I am not a fan of country music. However, bluegrass music is a guilty pleasure. I admire the technical skill required to play as fast and as clean as its finest practitioners. I like the twangy two, three or four-part harmonies, collectively referred to as high lonesome harmony. The improvisational character of bluegrass reminds me of jazz.
Bluegrass is rooted in Appalachia. Bluegrass combines old time string music with English and Scottish folk, country,blues, and gospel musical traditions. Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys are widely credited as the genre’s founders. Today, it is an important part of Americana “roots” music.
When I heard there was a bluegrass festival being held in the Tucson area, I mentioned to my friends Ross and Joanne that I planned to attend. My friends agreed that the festival sounded like a good bit of fun, so we made plans to attend the opening day. This past Friday we traveled together from Tucson to Marana, Arizona, located about one hour north from us, to sample the Desert Bluegrass Festival. The Desert Bluegrass Association, a group of local bluegrass aficionados, organizes and operates this small festival.
We arrived at the festival site around noon, but Ross turned out to be wrong about the starting time. We were more than a little bit early.
Several booths lined up in a row appeared to be manned and operating, but we could see that the main stage was still being erected, never a good sign. On three sides of the main stage, tent poles for the shade tents were laid out and arranged on the ground under clear skies and a warm sun. Currently, however, there was no shade from the desert sun. One of the festival volunteers told us the music would begin at 3 p.m., still several hours from now.
Rather than immediately blow off the festival and head back to Tucson, we elected instead to go for lunch and discuss our options. We located a nearby restaurant called the Bisbee Breakfast Club, part of a local chain. It was surprisingly good. Joanne had a late breakfast of blueberry pancakes and bacon that was cooked to perfection. I ordered a generous soup and veggie burger combo with onion rings at no extra charge! I brought home half of my sandwich, a few rings, and the pancakes that Joanne did not eat.
We sat outside at a table under an awning. There was a steady and pleasant breeze. Out of the sun, the weather conditions were delightful. After discussion, we decided that an impromptu luncheon among good friends on such a lovely afternoon was a splendid way to kill a couple hours. Now, it was time for bluegrass.
Back at the festival we were happy to see that in our absence the shade tents had been erected. The main stage was now nearer completion, except for the four large monitors which still had to be wired and mounted to complete a sound system. One of the festival organizers announced that it would be another hour or two before the main stage was fully operational. With these words an image of a fully operational Death Star popped into my head.
Meanwhile, we located a tent with an unobstructed view of the main stage. We set up our folding chairs under its shade. As early arrivals we greeted and hobnobbed with our fellow festival goers. Shortly, what started as a trickle of guests turned into a steady stream. Places under our tent in the shade quickly became sought after prime real estate.
As soon as Ross momentarily stepped away from his chair to stretch his legs, a large man, who looked to be even older than me, appeared suddenly from nowhere. He was accompanied by a heavy-set woman whom I inferred to be his wife. Without saying a word, the man picked up and folded Ross’ lawn chair and tossed it aside. Next, he and his wife plopped themselves down in Ross’ spot. I politely pointed out that our companion was still sitting in this very spot and suggested they should both move before he returned. The woman did not say a word but simply glared at me with a squinting gaze. I could feel her heat. Fortunately, before things could escalate, just then, Ross returned. The man and his wife grudgingly yielded Ross’ spot without a word.
Many of the folks we met had musical instruments. This is common since bluegrass utilizes acoustic musical instruments: guitars, including the resonator guitar known as a dobro, fiddles, mandolins, banjos and, to a lesser extent, percussion instruments. These are portable tools. However, on a trip to the closest public restroom, located about one-quarter mile distant from the main stage, I saw a strapping fellow with a tiny mandolin in one hand walking alongside a tiny woman, who with much effort was lugging a wide-bodied bass fiddle that was nearly as tall as she was. Interestingly, every bass player I would encounter this day would be a female.
Part of the fun of attending a bluegrass festival is the easy camaraderie that comes from singing and jamming with your fellow travelers. In general, it does not matter to us whether you’re a beginner or an advanced player, or whether you can carry a tune. Part of the beauty of a bluegrass festival is that there is room for all. Some folks will camp in tents and trailers, and stay for the entire festival. Most times, you can walk about and hear music being made by strangers.
As the main stage remained under construction, festival organizers invited volunteers from among the early attendees to perform a couple songs for the benefit of the gathering crowd. Volunteers were asked to put their names and preferred musical instruments into a hat. Names were drawn from the hat to create ad hoc performance bands. Each band could include one or more banjo players, guitarists, bass players, percussionists, and vocalists. Predictably, the musical results were decidedly amateurish.
For example, I noticed more than one eager volunteer, who, being seized by an sudden and acute case of stage fright the moment that his or her group was introduced, was rendered unable to sing or play a single note. A few of the designated lead vocalists were just bad singers; others, under the glare of the spotlight, forgot lyrics; some held back from singing as if hoping that somebody else would take the lead. As for the musicians, a few of the best possessed intermediate skills. It was enough to make me wish that I had brought along my guitar to save the day!
Indeed, it got so bad that at one point festival organizers ran out of competent volunteer musicians and had to recall a few of the better ones to fill in musical gaps. The tiny bass player I had spotted earlier was called back for several encores.
Despite a clear dearth of actual musical talent, we spectators cheered on every solo turn and applauded enthusiastically at the conclusion of each song. Finally, when all of the ad hoc groups had finished performing, the festival organizers invited everybody back up for a rousing finale, based on the traditional bluegrass favorite, “Will the Circle be Unbroken?” Evidently there really is strength in numbers because I now could clearly hear several of the vocalists who previously stood mute belting out the familiar lyrics at the top of their lungs. Members of the audience, including me, were moved to join in the song. Now, as the last, slow refrain, ”by and by, Lord, by and by,” faded, we stood on our feet, whooped and cheered. Not great, perhaps, but music to my ears.