There was a healthy dose of pickin’-and-grinnin’ on Wednesday at Wakelon Elementary, one of a dozen Wake schools to host bluegrass outreach programs in conjunction with the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass.
Williamson Branch – a Tennessee outfit showcasing sisters ages 5, 12 and 15 and their parents – shared its sounds with an assembly of students in grades 3-5.
It was primarily a performance, but the Wakelon staff made sure the students carried a little bluegrass background into the event. Music teacher Matthew DiDonna added history on the musical genre into his lesson plans for about two weeks leading up to Wednesday.
Wakelon Principal Tad Sherman said Williamson Branch was particularly appealing, with the majority of its members being of an age the young students could identify with.
“They were exposed to a type of music and art they might not otherwise be exposed to,” Sherman said of his students. “They got to see that (some members of the band) are kids just like themselves, and that they can do something like that if they want to.
“They can see that and relate to it and say, ‘Hey, I can do that one day.”
Such outreach programs are a regular feature of the World of Bluegrass. The IBMA organization canvasses every year’s showcase artists for volunteers, then coordinates with the United Arts Council to send them into public elementary and middle schools throughout Wake County during bluegrass week.
For most of Donna Ulisse and the Poor Mountain Boys’ Wednesday afternoon performance and workshop at Carnage Middle School in Raleigh, the students in the audience were politely attentive. Then when the band fired up a quick-time version of the old bluegrass standard “Rocky Top,” the kids became engaged enough to bounce up and down.
It’s all part of trying to keep alive a music whose primary audience is gray and getting grayer. Ulisse and her Nashville-based band were glad to do it.
“This music is our heritage, and we have to reach out to young people,” she said. “Once they hear it, it’s like a little fever that clicks. It’s mathematical, edgy. Interesting, too.”
Kim Fox, founder and producer of the Kids on Bluegrass program showcasing young, up-and-coming musicians, said the great thing about bluegrass festivals is the connections that flow between musicians and audiences and between generations.
“When you’re a kid, you can join a jam with a 70-year-old guy or a 30-year-old woman or whatever – you become friends with people that you would never dream in your life that you’d be friends with,” she said. “It wipes out your age.”