Bluegrass jamming rules to live by (or not)

| August 15, 2012 | 2 Comments

The Night Drivers and I just concluded the Minnesota Bluegrass and Old Time Music Association’s annual pre-festival Bluegrass Jam Camp, which we loved doing. It’s a really good, and well-run program in a beautiful setting.

We’ve taught at numerous music camps in the past, but this was our first that was specifically called a “Jam Camp.” The concept of teaching people how to jam is a fairly new one, but it’s already well-developed on the scene. So well-developed, in fact, that Pete Wernick has spearheaded a specific method for teaching it, called the “Wernick Method,” and he has a program of certification for new instructors in this field.

Though I’m familiar with some of Pete’s great work in this area, I have to confess that no one in my band has obtained this certification yet. To be honest I was a little squeamish about the tattooing and blood exchange part of the certification process. Then, I looked it up on Snopes and found out that was just a nasty urban legend, circulated by Pete’s primary competitor Clarence “Endpin” Poultice, the president of the fledgling, south Florida-based jam-instruction organization, Jamway.

Nonetheless, we’re still, as yet, unaffiliated and uncertified. In other words, we’re just out there “going rogue” in the jam camp world. Let me say, then, that any opinions I express here about jamming may not be those of most (if any) established jamming instructors.

The coordinator for MBOTMA’s jam camp was Martha Galep, who did a fabulous job in that role, and she helped kick things off by talking about the “First Rule of Jamming,” which she said was to “make sure you’re all playing the same song.” This makes lots of sense, and it follows that the second rule would be to “make sure you’re all playing in the same key.” It’s hard to quarrel with that, although it was the consensus among the instructors that those rules should be placed in reverse order, because I, for one, would way rather hear people playing different songs in the same key than to hear the same song in different keys. I suppose it’s a debatable point.

In any case, those two rules would certainly be at the top of any list of guidelines for jammers. Beyond those, however, there are many other rules, some of which are more subtle, and some of which are more opinion than “the law of the land,” hence the disclaimer above.

The main goal of jamming “rules,” or principles of etiquette, is simply to make sure that people get the most enjoyment out of it, and to keep injuries and arrests to a minimum. Here, then, are a few bluegrass jamming rules to live by (or not):

Be as inclusive as you can: If someone joins your jam who you feel is beneath your level, try to make that person feel welcome anyway. Consider doing something slower to accommodate him or her, but also feel free to do things at the pace you were doing them, so that one person isn’t holding your entire group back. Consideration goes both ways, as we’ll discuss below. If the new member of your session is stylistically a little different, try to remember that it’s not a recording session (unless it actually is, which would explain the guy behind the glass booth telling you to do the song again), and try to bend a little bit.

This inclusiveness can be put to the test, though, if the new participant in your jam is horribly out of tune, has no sense of rhythm, smells bad, or is dancing and playing the flute simultaneously, or all of the above. At that point you can either say “Oh well, I’ve always wanted to hear Jimmy Brown the Newsboy kicked off on the flute, with interpretive dance. Let’s do it!” Or, you can take the less kind, passive resistance approach, and just stand around not playing anything until the new person sizes this up as a dud jam session and wanders off to find new victims. This process can be helped along if you start telling a long, drawn out story about meeting Bill Harrell’s cousin while you were working at an earthworm farm in Maryland. Feel free to make the story up on the spot, or tell a true boring story from your actual experience.

Is this intolerant? Perhaps, but sometimes there really is no choice, and it’s certainly kinder than just stopping and putting your instruments in the case when the new person arrives. I’ve seen this happen, and it’s a little harsh.

Pick songs that most people in the session know: This shouldn’t even need to be said, but you’d be amazed at how often this rule is violated. Usually just a little informal poll is all it takes, e.g., “How many of you know Are You Missing Me?” If you get under 50% answering in the affirmative, it’s time to come up with another choice.

Also, if it’s a vocal song, clarify whether you’re planning to sing lead on the song or not. I’ve seen people suggest a song, get everybody primed to do it, select the key, even go so far as to go through a whole kickoff, before the person says “Oh I don’t sing it. I don’t know the words. I was just going to throw in a baritone part.” This is a great time-waster;  you could have been five times around Cherokee Shuffle by now.

Avoid the “jam buster” songs, at all costs, unless 80% of the people in your group are drunk, and then it will just make for good comedy, especially if you videotape it and put it up on Facebook at 3:00 a.m. that morning. We all know what jam busters are: songs that are outside the bluegrass genre that almost no one present knows; songs with way too many chords, like Little Rock Getaway, or songs with chords no one has even heard of, like Wichita Lineman. I was present when someone seriously tried to get a group of people to follow Wichita Lineman in a jam session, with predictably disastrous results. This was forgivable only because the jam session was actually in Wichita. Nah, it’s still not forgivable.

Generally people who suggest these songs know exactly what they’re doing. They’re choosing these songs to impress the group, not to come up with something that everyone would enjoy playing, which isn’t the right motivation for choosing a song for a jam session. If you’re in an advanced level jam session, I think it’s perfectly fine to challenge people a little bit; just keep in mind that at all levels of jamming, it’s not meant to be a showcase for someone.

Don’t suggest your originals: That is, unless you wrote Molly and Tenbrooks, and I don’t think you did, unless you’re very very old. This is really a companion rule to the one above, because again, you’re suggesting something that no one else knows, primarily to have the jam serve as your private showcase. Originals are worse, though, because most people feel too bad about telling you they don’t want to try and learn the song that you’ve wrenched painstakingly from your wounded heart and soul (if that’s what you did; maybe it’s just a song about a chicken named “Andy,” but the principle remains the same).

The time for this is the songwriter’s “guitar pull,” so named because the guitar gets passed around (or pulled) from one writer to another in a circle, while each does his or her own song (I think that’s why it’s called that; I actually have no idea). This is very different from a jam session; it’s a singer/songwriters’ sharing session. In Nashville these are often done in public venues like the storied Bluebird Cafe, and the songs are  given introductions like “This is the one that paid for my swimming pool. Thanks again to Garth for making my kids happy in the summer.” Or, for the slightly less successful: “I’m proud to say that the Bellamy Brothers put this on hold 8 years ago.”

Pick a jam session that’s close to your ability range: Music camps have these nicely organized, with “slow jams” and “advanced jams,” etc., but outside of that structured environment, it’s up to you to find your place. It’s fun to find some people who are a little better than you for the challenge. That’s how we all got better, and that is a reminder of why the inclusiveness rule (above) is so important. Players that are less advanced but close enough, need to be helped along. Still it helps no one if you approach a blazing hot jam session where they finished up Dear Old Dixie at breakneck speed and you yourself have never played a B7 chord.

Try to size up what kind of jam session it is before joining in: Traditional, progressive, swing, Dead head, or old time styles can intermingle, but be sensitive about it. If you see a group of four musicians perfectly recreating the entire Stanley Brothers’ Columbia catalogue, it might be best not to run up and say “Hey, do you guys know Wagon Wheel? You’re opening yourself up to a story about meeting Bill Harrell’s cousin. On the other side of the spectrum, if you see some people doing an extended jam on what sounds vaguely like EMD, and that was right after a 20-minute Minor Swing, don’t rush up and say, “When y’all are finally done with that one, I’d like to sing Little Annie.’

If you approach a group of pickers who sound unusually polished and are singing a song you don’t know, and they also happen to be behind the main stage, chances are this is the band that’s warming up for their show in 15 minutes. An extra banjo and second tenor part are not likely to be appreciated. If they’re all dressed alike, this is a dead giveaway.

And speaking of Wagon Wheel, this reminds me of the all-important…

Wagon Wheel subrule A: If Wagon Wheel is played more than once in a night, or for more than 25 minutes, the singer should be required to make up new lyrics on the spot, and the entire band should  be made to modulate to a new key. If it goes over 45 minutes, the lyrics should be sung in German (and I know someone who can do it!).

Size Matters: Some people want to keep a jam session small and manageable, although it’s unrealistic to expect that it can always be that way (again, see the “inclusive” rule, above). Still, it doesn’t hurt to feel out the situation before you add the third dobro to the group. Mind you, some jam sessions are just huge and have taken on a life of their own, and that’s okay too. No one can hear anyone else, there may be two different banjo breaks happening at opposite ends of the jam and no one realizes it, one half of the jam session may be playing a different song altogether (forget rule #1), but everybody’s having fun. Jump in and try not to get hurt.

Listen, Listen, Listen: This is one of the most important jamming principles anyone can learn, and it applies to playing music with other people in any situation. Make sure you can hear whoever is playing or singing lead, and quiet your own playing down until you can. If all you’re doing is thrashing away at the same dynamic level regardless of what’s going on around you, you’re not really playing music with other people. You’re playing the same song that some other people are, and if you’re lucky, you’ll start and end at approximately the same time. Get used to the idea of listening to yourself as you listen to the group as a whole, and this will enable you to hear how best to contribute. Before you know it, you may find that this group is sounding pretty good, and that’s one of the most rewarding parts of jamming.

This merely scratches the surface of this subject, and I could go on, but I fear that a “cease and desist” letter could come at any time from “Endpin” Poultice, and I don’t want to mess with his band of Jamway goons or have urban legends spread about me.

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Chris Jones

Chris Jones wears many hats in his bluegrass career. In addition to leading his own band, with whom he tours and records, Jones is an award-winning broadcaster and songwriter.

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