Music in the Park: Discovering the story of Bluegrass

Imagine you are on a hike.  Covid has made the restaurants and the shops an uncomfortable option. So you seek the sunshine and fresh air.  You are walking a dirt path through a park surrounded by green in all of its shades.  As the path widens into an open patch of dirt and grass, you begin to hear a rich harmony and the unmistakable sound of a bass.  In the clearing, you stumble upon a couple of dozen people (some in lawn chairs) with five or six playing away on a guitar, a fiddle, a mandolin, a banjo, and a bass.  It’s bluegrass music in the park. It’s the sound of mountains and country and a bygone era. It’s Bluegrass Music in its most traditional, quintessential form, and everyone is loving it.  There is a distinctive feeling of warmth and community that you’ve been missing during these quarantined, socially distanced months.  So, you count out your six feet and plop down to listen.  For a moment, all feels right in the world.

Hesitantly, you draw your phone from your back pocket and join a few other spectators in photographing the musicians.  As they begin to wrap, the friendly bass player whose name is Seven, thanks the audience for listening. You mention to Seven that perhaps there is a story to be told here.  You go back the next week to hear it.

Seven with his Bass: Photo Courtesy of Eileen Swenson

Communities through music in the park

Many of us are aware that Covid-19 has hit the live music industry hard.  Bluegrass Music, an historically-significant genre that is increasingly rare in its traditional form, has felt this impact in striking ways.  Jeff Westerinen has been part of the Bluegrass Music Industry for over forty years.  He plays the bass, guitar, mandolin, banjo and fiddle.  He is the bandleader of the Blue Octane Bluegrass Band. He is also the chief business strategist for the Charm City Bluegrass Festival out of Baltimore, MD. 

Jeff Westerinen on Fiddle. Photo courtesy of Eileen Swenson

Jeff (JW) talked with Artistic Fuel (AF) about the impacts of COVID, the history of Bluegrass, and how he sees it evolving today.

A conversation with Jeff Westerinen about bluegrass music in the park

AF:  We know that COVID restrictions have hurt the live music scene particularly badly.  With the closing of venues and festivals, many have gone out of business and lost their livelihoods.  How has Bluegrass been impacted by this specifically?

JW: We had to cancel our festival in Baltimore for 2020 and 2021.  Additionally, a number of the jams I played with stopped meeting, and of course countless performances were canceled.  Like many bands, Blue Octane has not performed in public for more than a year and those that depend on live performances of music to make a living have had their careers turned upside down by the Covid restrictions. The inability to get together is problematic because Bluegrass is not learned or played the way musicians typically learn music. The lion’s share of bluegrass musicians do not read music. It does not translate very well on paper. So it’s learned by imitation and practice with other people who play. There are about two hundred standard tunes that all Bluegrass players know.  Getting together and playing with people is primarily how the music continues.  There are now ways to learn on YouTube and through online subscriptions that are very good. 

However, this is physically demanding music and it is very hard to play.  For example, I’ve seen a few Bluegrass musicians switch over and play top 40 rock music or country music quite easily, but few rock musicians seem to be able to successfully switch into Bluegrass. The timing and syncopation aspects have to be right and the dexterity and ability to pull a good tone from a non-electric instrument makes it a challenge. Timing is extremely important and that is best practiced in a group.

AF: Can you tell us a little bit about where Bluegrass Music came from?

JW: Bill Monroe introduced Bluegrass music on December 8th in 1945 at the Grand Ole Opry.  He brought together the fiddle, the mandolin, the guitar, the bass and the banjo. Those five instruments were and remain (with the addition of the Dobro), the bluegrass instruments.   The banjo, an instrument that had its origin in Africa in Gourd banjos, made way for an element of African-American blues, to what was previously called Hillbilly music.   

Earl Scruggs brought the three-finger banjo picking technique to Bluegrass music. He was able to get a very syncopated style and gives the music a driving beat. Without the banjo played in this particular style, most people would not recognize the music as Bluegrass. Scruggs had machine-gun like timing precision and set the bar for all future Scruggs-style banjo players.

 Prior to that the banjo was played mostly in a clawhammer style.  This is what you heard in what we call Hillbilly Music at the time, or String Band Music. That is really a confluence of the Scots Irish who came from Scotland through Ulster in Ireland. They migrated to the United States during the potato famine in the 1840s and beyond into Appalachia.  There are also various string bands that came out of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, which featured the fiddle. People would play a fiddle at a barn dance in the late 1800s and everyone would dance. The banjo was played with an old-time technique called a claw hammer style. This grew into the String Band music, which was typically a guitar, a claw hammer banjo, and fiddle. They added the bass later on.

AF: I read that Bluegrass Music is very specific to a geographic area.  For example, there are some songs played in certain areas that are not played in others.  You are located in Maryland. Can you tell us a little bit about the Bluegrass scene in that area?

JW: The Maryland region has a thriving Bluegrass scene, at least before COVID hit.  There were regular Bluegrass jams that I played in every week, and more than a few venues that featured bands playing live Bluegrass music.  A lot of the people from Appalachia in the 30s, 40s and 50s migrated from that area to the northeast of Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania area for jobs. Baltimore drew people for work and they brought the music. This also happened in southern Michigan and southern Ohio. There’s a lot of people around here that have bluegrass connections. I think most of the traditional bluegrass gets handed down from generation to generation. It is what academics would call a “folk tradition” and that is how I learned. I learned from my family, my cousin was the one that got me in the music. I had a couple of uncles who played and a very close friend that influenced me when I was in my late teens.

AF: What do you remember about how Bluegrass music influenced your family life?

JW: We would have these huge family picnics when I was growing up, where four or five family members or friends would come and play. And there were maybe as many as sixty people eating crabs or roasting a hog and listening to music.  It happened most often during the summer, but this also happened in my family over holidays as well. My wife learned to play the Bass before we got married. I showed her some basic technique on the bass and she took it from there. My daughter would also occasionally sing with my band.

AF: How is Bluegrass evolving and how are its original traditions preserved?

JW: Traditional bluegrass is very specific.  It has the five instruments I previously mentioned and maybe a Dobro. It also features a specific style of singing and very tight three-part harmony singing.  So, this is really specific and the reason I say traditional bluegrass is because people are taking the term “bluegrass” and they’re broadening it out a bit.

Historically, there have been two different communities which is somewhat of an oversimplification, but there are traditionalists and there are progressives or alternative players.  Traditionalists are very interested in preserving the music and preserving the feel and the timing. They will write new material and the subjects will be based around traditional themes such as mountain life. Many traditional bands will perform in “hats and ties” and aim to play Bluegrass the way it was played in the past.  Some of the bands that play this way are, Ralph Stanley II and the Clinch Mountain Boys, The Crowe Brothers, Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass, and the Earls of Leicester. 

But there’s a variety of progressive branches now that are taking the music in all different directions.  This upsets hardcore traditionalists who feel the music is being destroyed.  However, these new branches of Bluegrass call a lot of attention to Bluegrass music in general.

I break these groups into several sub-categories including, Contemporary Bluegrass, Progressive Bluegrass, and Alternative Bluegrass and Americana. Examples of Contemporary Bluegrass include, The Seldom Scene and Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. Well-known Progressive Bluegrass bands include The Punch Brothers and Alison Brown Quartet.  Alternative Bluegrass and Americana is the broadest term that I use for the groups that can be difficult to classify.  Examples of these sorts of bands include Alison Krauss and Union Station, Della Mae and Front Country.

Most recently, there has evolved a branch of Bluegrass that people are calling “Jamgrass.” This features players who are often quite young and typically plug their instruments in directly to an amplifier (as opposed to the more traditional approach of using an instrumental mic). The material that is performed tends to have much more contemporary themes than traditional bluegrass – there can be original tunes, or songs brought over and adapted from various rock and other genres. This sub-genre has exploded recently and now attracts many more people to concerts and festivals than strictly traditional bluegrass.

JW: We throw a festival in Baltimore called “The Charm City Bluegrass Festival,” and it is the jamgrass form that attracts thousands of people while the traditionalist form attracts a few hundred.  The great thing about the festival is that the jamgrass people get to hear and appreciate the traditional forms of the music and vice versa.  I am a traditionalist and contemporary bluegrass performer, but intellectually, I appreciate the jamgrass and the other more progressive forms.  I saw a band from Korea playing a progressive form of Bluegrass and it was really interesting to see how the music evolves and travels.

In terms of preserving the music, I have recorded six CDs over the years, but even that format is going away, being replaced by streaming services like Spotify and YouTube.   So we are doing a lot of filming and live streaming of performances.  I use a single camera but it has some sophisticated features that allow me to create some good quality videos.  We put these out on social media and Youtube. 

Jeff Westerinen joins in during a jam in the park. Video by Eileen Swenson

As the country enters its recovery phase from the Covid-19 pandemic, the long-term effects of quarantine conditions are still unknown.  Countless business strategists and soothsayers are anticipating and predicting adaptations and human habits that are likely to remain permanent.  For example, the trend towards streaming services was amplified and accelerated in such a way that it is unlikely to reverse. What does this mean?

It means that the in-person entertainment that we engaged in both enthusiastically and organically, might become something we have to do with intention and commitment, -if we want to keep it.  We love our pjs and delivered food and comfortable couches, but there are soul-nourishing benefits that cannot be delivered through a screen.

The communal energy and connection generated from the playing of beloved music for an appreciative crowd have no digital substitute. Bluegrass Music, born on the porches of country people isolated from the rest of the world, is a poignant and meaningful urging to find our communities again.   So, go for a walk through the woods.  You never know what treasures will appear.

Co-Authored by Eileen Swenson and Betsy Scotto-Lavino with special thanks to Jeff Westerinen for his editorial contributions.

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