- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 16, 2006

GETTYSBURG, Pa. — Bluegrass music is the thread that links people from all over the country, and it brought them together with their instruments under a large tent at a campground here in May for the 52nd Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival.

The lesson of the day: Learning to “jam.”

“Jamming is sort of like driving a truck,” 47-year-old Ira Gitlin of Alexandria tells a circle of musicians gathered under the tent, explaining how to wait for the singer or instrumental soloist to complete a phrase before repeating the chord progression.

“You’ve got to look in the rearview mirror,” Mr. Gitlin says.

He teaches music and performs in Northern Virginia, but he has traveled across the Mason-Dixon Line to lead a Friday morning workshop about making bluegrass jam sessions succeed, during the festival at Granite Hill Campground.

Granite Hill hosts two festivals — in May and August — each year. It has attracted the biggest names in bluegrass: Bill Monroe played Gettysburg several times, including a date on his 75th birthday. Charlie Waller of the Country Gentlemen was a regular until his death in 2004. His son, Randy Waller, performed with band alumni in May.

When the 53rd festival gets under way here next week, Aug. 24-27, the 30 bands on the main stage will include Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, the Seldom Scene, the Grascals and Cherryholmes. Several of the bands will be repeat performers from the May festival.

The group jam

Under the workshop tent in May, regular folks with day jobs and an affection for simple, traditional songs, hang onto Mr. Gitlin’s every word. This is as much a part of the bluegrass festival experience as watching the stars take the stage.

“This, by the way,” Mr. Gitlin says, “is a four-chord song. In addition to the three chords, it’s got an A in it.”

He plays an introduction in G and starts singing “Life is Like a Mountain Railroad.”

A potential cacophony of four upright basses, eight banjos, seven guitars, two fiddles, four mandolins and an autoharp join in, keeping time remarkably well, as their players add their voices to the chorus, singing at its conclusion, “where the angels wait to join us, in God’s grace forevermore.”

“That song would be a good choice for split breaks,” Mr. Gitlin advises the class, referring to the instrumental leads played between verses. “You hear that sometimes on the records.”

Another bass player moves into the circle, as does another banjo player. The group is led into the Carter Family standards, “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” and “The Wabash Cannonball.”

R.B. Powell, 66, of Lewistown, Pa., moves his big bass into the center of the circle to lead “The Wabash Cannonball.” As he finishes a chorus, he shouts out, “Everybody try a solo.”

Several fiddle players have drifted into a knot together, teaming up to play a solo break. Afterward they quietly exchange pleasantries, conferring on the weather and its effect on their instruments.

One of the banjo players in the circle is Andy Vinarski, 41, a Mechanicsburg, Pa., mortgage broker.

As the workshop ends, he says he took up banjo for one main reason: “I always liked bluegrass music and I needed a hobby,” he says.

“The nice thing is, you have this,” Mr. Vinarski says as he gestures around at the group of musicians breaking up after the workshop, “and then unofficially you go off and play somewhere else with other people.”

Into a hardshell case goes his $2,500 Stelling Crusader banjo. He bought it from a player he met through a banjo Web site three weeks before this spring’s Gettysburg festival opened May 18.

Passing on the heritage

Playing with other people is key to the social success of a bluegrass festival, and what sets bluegrass festivals apart from events featuring other forms of music.

Most fans also play the music themselves, at levels from beginner to expert, in all age groups. Although they sit and listen to mainstage performers, often marveling at the artists’ prowess, when the show is over they drift back to camp, often playing in informal groups into the early morning.

In sharing their songs, they continue the oral tradition of American folk music.

At the jamming workshop, everyone gets a chance to play a solo or lead a song.

They share licks and tips, exchange business cards and make contacts. Many also reunite at this festival twice a year.

Mr. Powell, an English teacher, says he has been playing seriously for four years. May marked his second Gettysburg festival.

“Sociologically, bluegrass music is very inviting to newcomers because we love to teach people about old-time music and traditions,” he says. “It’s things we learned in elementary school, songs we sang when we were kids, part of the foundation of America.”

“We’re almost musical evangelists,” Mr. Powell says. “We want to bring everyone we see into this music with us.”

“It’s fun, a great festival,” Mr. Vinarski says. “It’s gotta be one of the top 10 in the country.”

Bluegrass uncontrived

Wayne Bledsoe, publisher of Bluegrass Now magazine and professor of history at the Rolla campus of the University of Missouri, logged 28,000 miles attending 22 bluegrass festivals in 2005.

“I would rank this [Gettysburg] in the top five festivals in the country,” says Mr. Bledsoe, 65. “It has a stellar lineup and one of the most beautiful parks of any bluegrass festival. It’s a first-class bluegrass festival.”

Mr. Bledsoe says that growing up in North Carolina, bluegrass was all.

“It was all the music I ever listened to. I thought that was all that everyone listened to until I moved away from it,” he says.

What attracts Mr. Bledsoe to the music is the fact that “what you hear the artist doing is what he is doing without electronic enhancements. It’s sometimes amazing to hear what an artist is doing with his instrument.”

Bluegrass Now, which circulates across the United States and in 36 foreign countries, is half the size of the better known Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. Still, it has grown in 16 years from a small black-and-white newsletter to a slick, full-color magazine.

“It was never intended to be a business,” Mr. Bledsoe says, but now it employs a staff of 12 full-time writers.

Putting the lie to common perceptions, Mr. Bledsoe says the biggest growth in bluegrass listenership is not among the NASCAR crowd or Wal-Mart shoppers, but rather, “the biggest growth in bluegrass is happening with educated and upper-middle-class people.”

“At a bluegrass festival,” he says, “I have encountered more Ph.Ds than I would at an academic conference.”

Mountain soul

Bluegrass and academia? It’s not too far a stretch. Consider Sally Love of Gaithersburg. On weekends, she is a guitarist and singer with Seneca Rocks, a band comprising three former members of the Johnson Mountain Boys and banjo player Tom Adams. Her 9-to-5 job is working as an exhibit developer for the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum.

Miss Love, 53, is a trained biologist, a former director of the museum’s Insect Zoo, and has worked for the Smithsonian for 23 years.

She is engaged to the group’s lead guitarist and singer Dudley Connell, who works as a music archivist for the Silver Spring-based National Council for the Traditional Arts.

Playing music “is a good way for us to spend time together and be creative together,” she says. The couple is planning to marry this fall.

But performing at Gettysburg, she says, “is so satisfying,” and the fans and performers “are the nicest people ? a whole community on wheels.”

Life is hectic for Mr. Connell, 50, also of Gaithersburg. He started playing bluegrass with the Johnson Mountain Boys in 1976, teaming up for 12 years with current band mates David McLaughlin and Marshall Wilborn, as well as with fiddle player Eddie Stubbs. Mr. Connell joined the Seldom Scene in the mid-1990s, when the band was re-formed after the death of founding vocalist John Duffey.

“I like the soul,” Mr. Connell says of bluegrass. “It’s like mountain soul music to me.”

The Seldom Scene are regulars at Gettysburg. The band has performed at almost every one of the semiannual festivals since they started in 1979.

The best vacation

But every festival has a newcomer. Kevin Walsh, 47, from Pine Plains, N.Y., brought his wife Vivian, 39, daughter Paige, 10, and his fiddle to Gettysburg in May after friends persuaded him to attend. He had been to upstate New York’s well-known festivals, Winterhawk and Grey Fox.

The family left for Gettysburg with their camper and pushed south for 17 miles before mechanical trouble with the camper forced them back home. There, they picked up a tent and hit the road anew with the pickup full of gear.

Mr. Walsh works in a laboratory, operating an electronic scanning microscope. Mrs. Walsh is an accountant for a family foundation. But on this particular Friday afternoon, she is barefoot in the grass next to her campsite, playing “Cherokee Shuffle” on a borrowed bass, and learning the progression for “Sweet Georgia Brown” from a friend.

“This is our vacation, going to festivals,” Mrs. Walsh says. “It’s about all we do.”

Back home, the couple plays in a string band.

“This is about as close as we get to going back in time,” Mr. Walsh says as he finishes up a fiddle tune. “It’s pop music from the ‘30s and ‘40s.”

Festival grew and grew

Joe and Lil Cornett bought Granite Hill Campground on the outskirts of Gettysburg, Pa., in 1972.

A chance meeting in the mid-‘70s with bluegrass band leader James R. “Bob” Paisley at a recreational vehicle show in the Meadowlands, N.J., ignited the spark that would become the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival, one of the longest running and most successful bluegrass festivals in the country.

Mr. Cornett, his wife, Lil, and Mr. Paisley, who died in 2004, shared a connection with Chester County, Pa. They also shared an interest in traditional bluegrass music. Mr. Paisley and his band, the Southern Grass, were picking and drawing a crowd at the RV show.

“I hired him to play one concert” to offer camping patrons some entertainment, says Mr. Cornett, 67. He also hired a folk group, the Paddock Singers of West Chester, Pa., for a show at the campground.

“The idea evolved, and after two years of thinking about it, we finally put on a festival,” Mr. Cornett says.

The festival has grown from its modest beginnings in 1979 to a world-class bluegrass festival that offers performances, workshops and specialty camps for adults and children over four days each spring and late summer. Attendance runs from 5,000 to 10,000 people each day of the event, according to Rich Winkelmann, Mr. Cornett’s son-in-law, who with his wife Cyndie now owns the campground and produces the festival.

It’s a family business and a family-oriented festival, says Mr. Winkelmann, 38.

In fact, his own daughter was born the day the festival opened on May 14, 1998.

The idea, Mr. Winkelmann says, is to “promote the music to the next generation of bluegrass fans.”

“I wish I had kept a diary,” Mr. Cornett says. “There were a number of many special times, magical times if you will.”

He recalls when the father of bluegrass, the late Bill Monroe, performed on his 75th birthday at Gettysburg. It was 1986 and Mrs. Cornett and some friends got the idea to serve a birthday cake.

They obtained “the biggest wedding cake they could find,” Mr. Cornett says, and when Mr. Monroe invited everyone to have some cake with him after the set, “people stood in line in single file until my wife and her friends had sliced all of that cake into very thin slices and it was all gone.”

Mr. Cornett is very proud of having hired a 16-year-old upstart, Alison Krauss, “as a virtual unknown.” Miss Krauss played the festival through the 1990s. In 1995, when she was named the International Bluegrass Music Association’s female vocalist of the year, she played only two festivals — one of them was Gettysburg, Mr. Cornett says. In her career, she has earned 20 Grammy awards, more than any other female vocalist.

One of the highlights of producing the festival over the years, Mr. Cornett says, is “knowing Alison and having watched her grow and evolve and mature into the star she is today.”

Festival returnsAug. 24

It’s the 53rd Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival at Granite Hill Campground, five miles west of Gettysburg, Pa., on Route 116, and it’s set to jam Aug. 24-27.

To charge tickets and make reservations call 800/642-TENT; for information call 717/642-8749 or see gettysburgbluegrass.com. Cash only at the gate.

Here’s the schedule:

Thursday, Aug. 24

• 2 p.m.: Casey & Chris & the Two-Stringers

• 3:10 p.m.: Bob Perilla & Big Hillbilly Bluegrass

• 4:20 p.m.: Honi Deaton & Dream

• 5:30 p.m. Randy Kohrs Band

• 6:50 p.m.: Steep Canyon Bluegrass

• 8:10 p.m.: Audie Blaylock & Redline

• 9:30 p.m.: Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys

Friday, Aug. 25

• 11 a.m.: Mill Run

• 12 p.m.: Casey & Chris & the Two-Stringers

• 1 p.m.: Circuit Riders

• 2:10 p.m.: Blue Moon Rising

• 3:20 p.m.: Lou Reid & Carolina

• 4 p.m. Dinner break

• 5 p.m.: Blue Ridge

• 6:10 p.m.: Seneca Rocks

• 7:20 p.m.: Blue Highway

• 8:30 p.m.: Lou Reid & Carolina

• 9:20 p.m.: Rhonda Vincent & the Rage

• 10:45 p.m.: The Grascals

Saturday, Aug. 26

• 11 a.m.: Blue Daze

• 12 p.m.: Carolina Roadn

• 1 p.m.: Williams & Clark Expedition

• 2:10 p.m.: New Found Road

• 3:20 p.m.: Uncle Earl

• 4:20 p.m.: Dinner break

• 5:20 p.m.: Lonesome River Band

• 6:30 p.m.: Dry Branch Fire Squad

• 7:40 p.m.: Gibson Brothers

• 9:05 p.m.: Seldom Scene

• 10:30 p.m.: Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver

Sunday, Aug. 27

• 10 a.m.: Dry Branch Fire Squad

• 11:10 a.m.: Northwest Territory

• 12:10 p.m.: Academy children?s performance

• 12:50 p.m.: Cedar Hill

• 1:50 p.m.: Cherryholmes

• 3:15 p.m.: Seldom Scene

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