Hooked on Bluegrass

Mary Kennedy

How I Started Liking Bluegrass Music or Bluegrass Conversion - I saw the Light. As a kid, I don't remember hearing any bluegrass music. Oh I heard records by Irish singers and Scots singers with their musical accompaniment of flutes and fiddles respectively, but no bluegrass. Living in Rolla, North Dakota, 10 miles from the Canadian border, the closest I came as a kid to hearing Bill Monroe style mandolin playing was an 1958 album by a honky-tonky piano player, Knuckles O' Toole, called "Honky-Tonk Piano." I absolutely loved the rinky tinklely sound of the honky tonk piano and the danceable rhythms. In fact, I danced my little toes off to it along with my brothers and sisters.

When I was ten, my family moved to Las Cruces, NM. When I entered middle school, square dancing was a requirement of the Physical Education program in New Mexico and Texas, so I got some exposure to fiddle tunes like Turkey in the Straw. I'm sure that country music must have been in the air and on the radio in Las Cruces, but at that time I was listening to the Beatles and other pop rock groups like the Mamas and the Papas. I didn't really get exposed to any serious country music until I was in my first year of college at Bakersfield State in Bakersfield, CA. There I listened to Buck Owen's famous radio station occasionally, but I wasn't really a country girl at that time.

It took moving 3000 miles away to Washington, DC, the Bluegrass Capitol of the World, for me to become a bluegrasser. My husband, who had been commuting to his job at the Navy's David Taylor Model Basin in Bethseda, MD, had started liking bluegrass music after searching for good radio stations on the car radio. The local public radio station, WAMU, 88.5, American University Radio, had a great bluegrass radio program called "Stained Glass Bluegrass," hosted by Red Shipley on Sundays. My husband started tuning into "Stained Glass Bluegrass" to get his bluegrass fix during the weekend. I was a tolerant newlywed at the time and did not protest the twangy sounds echoing through our little house in Alexandria,VA. This was despite the fact that I thought that the music was being sung by mentally deficient, mountain deviants with colds, through their noses. If my husband wanted to listen to that goofy country music, then I would let him as long as it made him happy.

I ignored my husband playing bluegrass music on Sundays for several months. Then one Sunday morning, I came into the house after being outside in beautiful spring sunshine looking at beautiful flowering azaleas and dogwood trees. The sunshine was pouring in through the windows as I opened the door. Just as I stepped inside the foyer, the Bluegrass Cardinals, a bluegrass group with perfect vocal harmony, were on the radio. In that moment I heard the ANGELS singing! They sang the most GLORIOUS, resonant harmony. I was converted INSTANTLY. In one moment, I went from a being a person who could care less about bluegrass to being 'saved' by it. I fell totally in love. Yes, I saw the Light!

Years later, after my spiritual, mental, and physical conversion to bluegrass, even to learning to play mandolin, I realized the connection between my love of the Bluegrass Mandolin and that honky-tonk piano album I loved as a 4 yr old. I've heard that to get the sound of a honky-tonk piano, that the players put thumbtacks in the piano hammers. The bright sound of the mandolin and its tremolo sounds a lot like that honky-tonk piano to me, especially when the mandolin is playing bluesy, swinging, rocking bluegrass chords.

Even though I came to Bluegrass music late in life, I keep falling in love with it. I am never tired of it. I can play it all day and all night and listen to bluegrass people jamming at 3:00 am next to my tent at a festival and fall asleep happily no matter how loud they are playing. Nowadays, I am editor of the nonprofit, Northern California Bluegrass Society newletter (Bluegrass By the Bay). I devote more volunteer hours to this newsletter than I do to my family. I'm a member of the California Bluegrass Association as well. The thing I love best next to listening to and playing bluegrass music is talking and writing about it! Good thing that my husband likes bluegrass music too! I live and breathe bluegrass music.

I have tons of great friends who also are as crazy about this music as I am. I get the greatest kick out of meeting people at music events and festivals who find themselves suddenly liking and loving, bluegrass. I want everyone to be as happy as me and learn about this music that is so full of joyful fun. Life Is Very Good thanks to Bluegrass!

Note: This year, 2006, Red Shipley won the IBMA Broadcaster of the Year award! Congratulations, Red!

(posted 9/25/2006)

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