Thanks to Rosine native Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music, that wildly popular genre now rings across Kentucky from the hills of the east to the riverbanks of the west. Pickers from grandpas to grandkids are taking up guitars, mandolins, fiddles, and banjos. Luthiers—artisans who craft stringed instruments—are cranking them out as demands increase.
“Bluegrass is traditional American folk music,” says Joe LaMay, who heads the Lake Cumberland Jammers in Somerset. “It’s in our genes. You’ll hear musicians say, ‘My mother used to sing,’ or ‘My father used to play.’ It’s what many people grew up with.”
And bluegrass jams—which appeal to participants (pickers) and nonmusical listeners (grinners) alike—are springing up everywhere.
In jams (short for jam sessions), musicians, generally those who play the same kind of music, get together, improvise, and see what happens. Jams can be used to develop new material, but more often these gatherings are socially focused community practice sessions. Most are free or by donation. At the Jackson Purchase Friends of Bluegrass First Friday Jams at the Kentucky Opry in the Draffenville/Benton area, Tony Williams, the group’s president and one of three founders, passes a hat among the usual 400 attendees and splits donations with “the house.”
These days, bluegrass jams are happening in some surprising locations.
For the past eight years, fiddler Lewis Lamb and his guitar-playing daughter Donna, a talented luthier, have hosted summertime jams in the Berea Welcome Center, housed in a historic 1917 L&N railroad depot, and in the winter at the First Christian Church. Participants say making music with the Lambs, recipients of the Kentucky Governor’s Awards in the Arts in Folk Heritage, is a treat.
“Everyone gets to perform and the others will play along with you, whether they know the tune or not!” says Belle Jackson, director of Berea Tourism. “People plan trips down I-75 to stop here on Thursdays.”
History also hums along with the music at two jam spots in southern Kentucky. On the third Saturday of every month, Pickin’ in the Park rocks the rafters at Old Mulkey Meetinghouse State Historic Site in Tompkinsville. According to park manager Sheila Rush, attendance can range from 35 to 75 regulars and visitors who play and listen to “shade-tree pickin’ at its best.” Come winter, the jam moves into the Monroe County Health and Rehab Center, much to the delight of the nursing home’s residents.
Thursday Night Jammin’ on the Porch has rotated among various downtown locations in Horse Cave for the past four years and is now hosted at the historic Thomas House.
“So many professional musicians and young amateur musicians had no place to go to play together,” says Sandra Wilson, executive director of the Horse Cave/Hart County Tourist Commission and chairman of the Horse Cave Cultural District. “Our jam has given them a place to do that.”
The event, Wilson adds, has spawned an embracing of the town’s musical roots and has led to its being named one of the state’s new Certified Cultural Districts.
Five years ago, Bobby Smith came home to Hardin County about a year before retiring from the Army, got a few friends together, and started the Vine Grove Bluegrass Jam. These days, an average of 100 people—both players and bluegrass, gospel, and country music appreciators—hit the Vine Grove City Hall on Friday nights, when musicians from beginners to professionals rendezvous for music and clogging.
Smith says, “We’re just a couple counties over from Ohio County, where bluegrass began. It’s our heritage.”
In Breckinridge County near Hardinsburg, up to 20-plus pickers, the same number of grinners, and a group of teen cloggers are likely to show up at the McQuady Volunteer Fire Department’s open bluegrass jam every Thursday night.
“Bluegrass is real people playing real music,” says Dennice “Dee” Smith, public relations director for the Breckinridge Bluegrass Music Association, which sponsors the event. “Everyone can join in and sing.”
If you’d like to learn to play an instrument, just find a teacher (Dee takes fiddle lessons at the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro on Saturday mornings), and then nose out a jam where you can practice. If you don’t play an instrument, go to a jam as a grinner, a sing-alonger, and a spontaneous get-up-and-dancer.
“Bluegrass music,” Dee Smith says, “is from the heart. Jams are about family, spontaneous crowd interaction, and pure fun, no matter if you’re a picker or a grinner!”
Check out the following lively jams across the state. Most are free.
Berea Thursday Night Jams: Berea Welcome Center (summer) and First Christian Church (winter), every Thursday night except Thanksgiving, 7 p.m., (800) 598-5263, www.berea.com
Covington Monday Night Bluegrass Jams: Molly Malone’s Irish Pub, Mondays, 8-10 p.m., (859) 491-6659, www.mollymalonesirishpub.com
Draffenville/Benton Jackson Purchase Friends of Bluegrass First Friday Jams: Kentucky Opry, first Friday each month (except February), 6:30 p.m., followed by a featured performer at 7:30 p.m., “pass-the-hat” donation, (270) 527-3839, www.jpfob.com
Horse Cave Thursday Jammin’ on the Porch: Historic Thomas House, Thursdays 6 p.m., (270) 218-0386, www.kygetaway.com
McQuady (Breckinridge County) Thursday Night Open Jam: McQuady Volunteer Fire Department, Thursday nights, 6 p.m.; live bluegrass show fourth Saturday each month, 6 p.m., (270) 617-1152 or (270) 617-0478, www.breckinridgebluegrass.com
Owensboro Jam Night: The International Bluegrass Music Museum, first Thursday each month, 6 p.m., (888) MY-BANJO (692-2656), www.bluegrass-museum.org
Paintsville Front Porch Pickin’: Country Music Highway Museum, Thursdays 7-10 p.m., $1 admission, (800) 542-5790, www.visitpaintsvilleky.com
Paris Tuesday Afternoon Jams: Akemon’s Barber Shop, Tuesdays 2:30-5:30 p.m., (859) 987-3875
Rosine Rosine Barn Jamboree: Fridays 6 p.m., (270) 256-3056 or (270) 298-4400, www.visitohiocounty.org
Somerset Lake Cumberland Jammers: Carnegie Community Arts Center, Tuesdays 6-8:30 p.m., $2 donation, (606) 305-6741 (Joe) or (606) 677-2906 (Carl), www.lakecumberlandjammers.com
Tompkinsville Pickin’ in the Park: Old Mulkey Meetinghouse State Historic Site, third Saturday each month, 6 p.m., (270) 487-8481, www.parks.ky.gov
Vine Grove Vine Grove Bluegrass Jam: City Hall, Friday nights except Christmas, 6 p.m. Eastern Time, (270) 300-1316, Facebook: Vine Grove Bluegrass Jam