Pick and grin
Northern Nevada Bluegrass Association all-level jam
A young bearded man tuned his mandolin as two fiddlers chatted, occasionally running a bow across their strings. An elderly man sat, resting his guitar on his lap, while a woman knitted quietly nearby. It was Maytan Music Center on a Tuesday night in early March, and these musicians, like the two dozen others who sat in a circle of chairs with guitars, banjos and even an upright bass, were here for the all-level bluegrass jam held the first Tuesday of the month by the Northern Nevada Bluegrass Association. It’s a busy group, holding classes, concerts, a summer Americana music festival in Virginia City, and year-round workshops. But NNBA is also a nonprofit, and part of its mission is to educate, as this free jam quickly demonstrated.
Bluegrass players, despite the down-home nature of the music they love, have what’s perhaps an unfair reputation of being elitist. There are those who ascribe to “strictly bluegrass” and bristle at the notion that casual listeners would place Bill Monroe and, say, Yonder Mountain String Band within a moonshine drop of each other and call them both “bluegrass.” So an inexperienced player may find the idea of coming to jam with them intimidating.
This jam, however, was about as intimidating as a cotton ball. If you know a few basic chords on an instrument and want to learn, you will be heartily welcomed here.
“This stuff is easy to learn,” said Cindy Gray of the NNBA and Traditional American Music Project (TRAMP). “The music has a tradition of being passed person to person on the front porch. It’s not about being a virtuoso.”
The group holds other, more advanced jams throughout the year, but this one is for “beginner-beginners” and “beginner-intermediates,” who met together briefly to hear about upcoming events like classes, picnics and the evening’s songs before heading off into separate rooms.
The basic jam format went like this: Someone selected a song—“Wabash Cannonball,” “Grandfather’s Clock.” Everyone played as the song made a round. Players took turns taking the lead; if you didn’t want to lead when it was your turn, you just shook your head to be skipped. No shame. To indicate the end of a song, someone, usually whoever started the song, kicked their foot in the air.
While the intermediate group had an informal, church social feel to it, the beginner group had a more instructive tone. The beginners were even in a room decorated for children, with drawings and hula hoops along the walls, adding to the novice-level feel. The instruments were a bit more out of tune, the pace slower, as Gray coaxed beginners along. It was truly a place to learn, where mistakes were not only accepted, but expected.
Dave Stover, in the beginner-beginner group, has been coming to these jams for about a year and also takes Gray’s guitar classes. Dressed in slacks and a button-down shirt, he looked like he just came here from his office job, which he had. His neat folder of music contained “St. Anne’s Reel,” a sweet little song he’s been practicing at home and brought back to the group to play in a jam setting.
“You know what’s different about bluegrass?” he says. “It seems to me, it’s about playing with other people. I don’t put on the show, just a small part of the show.”