Hooked on Bluegrass

Jack Pierce

It's Saturday night in Bakersfield, California, and the bluegrass band scramble is about to begin. I am more nervous, with an agonizing pit in my stomach, about performing on stage with my banjo than teaching a geology class at Bakersfield College where I work. Yet, I can't wait because I am hooked on bluegrass and love every aspect of this great genre of music. As I continue to await our band's turn to play, I ponder how I got here tonight.

I was 15 years old, and lying against our living room wall was an old 5-string banjo my dad owned. My dad played simple guitar songs and was working on the song “Wild Wood Flower.” He needed someone to play chords in the key of C and summoned me over to that old 5-string. He showed me the three basic chords, and we began to play “Wild Wood Flower.” From that moment, I was hooked, and my enthusiasm has never diminished since. My dad and I went on to learn other songs together, and he noticed my interest in bluegrass style picking. He arranged for me to take banjo lessons. Well, going into the fourth week of lessons, I was waiting patiently at the door of my banjo teacher only to be told that he had passed away the night before, thus ending my lessons. I was devastated, so my brother bought me an “Earl Scruggs and the 5-String Banjo” book to cheer me up in 1975. I still have the book, and since that day, I have never quit playing the bluegrass banjo.

As the years have “rolled forward,” the old 5-string has now been replaced by a Golden Era Deering. I have learned many tunes on my own, enjoying years of playing with my brother, who plays the guitar, during family gatherings and holidays. These family times are quite memorable because after 20 minutes of playing, family members tend to lose interest and go about their business, relegating our music to the background. But, there was always one person who would sit next to us and listen the entire time through many repeats and mistakes: my dad. Dad passed away three months ago. He was truly an inspiration to me in playing this timeless music, and I miss him more than words can say. In the last few years, I have had the opportunity to hone my skills by attending local jam sessions and bluegrass festivals. I love the camaraderie, values, and helpfulness that folks involved with bluegrass offer. In fact, for over a year, my 10-year-old son has been taking violin (fiddle) lessons, and he now shows a budding interest in bluegrass as well. So, he attends jam sessions with me and an occasional bluegrass festival. I guess I am following in my dad's footsteps in keeping my family hooked on bluegrass.

So, here I find myself on a Saturday night at the Bakersfield bluegrass scramble. Our band was finally called on stage. After practicing for about 3 hours before the scramble, we played three popular bluegrass songs, and guess what…we won first place! I wish my Dad were present; he would have been right there cheering me on and enjoying every minute of it.

(posted 1/19/2009)

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