Hooked on Bluegrass

Jonathan Bluemel

I remember very vividly the first time I ever saw a bluegrass band. My family, at the suggestion of my sister, attended a show at a local night club to see The Dillards. This was 1967.

This club called The Ice House, was one of the hottest clubs of its day during the folk era of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s and was owned and operated by a man named Bob Stane. People like the Smothers Brothers and Steve Gillette played there. It was a melting pot of everything cool in the LA music scene.

Anyway, what lead up to the fated event was a show my sister attended while on a date. She went with a guy to The Ice House and just happened to see The Dillards in all their glory. Well, she came home after that date and just raved about these guys. Why would your sister rave about a bluegrass band, you say? Especially, when the Beatles were the cool band of the day?

Going back even further, when my sisters and I were young, my parents were adamant about instilling a musical sense in their kids. They would rent instruments from the local music store and bring them home for us to experiment with for a month or so. After all that experimentation, my oldest sister took up the tenor guitar, my older sister took up piano and guitar and I took up guitar. We became real folkies. Dillan, Baez, Lightfoot, Mitchell. We loved them all. We even started a family band and played at the grandparent’s 50th anniversary party! We had fun.

So, after raving about The Dillards, we decided that we would go and see them the very next time they played The Ice House. Fortunately, they were playing the club every month in those days. We made our reservations the next month and even sat in the front row. We sat there and waited as the lights dimmed. The sound of Bob Stane’s voice came over the PA system and announced, as only Bob Stane could, “The Dillards!”. As the lights came up, I beheld an amazing sight. Four men on stage, only inches away, making the most amazing music I had ever heard. And, in particular, I was amazed and fascinated by the tall, blonde man playing the banjo. How did he do that? How did he play so many notes and so fast? I had to find out. I had to do this. Nothing else mattered. This was my future. I had decided within minutes that I had to learn how to play that instrument. That man was Herb Pedersen.

As fate would have it, the next month we saw them again and my father went up to Herb and asked him if he would show me something on the banjo. I couldn’t believe my father did this but I was grateful. Herb, being the gentleman that he is, sat me down in a chair, put his banjo in my lap and showed me a banjo roll. I was about to explode. This was just too cool. I was twelve.

Ever since that time my family has been interested in bluegrass music and, yes, we went to see The Dillards every time they played The Ice House for years and years. They came to know us in the front row every month and we even went so far as to purchase knee-high moccasins to wear to the shows so we would look like Mitch. Those moccasins were so cool! I wore out several pairs. Too bad I can’t find them anymore.

I kept up with the banjo and even co-founded a bluegrass band, called Smokewood, in high school that went on to compete in the Battle of the Bands competition. Back in the 70’s, this competition was a big deal. It was a year long competition for high school students and culminated in a final competition in The Hollywood Bowl and, if you won your category, you got to take home a large trophy. Richard and Karen Carpenter were winners of this competition and we all know how well they did. It was a big deal. Well, we tied for first in the combo division! This was the first time they had ever had a tie in any category. It was also the first time they had ever had a bluegrass band compete! For this reason, they felt it was like comparing apples to oranges and so they tied us for first place with a very good jazz band. Typically, they only had jazz bands, rock bands and folk bands compete but the only type of music not allowed in the competition was classical so we were perfectly legal. It was a great night and we enjoyed playing for about eleven thousand people. From time to time, Smokewood continues to play together to this day. The members are John Marshall (bass and fiddle), Evan Marshall (mandolin and fiddle), Jon Bluemel (banjo and guitar) and Dan Ames (guitar and dobro).

As the years have slipped by I have kept up with the banjo and have enjoyed bluegrass music as it has changed and developed. I’ve seen it change over the years and I’ve noticed that my interest has changed too. I’ve become more interested in the more contemporary sound and I’m intrigued by the ability of some players to take the instrument into new territory. Players like Bela Fleck and Ron Block have inspired me to look ahead to new techniques. I feel that the banjo will never achieve its true destiny until people develop techniques from the perspective of improvisation.

(posted 5/3/2009)

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