain music is all about for 26 years
It was bluegrass jam night at Walden’s Coffeehouse. I unpacked my guitar and joined the players on stage. When I with arrived with my guitar at the first bluegrass night, the “stage” (really just an open area by the front window) at Walden’s was crowded with four guitar players, three banjo players, two mandolin players, two dobro players, a fiddle player and a harmonica player. Throughout the evening, musicians came and went, keeping the number of players constant at around a dozen. People with musical instruments outnumbered those without, and some played along from tables across the room. Snatches of fiddle tunes drifted from corners of the room between songs.
The songs, though unfamiliar to me, seemed easy enough to follow, though the volume created by the large number of musicians made it difficult for me to hear my own guitar. Only by bending over and placing my ear directly in front of my instrument’s sound-hole could I be sure I was playing the correct chords.
I stayed on stage for about five songs, the only one of which I recognized was “Great Speckle Bird.” And I thought I was doing just fine for a boy who’s never been south of the Mason-Dixon Line, even if my strange posture made me appear to suffer from an unfortunate spinal condition.
“That’s a nice instrument,” the musician next to me said of my guitar, between numbers. He offered no similar praise of my playing.
For an open jam with such a large number of participants of widely different skill levels, the performances were surprisingly musical—uptempo and full of guitar and banjo picking. There wasn’t the cacophony of out-of-tune instruments and wrong chords that the phrase “open jam” may call to mind.
Bill McKean, guitarist of bluegrass band Moonlight Hoodoo Revue, later explained to me the reason for this.
“There’s probably 50 or 60 songs … and you learn this repertoire of songs that are standards, and (it’s almost like jazz in this sense) you can pretty much play with anybody,” he says.
So the musicians had been playing on songs to which they had learned the chords to. I, by contrast, had been playing on songs whose names I hadn’t learned.
The grass gets bluer
Once an art form appreciated by a small but loyal audience, bluegrass has gone mainstream in the last several years. And the Northern Nevada Bluegrass Society is thriving.
“In the last three years we’ve put a lot of effort into being more visible. … Our membership has been around two to three hundred for the last few years,” says Don Timmer, president of the NNBA and guitar and mandolin player in the band Wild Creek. Timmer has been with the organization since its inception in 1979, when the association had a scant membership of six.
The NNBA recently qualified for non-profit status. The association is now considered a “public charity for the education of traditional music,” says Timmer. This new status requires that the association emphasize its educational mission. To this end, the NNBA hosts a workshop the first Tuesday of each month at Maytan Music Center. A handful of songs are run through, and attendees split into groups and jam. Timmer describes this program as “Bluegrass 101.” It’s free and open to the public.
Also making good on the NNBA’s status as a “public charity” is the NNBA Volunteer Orchestra, a group with a floating membership of eight or more, which plays free shows every Monday at rest homes. The Volunteer Orchestra also has played at the VA hospital, former Gov. Richard Bryan’s chili feed, the Balloon Races, and for the Washoe County Parks and Recreation Department.
With the new non-profit status, the NNBA will be more eligible for grants and tax-deductible contributions, which the organization can use to help fund, among other projects, its annual Bluegrass Festival. The festival, taking place this August at Bower’s Mansion, is now in its 20th year. Also, the organization is co-sponsoring, with Maytan Music Center, a pair of professional workshops with bluegrass heavyweights Tony Rice and Peter Rowan Feb. 18.
In January, Walden’s Coffeehouse, in Mayberry Landing at the corner of West McCarran Boulevard and Mayberry Drive, began hosting bluegrass nights on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month.
With its specialty boutiques, dog bakery, day spa and upscale clothing stores, Mayberry Landing may not seem the obvious choice for regular performances of mountain music.
But when you go to one of Walden’s bluegrass nights, you’ll find something other than shoeless folks drinking from little brown jugs marked XXX. Instead, you’ll meet well-groomed urbanites toasting this great American art form with lattes and stem glasses of merlot. Remember—this is the 21st century.
The Northern Nevada Bluegrass Association has a Web site (www.nnba.org) and a line of merchandise. Also remember, “Father of Bluegrass” Bill Monroe did his earliest radio performances out of the big city of Chicago. Bluegrass has never really been as hillbilly as some would have you believe. So we’ll have no more cracks about shoeless folks.
Though not an official NNBA event, the Walden’s bluegrass night attracts plenty of the NNBA’s members, and the event is emceed by NNBA Community Outreach officer Cindy Gray.
Certain that it would draw a crowd, Todd South, who’s in charge of booking at Walden’s, has been pushing for a bluegrass night for some time.
“I’ve been asking them to do it at least a year. … Cindy (Gray), she’s the one that made it happen,” South says.
“I knew these people; if they had a place to go, they’d go,” he says.
Two weeks after the jam where I’d tried my hand on stage, Walden’s was host to a bluegrass open-mic night. In a more structured format than the “open jam,” players were welcome to sit in with performers, but during the introduction to the show, NNBA community outreach officer Cindy Gray politely asked that musicians sit out songs they don’t actually know. Point taken.
But there is no judgment of less-than-expert players.
“All levels are welcome, beginners and advanced,” says Bob Kastelic, NNBA member and fiddle player for Moonlight Hoodoo Revue. “We all play together. It’s real friendly and welcoming.”
The age of performers ranged from 10 to 70. The youngest performer was Bethany McHenry, who’s still too small for a full-sized guitar. Her youth lent an extra sadness to the lyrics of “All the Good Times are Past and Gone,” one of the songs she performed with Bob Bailey on banjo and Mike Knapp on mandolin.
“Bluegrass is really inclusive, so you get all generations,” McKean says. “You get older folks playing. You get younger kids. And it’s kind of a nice way to bring people together. The NNBA is getting bigger membership, getting stronger, more mature.”
And so, it seems for those who learn their chords and know a little tradition, all the good times may not be past and gone after all.