One of the unique features of bluegrass is the importance of jamming to the growth and development of the genre, as well as continuing its traditional nature. Go to large or small festivals. Take a walk through the campground, and you'll find small groups standing (or sitting) in a circle, singing songs from the broad repertoire of bluegrass and country music they know and love. If you're carrying a bluegrass instrument (guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, dobro, or bass) start playing along with the group, quietly hitting the rhythm. If you're in tune and on the beat, you'll find the circle opens to include you. After a while, the person leading a song will look toward you, as if to ask whether you'd like to take an instrumental break. If you nod yes, you'll get a chance to strut your stuff in a solo. If you shake off the invitation, the song leaders will move to the next person.
Jams are fluid creatures, with members coming and going. Some move off to find another jam, others leave a jam that has become too large, to form their own. The leadership moves around the circle to you, and you can choose to call a key and start a song. At that point, you've become a jammer.
As Pete Wernick says, many people pick up a guitar, mandolin, or banjo thinking they'd like to learn to play it. Some become quite accomplished, but never bring the instrument out to play it in public. More instruments lie in closets and attics than can be found on stands waiting to be played. Many pickers remain closeted, too. Yet, jamming – playing together by ear within the three-chord structure of traditional bluegrass songs – is the place where bluegrass pickers grow from simple beginnings into accomplished, sometimes professional musicians.
Wernick developed his bluegrass chops as a teenager in Greenwich Village's Washington Square during the folk music boom in the ‘50s and ‘60s. He became a key member of the cutting-edge band Hot Rize in the ‘80s, and is now on a high-profile reunion tour.
My own history with jamming is, perhaps, typical. During that same era, I played the guitar and sang for myself and a few of my friends. I was fired from a day-camp counselor's position for singing material from Oscar Brand's great series of LP's called Bawdy Songs & Back Room Ballads.
My hero was the great Pete Seeger, who I saw in concert several times. I bought his book and record How to Play the 5-String Banjo (1954), the first banjo instruction book, and a cheap banjo. But I quickly gave it up. Nonetheless, Seeger’s groundbreaking book became the bible for many young pickers.
When Irene and I first went to Merlefest in 2003, my love affair with the banjo was rekindled. I bought one, and by fits and starts, began learning how to play it. I enrolled in Dr. Banjo's jam camp, but sadly never found the instrument rewarding enough to move beyond playing it at the very beginner-end of the scale. Despite purchasing better instruments, I increasingly left it in its case, until I finally crossed my own Rubicon, deciding to give it up to return to the guitar. Then came revelation and release!
We jam on the porch in the Adirondacks. Irene, our friend Connie, our son Alex, and me. I'm comfortable there, but what about another venue? I play my guitar almost every day for an hour or so, but I won't call it practice.
I carefully picked my first jam, choosing one led by Johnny Adams, a 70-something mandolin builder from Florida, at the Dumplin Valley Bluegrass Festival in Kodak, TN. Most of the people in this jam are better than I am, but I knew most of them and felt relatively comfortable. I passed breaks, and still do (although I'm practicing a few in the closet). But, after passing a few songs, I decided to call one that I thought I knew and kicked it off. I butchered it, but everyone was nodding and patient with my first try. I did better next time.
I've noticed that as I play, sing, and jam the old, familiar bluegrass tunes, I appreciate them more and more. I've developed a greater appreciation for the songs of the Carter Family, Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and the Stanley Brothers, among others. I can sing what they sang and recorded. The melodies are fairly simple, the lyrics a bit repetitive, the themes old-fashioned in a comforting way. I'm working on a couple of more modern songs, but find the frequent chord changes and complex lyrics a bit daunting. Maybe I'll trot one out, one of these days. Much to my surprise, singing and playing in a jam has turned my taste toward the familiar and traditional, even though I still enjoy the more contemporary music as a fan and listener.
There are jams filled with hot pickers playing both traditional and more modern material. You won't find me there. I'm headed back to jam camp, this year at Gettysburg, and I expect to have a great time.