I Was Born at a Bluegrass Festival
OK, I wasn’t actually born at a bluegrass festival, although in my memory, I might as well have been. My parents immersed themselves in the bluegrass scene during the mid-1970’s, and took us kids along for the ride. The day after I was born, my dad, after making sure Mom and I were safe and healthy, asked Mom if he could go to a bluegrass festival that weekend. For some unknown reason, Mom agreed to this.
Each year would come and go, and we always ended up at the same festival, camped in the same spot, always right around the time of my birthday. The place we loved was called “Harmony Pines.” It was filled with classic bluegrass festival vibes: RV’s, lawn chairs, a cabin stage, vintage sound system, multi-colored painted buses, sheriff’s deputies on horseback, unattended children, biscuits and gravy, rain, mud, and jam sessions that continued late into the night.
At age 13, I started paying more attention to bluegrass music then I had up to that point, and that winter, I taught myself a little bit of bass and mandolin from instruction books we had lying around the house. By the time we loaded up the car that Memorial Day Weekend, I knew how to play three chords in every key, and was ready to jam.
Because Dad was well-known in the area as a banjo player, I could sit right next to him and get in a lot of great jams, even before I was really ready (although, if you know your chords and can play solid rhythm, you can jam with just about anyone).
The last jam session on Saturday night was the best ones of the whole weekend. As the number of jams whittled down throughout the night, a lot of the best players ended up congregating under the lights of the dining shelter. Somebody would kick-off a song, and we’d tear through extended versions of “Your Love is Like a Flower,” “Nine Pound Hammer,” or “Sally Goodin’.” I was in heaven.
Any casual observer lucky enough to witness this kind of jam session will notice several things. First, there is no written music anywhere in sight. There are no tab books, no red-back hymnals, no bluegrass real books--nothing of the sort. If you brought one to a jam, it wouldn’t help you anyway. By the time the banjo player has kicked off “Little Georgia Rose,” you wouldn’t even have time to check the table of contents to find out what page number it was on.
In jam sessions like these, you’ll see full groups of amatuer musicians playing song after song for hours that they remember from records years ago, and if you sing a song they haven’t heard, they will probably have it down by the second verse. The next thing you’ll notice is that the better players can play a break (bluegrass terminology for a solo) on just about any song.
How can perfectly ordinary factory workers, mechanics, accountants, teachers, politicians, ceo’s, car salesmen, and receptionists know how to play the lead part on dozens, maybe even hundreds of songs? These are ordinary people, working-class, upper-class, lower-class--it doesn’t matter. Hundreds and thousands of people just like you and me with banjos, fiddles, guitars, and mandolins, who somehow know how to play dozens of complex pieces of music from memory, without a single written note in front of them!
After a full weekend of bluegrass fun, I was satisfied, but equally intimidated. That Saturday night jam had taken the wind out of my sails a little bit. Although I could play my chords, and play a few very simple leads, the better players were so good, and so much more advanced than me.
I could not see a path from where I was, to where they were. How was I ever going to get to that level as a musician? It seemed light-years away. On the way home, I expressed how I felt to Dad. What he said next surprised me.
He told me, “Every player has an envelope. It’s like an envelope of licks. You have one, I have one, and so do all those great players. Right now, you know your chords, a few scales, and a couple of fiddle tunes. That’s great--you’ll always have those in your envelope, and you can take them out and use them any time you want. The players that you see that are more advanced have an envelope too, they just have more licks in their envelope.”
That short conversation in the car on the way home changed everything for me. For one, now I understood that I was the same as the advanced players: we both had an envelope of licks. They just had more licks in their envelope. I knew that I could learn licks, I could add to my envelope. I started becoming a collector of licks. I’d hear one I liked on a recording, and I’d try to learn it.
To me, any idea, from any source, was fair game. One time in piano lessons, I found a little G major scale run that I liked, and promptly told my teacher that I was going to take that and use it as a mandolin lick. I’m sure he thought I was crazy, but I didn’t care--I knew what I was looking for. I was in search of licks to use at the next jam session or festival.
Over the years, I’ve delved into a lot of different styles of music. Bluegrass music gave me the foundation and technique to play mandolin and guitar, but as I kept learning, I became interested in the blues, I joined the jazz band in high school, played rock and funk music throughout college, played gospel music at church, and if there was any other style of music I had a chance to play, I would try it (one time I played bass dressed like a rabbit at a children’s concert).
As I got into other styles of music, I found that I needed an entry point. My hard-earned bluegrass licks sounded out-of-place when I played the blues. To get that sound in my ears and in my hands, I needed to learn some authentic blues licks.
I found that learning authentic phrases helped to give me a starting point into different styles of music. First, I had to learn to make sounds similar to what I was hearing played in those styles. Then, my improvisations would sound more authentic too.
If you think about it, it’s a bit like learning a language. As humans, we are built to learn language. We imitate our parents, siblings, and those around us. After just a few years, we are masters of our native language, just by imitation alone. We do this so regularly, and so effortlessly, that it is common to be able to tell where someone grew up just by the way they talk.
Learning a musical style is much the same. First you listen to music, sing along, and once you decide to play an instrument, you try your hand at playing some of the songs you’ve heard your favorite singers and pickers play. Like children learning to talk, our first efforts are far from perfect, but it’s enough to get started, have fun, and it keeps us motivated as we continue on our quest to get music to come out of our guitar that equals that of our heros.
Every great player starts out as a beginner, and I guarantee you that every advanced guitarist can share stories of what they sounded like when they first picked up an instrument (if they can’t, ask their mother, wife, or roommate; they will tell you the truth).
When I was first asked to create a bluegrass section for Music Muse, I thought back to what Dad told me years ago about building my envelope of licks. In creating this group of licks for Music Muse, I was aiming right for the center of the classic bluegrass guitar sound. These are phrases that are unmistakably bluegrass, and that build on one another, so you can learn to play and create phrases that have that flatpicking guitar sound.
As a concept, Music Muse is simple. Here is an authentic guitar lick that you can actually learn to play. You can read it in tablature, but most importantly, you can hear it. You can slow it down, you can play it over and over until you can make the same sound as the example. And once you can have it down, you own it.
That lick you spent time learning becomes part of your style. You can play it, you can change it, you can add to it, combine it with other licks, and start finding places to use it in the songs that you play. It is a learning process based on imitation, and that process is one that has worked for learning music for generations.
Those early lessons from my Dad are lessons I still think about and carry with me as I continue to make music and teach music. I think that it’s a way to think about improvising that really has held up well over time. Check out the Music Muse Bluegrass Channel, and add some bluegrass licks to your own envelope of licks.
See you at the next festival,