The New Bluegrass Adherent

Don Foot is an industrial manufacturer’s representative who lives on an arm of the Chesapeake Bay. We first met him at Pete Wernick’s Jam Camp in Wilkesboro, NC prior to Merlefest 2006. He invited us to attend a workshop he was hosting in his home to be taught by Eddie Collins. Don’s been playing the banjo for five years. He attends workshops and camps, jams with friends, and has recently begun teaching beginners in an adult education class at a local high school. The workshop consists of members of his class willing to come down to Maryland for a day of learning with Collins. Seventeen people are scheduled to come for the workshop along with some spouses. On the day before the workshop, Eddie will teach private lessons to five people who are coming down for a little extra. On Friday evening there will be jamming, while on Saturday, Eddie will present a day-long workshop and give an evening concert to the participants. This is perhaps representative of how bluegrass music is being transmitted today.

Eddie Collins lives in Austin, TX where he teaches banjo and guitar and performs. He writes the Beginner’s Corner column for Banjo Newsletter. Perhaps in his mid-forties, he is thin and lightly bearded. His seemingly laid back manner doesn’t hide an intense involvement with his instrument and his teaching. He comes from a background in teaching as well as music, which shows in his carefully planned workshop. Prior to putting it together, he had e-mailed each participant asking for areas that they wanted covered in the class. As a result, the plan for the day is heavy on backup banjo along with ways to move from simple tunes to a variety of kinds of styles in playing breaks, tone, timing, playing by ear, and some warm up exercises to increase spread and finger dexterity in both right and left hands. He provides time for hands on, practice, and breaks to avoid loss of concentration and opportunities for extended personal interaction with him. The workshop design, atmosphere, and tone of acceptance suggest to all participants that they can do it. Collins teaching is characterized by his support for the students and apparent lack of need to show students he’s better than they. There are simply no put-downs in his presentation.

The workshop is filled with enthusiastic banjo players, most of whom have persevered for about two years after years of wishing they could learn the banjo. Discovering that a class was being offered at the local high school became the unleashing factor for most of them. They meet weekly with Don during the adult school term and have extra meetings in a barn owned by one of the participants. These people, ranging in age from perhaps their mid-thirties into their sixties are largely middle and upper-middle class. Many are professionals who generally live in suburban settings. In other words, they’re pretty much a microcosm of white America today. They participate eagerly, jam enthusiastically between sessions, and practice both what Eddie is teaching and what the more accomplished of them pass on.

How does this group represent the future of the way bluegrass music will be learned and passed along? These aren’t rural people living in a holler in Appalachia and learning music at Grandpa’s knees and in rural churches. They’re not coming to the music through a rich tradition of music passed down from generation to generation as a main entertainment in a nearly poverty stricken environment. These people are choosing bluegrass from a rich variety of alternatives. If the participants in the Eddie Collins workshop are typical of new converts to bluegrass, then the music will inevitably change over time. Many of these people are graduates of the Rock ‚Äòn’ Roll generation; others come from varied personal and musical backgrounds. What they share is a love of bluegrass and the banjo. How must the music and its promoters respond to a new, more sophisticated, and more varied fan base than has been the norm for the music? Unless they can successfully reach out to this new kind of fan, bluegrass risks becoming a dying museum piece. ‚Äì Ted Lehmann