One of the nice things about bluegrass and old-time music is that it is pretty easy to see it live and that is really something that is almost a core value of the music. Those of us who play this kind of music seem to really enjoy getting together to interact with the community, to share songs and admittedly to show off a little. When groups of musicians gather together to play bluegrass or old-time, there is a real sense of belonging to be felt and I can’t help but think it is because this kind of music was played at and for community dances and work parties etc; it’s almost like the community mentality or spirit is genetically encoded into the songs. If you are lucky, and we are very lucky here in the New River Valley, there will be gatherings, called jams, and they will be held regularly and should definitely be experienced (and often!).
The term jam I suppose comes from the tendency of musicians to play at or around the melody of a song, to kind of experiment with it and find a new and interesting way to play it or to maybe play a counter-melody instead. What is meant by a bluegrass or old-time jam is that a group of musicians get together in a big pile and play songs together, all taking turns naming the next tune and sitting back to enjoy the musical and personal interactions. People take turns playing the lead parts and others take turns playing backup and supportive things behind the lead players- this applies to both beginners and professionals alike and (hopefully) equal respect and support is given to all. In a jam you never know ahead of time who will show up or what songs will be suggested. These are great places to learn new songs and to improve your playing of songs you already know. For musicians, the opportunity to play together and to play off of each other is a fantastic tool and should really be experienced as often as possible. For folks who are just there to listen it is great fun because they can watch the musicians interact with each other, share in the jokes and very often feel a real part of the experience. Musicians love feedback and so an appreciative crowd can very often inject a lot of energy into the players- you know, when it comes down to it, a lot of musicians might kind of enjoy the attention and might occasionally want to show off a little to get it!
Should you find yourself at one of these jams, here’s a few things to look for…..
Someone will suggest a song and a lot of times the group will readily agree to it. That person usually will start the song by playing the first “lead”. This is also known as a “break”; it’s sort of as if a person is playing the melody of the song and adding a lot of flowery parts to make it interesting. If a person has been playing a long time they will generally know several breaks to various songs because it can get a little tedious playing the exact same thing over and over so if they play more than one lead, they will sound a little different. This is one of the differences between classical music and bluegrass (or old- time), classical music is played as it was written, bluegrass is largely improvisational and played as the person feels like playing it at that moment. While the first break is going on, you might notice that most folks are probably glancing over at whoever is roughly in charge of the musical proceedings. That person will, at some point or another, look at someone and give them the head nod that means “you will take the next break”. That person will either give a little nod in agreement, or give an adamant headshake to indicate a negative. An adamant enough shake ensures that person will probably not get another nod during that song but that is not a hard and fast rule, near the end the leader may give a raised-eyebrow inquisitive nod to the person as if to say “last chance, you going to do it or not?” Sometimes though, a person may be artfully ignoring the leader by looking down at their hands intently or paying A LOT of attention to the others taking leads. I don’t know, maybe this is a coward’s way of giving the shake off, sort of a way of saving face (but only to him or herself, everyone else knows what’s going on too!), almost like saying: “wow, I was so into listening to the others take their breaks I didn’t even notice it was my turn. You all did a great job on that song and I really enjoyed it.”
At some point when the leader has decided everyone has had a chance, or, if they are feeling bold, someone in the group is just plain tired of the song, someone will give the universal sign that they want the song to end…. The lifting of a foot in the air and holding it there until several see and acknowledge it. I’ve gone to jams for many years all across this great state of ours and this seems to be very often the way it is done.
Here in Radford, Virginia, we have a good bluegrass jam. For years it was held at The Coffee Mill on Monday nights, but now it is at the River City Grille at 7:00 and honestly I have not been to it in it’s new location yet. (I have eaten there though and thought it very good.) The Coffee Mill jam was very nice, the musicians were welcoming, the audience was appreciative and interacted with the musicians, and the venue was lovely- I have no doubt these things have continued in the new location. Last year a Radford University student made a short documentary film about this jam (Coffee Mill) and included some footage of various other things in the area. Ralph Berrier , the leader of the jam is featured in the film as well as our friend Ruth Derrick from RUs Appalachian Studies and English Department.
So where can you find a local jam? I know of several and asked around a little. This list is probably not complete so if I missed some please let me know and I will add them in. I think it’s a good idea to call first if you haven’t been to one of these yet, schedules change! (I say that from experience because I showed up at Gillies in Blacksburg recently to attend the old-time jam only to find it was a non old-time mini-concert that I had to purchase tickets to!)
Mondays River City Grille (103 Third Ave. in Radford, Va. (540) 629-2130) starts around 7:00 PM
Tuesdays at Gillies (153 College Ave. Blacksburg, VA 24060 540-961-2703) (Gillies says they are going to start this up again soon)
Thursdays Due South BBQ 1465 Roanoke St Christiansburg 540-381-2922 6:30ish
Friday Foyld Country Store in Downtown Floyd 6:30ish
And I would like to mention that we are trying to start a lunchtime jam here on the RU campus. We meet at The Appalachian Regional Studies Center (The Buchanan House) around noon on Wednesdays. If you are on campus then and don’t have a class to attend (or teach) come on by and have a listen or pick a few with us. We would REALLY love to have you!