Hooked on Bluegrass

Keith Irwin

Getting “hooked” on bluegrass was sheer fate; the convergence of my own peculiarity, being in the right place at the right time, and the intervention of some very talented teachers and bluegrass aficionados who are very hooked in their own right.

My peculiarity: I was blessed or cursed with an insatiable curiosity about life. There is so much to learn and so little time in one life to take it all in. So I have had a personal goal for the last 35 years: About every 5-7 years I try to take on something I know absolutely nothing about and become reasonable knowledgeable or proficient. Over the years I have had a lot of learning adventures - training dogs, scuba diving, underwater videography, collecting and repairing antiquarian books, obtaining a Coast Guard charter license, and sundry other things, most of which have required finding good mentors, immersing myself in the culture, but mostly working diligently to learn as much as I could and building the requisite skills and knowledge as quickly as possible. I usually set some measurable goal so I’ll know when I’m “there.”

Being in the right place at the right time: Fast backward to November 2003 – I helped organize a conference for my employer at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville. Part of the entertainment was a performance at the Ryman Auditorium by a Nashville songwriter whose name I’ve forgotten, but who asked some of us to join her on the stage to sing a couple of songs. At the end, she asked us how it felt to be on the same stage where “Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, and Bill Monroe, had performed?” I had a sense on that stage that this was a cue that another learning experience was about to commence. At the end of the conference, a colleague who is a very accomplished flat-picker told me that the Gibson Showcase was next door and suggested we go take a look. Once in the Showcase, I sauntered over to the banjos and was a bit flabbergasted at the price tags, especially since I didn’t have a clue how to play one of these things. I wandered over to the windows at the workshop, watching them make mandolins. At one point in my life when I lived in Germany, I took a few lessons on the mandolin but it was all focused on classical music. And I wasn’t very good at all. As I was recalling that experience, I heard my colleague call, “Keith, come over here and look at this!” She found a section of the store labeled “Scratch and Dent.” She saw the guitars there. I saw three banjos – an RB250, a Scruggs Classic 49, and a Granada. All were 50% off. I looked them over but couldn’t find any scratches in the finish or other abnormalities. I remember strumming each of them (I didn’t have any idea how to pick.) About that time the sales guy came up. I asked where the imperfections were. He said there were none. They hadn’t made their sales numbers and decided to put a couple of their better banjos in this area to try and move them. He picked up the Classic 49 and began to play it. I knew I had to have it. With the small bonus I received for organizing the conference and the amazing discount on this instrument, I figured I’d spring for it. A week later it arrived at my home in San Jose.

Talented Teachers & Immersion in the Culture: So now I had a very fine instrument without a clue how to play it. I bought another book but it didn’t do much good. So I decided that I better get serious about learning to play. A search on Google turned up Jack Tuttle’s website. I called, met him, and committed to one lesson. To my amazement, after one lesson and a week of practice I could actually play “Worried Man Blues.” Not fast. Not perfectly. But the melody was recognizable. The next few songs were bluegrass standards but being unfamiliar with the genre, I didn’t recognize them at all. But again, my work situation opened a huge door to becoming “hooked.” Jack encouraged me to listen to the music as much as I could – that this was a critical element in learning to play bluegrass. Though I lived in San Jose, I worked in San Francisco which meant I had a 90 minute train and muni ride each way to and from work. Perfect for a lot of listening to bluegrass. I bought an IPOD and downloaded many of the albums recommended on Jack’s website. With Jack’s guidance about what to listen for, I became fascinated with how these bands created the unique bluegrass “sound.” And I loved the improvisational nature of the music.

But in the end it was the bluegrass community that set the “hook.” My (very supportive) wife and I went to our first music camp and bluegrass festival at Grass Valley in June 2004. We didn’t know a soul, much less how it all worked. We couldn’t have been more astonished. Our previous experience with this sort of thing was Jazz festivals and rock concerts. It wasn’t the same. The bluegrassers were like talking to your family. Then there was the accessibility of the performers – Bill Evans taught the beginner banjo class with a level of individual attention beyond my expectations. Janet Beazley ran a slow jam (and boy was I SLOW) in a way that I couldn’t have felt more accepted. And then seeing the festival performers join in the campground jams just blew me away. JD Crowe actually talked with me. That sure never happened in any of the other types of music concerts we had attended. At the end, Ellen made the observation that we were at the festival and music camp for a full week yet never saw anyone drunk, act rude, or even swear! Unique. We were hooked.

(posted 2/3/2008)

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