It’s easy for serious fans of bluegrass music to talk about tradition and longevity, a prime commodity in the genre, but in the larger scheme of things it’s only been around in a formal sense for about 70 years. That makes it slightly older than rock and roll, which appeared a few years after Bill Monroe introduced his new sound on the Grand Ole Opry in 1946, but much newer than other folk-derived styles like blues and old time music.
Thinking of bluegrass as 70 years old makes the anniversary to be celebrated this year by The Emelin Theatre in Mamaroneck, NY something quite remarkable. In October the theatre, located in Westchester County about 40 minutes from midtown Manhattan, will begin its 35th year of presenting a bluegrass series in the New York City suburbs.
This series, which runs October through April each year, is currently managed by Arnie Fleischer, a bluegrass/old time banjo picker in nearby New Rochelle who volunteers his time to the Emelin to help keep the concert series going. Arnie travels to the IBMA’s World of Bluegrass convention each year to try and catch new acts that would be suitable for the annual, five-show sequence.
Arnie shared a quick, thumbnail history of the Emelin bluegrass series, which got its start just a few years after the theatre opened in 1972.
“The bluegrass series began when J.Jay Mautner, a Mamaroneck resident and the village harbormaster, told the Emelin’s director at the time that he liked bluegrass and would like to see it presented at the Emelin. J.Jay has been a fan of bluegrass since the 1950s and has also dabbled in guitar and banjo. The director agreed on condition that J.Jay find someone who knew about bluegrass to plan and book it. J.Jay approached Doug Tuchman (former editor of Pickin’ magazine), and on October 14, 1977, the Emelin presented its first bluegrass concert, which featured the band Dark Horse led by the late Bob Mavian and including 17-year-old Chris Jones on guitar. The Emelin continued to present occasional bluegrass concerts over the next few years, and in 1982 a full-fledged bluegrass concert series was launched consisting of five shows each season.
Over the years many well-known bluegrass artists have appeared at the Emelin (quite a few even before they became well-known), as well as some of the northeast’s finest regional bands. For example, we have presented Rhonda Vincent and the Gibson Brothers, but also the Feinberg Brothers and Big Appl’achia. Over the course of each season we try to include a range of bluegrass from traditional to contemporary and to introduce artists with whom our audience is not familiar. In recent seasons our lineups have included artists as diverse as the Crowe Brothers, the HillBenders, Monroe Crossing, Donna Ulisse, the Spinney Brothers, Special Consensus, Dan Paisley, Della Mae, and the Lonely Heartstring Band, to name but a few.
I’m currently in the process of booking our 35th anniversary season. The first two shows are set: October 21, 2016 with Chris Jones and the Night Drivers – an appropriate choice in light of Chris’s appearance in the Emelin’s very first bluegrass show in 1977 – and Flatt Lonesome on December 2, 2016.”
Fleischer says that he can’t yet announce who will perform on the last three shows in 2017, but that they are doozies.
For Arnie, who has booked this series since 2006, it is a labor of love.
“It’s been (and remains) quite a learning experience for me, as I’ve tried to understand my audience’s preferences, attract new (and frankly, younger) people to the series, and keep ticket prices affordable (we’re only 275 seats).”
The Emelin is a not-for-profit theater with a long history of standing behind bluegrass music. While some of the early shows were underwritten by Mautner, they are all funded now within the Emelin’s operating budget.
You can find out more about The Emelin Theatre and their annual bluegrass series online.
Congratulations for 35 years!