Bluegrass Show opens WAMU’s new theater

It’s a lot smaller than the Grand Ole Opry, but if Katy Daley and her colleagues have their way, WAMU’s Black Box Theater in Washington, DC, will become another must-listen setting for live broadcasts of bluegrass music in front of a studio audience.

The intimate theater, in the basement of the public radio station’s new digs, had its debut Friday night, with several dozen donors and friends of the station filling the seats for music by three DC-area bands – Bud’s Collective, Patuxent Partners, and Bill Emerson and Sweet Dixie.

For future shows, the theater will be open to the public, with an admission fee helping bands with their travel costs and WAMU’s Bluegrass Country with its overhead. The draw for bands is more than the 60 or so lucky audience members who can squeeze into the performance space. It’s also the ability to reach a knowledgeable bluegrass audience in the nation’s capital through the broadcast and a worldwide crowd through audio and video streams on

The station’s DJs have longed to do this kind of programming for years, but didn’t have the space to pull it off until their move to bigger space late last year. The theater’s name – presumably chosen because it accurately represents the room when it’s empty – may be temporary. This being public radio, WAMU host Lee Michael Demsey joked with the audience between sets, anyone who writes a big enough check can name it whatever he or she wants. Volunteers are standing by, as they say.

The next concert isn’t set yet, but the station’s staff is already at work tweaking the sound and rethinking the seating configuration to allow for a slightly larger crowd. We’ll share details as they become available.

It’s no big deal when a band needs to find a replacement for a gig. People get sick, have family emergencies or work responsibilities, so band leaders always keep backup pickers on speed dial and the show usually goes on without a hitch.

But Bill Emerson was in the unusual position of needing two replacements for Friday night’s show. He knew ahead of time that a sub was needed to spell Wayne Lanham on mandolin. Lanham had finger surgery in December and was working his way back into form when he learned he would need a second surgery to remove scar tissue and make further repairs to his left index finger. He sang and chopped along during the show, but primary mando responsibilities were handled by Dave Probst, a member of the Country Gentlemen Tribute Band who is also a first-call sub for many bands in the region.

The real surprise came when guitarist-vocalist Chris Stifel came down with a nasty bug. One call to Tom Adams, who preceded Stifel in Sweet Dixie, filled the hole. It was great to see Tom back in action. The only drawback: The band wasn’t able to play most of the material from its just-released CD, Dancin’ Annie. The one exception was memorable:

Winchester, VA, resident Teri Chism’s channeling of Winchester’s own Patsy Cline on Walkin’ After Midnight.

Lanham’s second surgery will be performed April 7 by a University of Virginia hand specialist. Both doctor and patient are optimistic that a full recovery will get Lanham back to 100% later this year.

Bud's Collective at WAMU's Black Box Theater (3/21/14) - photo by David MorrisLet the record show that the first song broadcast from the Black Box was Bud’s Collective’s Better Days, written by band leader Buddy Dunlap and featured on a solo project he released last fall.

Bud’s Collective is one of those bands that leaves you feeling good about the future of bluegrass music. Most of the musicians in the Winchester, VA-based unit are in their mid-20s, but when they pick, they sound like they’ve got decades of experience under their belts.

Dunlap combines his day job and his passion for music on his farm, where he raises grass-fed cattle. The same barn that houses his cattle business is also the setting for a regular concert series, Bluegrass in the Barn. It’s certainly the only music venue I’m aware of that has two stages and six huge freezers.

The band’s upcoming live CD was recorded during performances at the barn. Look for a release date later this year.

When he’s not leading his band, Patuxent Partners, Tom Mindte is running his record label and studio, Patuxent Music. With the band’s new CD behind him, Mindte is focusing on putting the finishing touches on a recording featuring 41 Washington-Baltimore area banjo specialists. They range from IBMA reigning banjo player of the year Mike Munford, Emerson and Tom Adams, to newcomers with a ton of confidence and talent.

Mindte says The Patuxent Banjo Partners CD should be on sale later this year. The recording is sure to be terrific, given the talent Mindte was able to call on. But 41 banjo players? The idea does set up Mindte for some good-natured joshing.

Never fear, though. He assures us they don’t all play at once! Mindte is also considering a local celebration to note the upcoming 80th birthday of Frank Wakefield, the mandolin master who records on the Patuxent label.

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.