Hooked on Bluegrass

Betsy Riger

We always had music in my family. My father was a classically trained pianist. He likewise played stride piano more lilting than any I’ve heard since his passing 29 years ago. One couldn’t help but want to sing when he played. While we practiced regularly on vocal parts, we were always given the opportunity to dabble in whatever instruments my parents could afford.

My mother had purchased a Martin 0018 new in ’54 for herself; there had to be something more to life than being a Navy wife and having children. She’d taken lessons from a fellow who studied with Segovia. After 2 weeks, she did the dishes and observed that her finger calluses were peeling off and she said, “The heck with this.”

That guitar didn’t see much action until I was 10, uh. 12 years later. Mom had arranged for me to start taking lessons with it. Their only connection to the outside music world was with classical teachers though. It was my one and only time taking a classical music lesson. I studied, read the notes and just like my short stint as a rebel Catholic, decided it was too boring and rigid and the Martin got shelved again for a trombone.

In my early teens, we’d moved to a beautiful area in Pennsylvania in Centre County. It was truly rural. The sign in the town where everyone ended up in the ground at the local church said, “Gatesburg - population 94”. (Actually, it wasn’t a town but more like a community. Town was 15 miles away in State College and 6 miles of that was a game range.) Interesting to my own memory, there still is a family of children (5) that are buried in that tiny church yard. They all died within weeks of each other, from babies to teenagers. It dates back to the late 1700’s. I would walk or horse ride over there from time to time to visit and wonder what kind of virus took them out. How sorrowful it must have been!

It was during this very impressionable time of my life that I began to “listen” to the voices of my heart. I was not alone. My oldest brother also was feeling the pull of the mountain song. His first purchase was a Gibson banjo. He was dually impressed by bluegrass music as he was a student at Penn State University where during the mid-later 70’s, there’d been this surge of revival with bluegrass. So, we dusted off the Martin and went to it. Wow! No starter guitars! We played and sang to the ridges and rolling hills before us. And, we partied till the dairy cows came home.

We were blessed to have come into it together, having a large farmhouse with a huge front porch. That mattered. The view from that porch mattered. The fact that we found an asylum in music during such a turbulent time of life, mattered. My 3 other siblings went on to other forms of music and never really got the jest or flow of the bluegrass jam. Since leaving Pennsylvania, I’ve been around and back, literally, a couple of times. It is always good to “be back home”. I look forward to not ever having to leave again.

(posted 3/23/2008)

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