Ready to take up your banjo and join in? Read this first

tgoldsmith@newsobserver.com September 23, 2013 

  • The Jammandments

    There are a number of different versions of “jammandments,” or rules for playing along in bluegrass jam sessions. The musician known as “Dr. Banjo,” Peter Wernick, has a good set, which includes the advice: “If you don’t fit into one jam, look for another or start another, or just stay and listen.”

    You can find several different versions of the rules by searching for “jammandments,” but Wernick’s site is a good place to look for general hints as well as detailed information on song structure, picking keys, etc.

— When the International Bluegrass Music Association events begin in full Tuesday, there will surely be groups of people here and there across downtown, making music for the fun of it. Can you join in?

Yes and no.

Prepare to join a bluegrass jam session as you might a poker game in the Wild West, with some respect, knowledge of the art and willingness to take a chance.

At a picking session at the recent Galax Old-Time Fiddler’s Convention in Virginia, banjo player Roger Sprung, 82, objected when a singer-guitarist attempt to strike up “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”

“That’s country & western,” said Sprung, who’s played all kinds of music during more than six decades on the banjo. “That doesn’t have murder or blood in it.”

In oblique musician-speak, Sprung was saying that the country song wouldn’t fit in the faster, more intense, sometimes morbid bluegrass repertoire. Knowing what kind of songs would be found appropriate is just one of the “rules” for what’s sometimes called “parking-lot picking.”

Here are some do’s and don’t’s for joining a group of musicians playing informally, whether in a parking lot, under a downtown awning or in a hotel hallway.

• Be realistic about your own ability. If you happen upon Sam Bush, Tony Rice and Bobby Hicks warming up before the show, don’t join in. Just enjoy yourself. However, if the gathered musicians play at about your level, or even a little better, it’s probably OK to think about taking part.

• Read the signals. If the band’s body language and stances are closed, so that there’s no way to approach without shoving, it’s probably best to move along. If someone looks at you and smiles, or nods to you to come on in, that’s better. Avoid bands that are clearly rehearsing prepared material. If they say, “We’re rehearsing; get lost,” that’s a pretty clear signal.

• Play in time and in tune. Since the advent of electronic tuners, tuning is easier, so that you sometimes hear the odd spectacle of a group playing perfectly in tune, but otherwise not worth a daggone. Timing is key in bluegrass, as in virtually any style. If you’re dragging or rushing the beat, prepare for a glare from someone.

• Wait your turn. If you’re playing mandolin and there’s already a mandolinist taking solos, hang out on the edge of the group until someone gives you the nod to try one. If you’re lucky someone will ask, in true bluegrass style: “You want some of this?”

• Try to find a part no one else is playing. If you’re a good upright bass player, Bluegrass Heaven is your home. If you’re a bad, loud banjo player, there’s a figure nearby in a red suit and horns, calling you home.

• Know the standard repertoire. Even if you are just standing on the edge of a session, it sounds bad if you hit wrong chords to “Live and Let Live” or any such perennial. If you know the words to songs, especially the verses, you’re on your way to making yourself more valuable in jam situations.

• A final tip, from the noted songwriter and journalist Jon Weisberger: “A bluegrass jam session is a bad place to try out your latest original songs; save them for another time, and stick to the Big Bluegrass Songbook of the standard repertoire.”

In the end, this is informal music-making we’re talking about, so there’s no real penalty for breaking any of the above rules. If you feel like joining in, put on your bluegrass deadpan face, muster up the best of your abilities and let the blue notes fly.

Thomas Goldsmith started playing bluegrass in his hometown of Raleigh before working as a singer-songwriter, guitarist and record producer in North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas from 1971 to 1982. After touring with acts including the Contenders, David Olney and the X-Rays, and Riders in the Sky, he has worked in daily journalism since 1983, making music as a sideline.

Goldsmith: 919-829-8929

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