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O Brother, Here Art Thou

At bluegrass festivals, performances play second fiddle to family-like campground jams


GRASS VALLEY, Calif. — Bruce Strand isn't intending to play a lick right now. It's dusk, and he's walking around trying to find old friends and fellow musicians among hundreds of campsites crowded beneath towering ponderosa pines.

But when you're considered one of the best old-style fiddle players in the West, maybe even the country, people seek you out. As Strand stands at the side of a road talking to a man with a guitar, a husband and wife--fiddlers both--sidle up and exchange pleasantries before the husband shoves an old, battered fiddle into Strand's hands, urging him to try it.

Strand, eager to please, tucks the instrument under his chin and drops the bow lightly on the strings, a little bouncy motion that fills the air with a hint of a chord, then breaks into an intricate riff of soulful gentleness.

The wife, standing on the campground road, figures out where Strand is going with the song and begins playing her fiddle, quickly joined by the man with the guitar. The trio wordlessly evokes dark passions and bygone days as a late-arriving RV slowly swerves around them, yielding the right of way to the true soul of the bluegrass festival--the jam.

Over a three-day span, scores of professional musicians will run through their repertoires here at the Nevada County Fairground stage during the California Bluegrass Assn.'s 27th annual Father's Day Weekend Festival.

But those performances are only the backdrop to the real event, a massive family reunion in which musical passion is the bloodline, and where the main attraction lies in the freewheeling campsite jam sessions.

"The first time I came here, I listened to the shows, but then I figured out the fun is the jam," says Bob Baumert, 55, a regular for more than two decades, but who ventures to the stage only every two or three years. "It bothers me when my friends have groups and we have to go down and listen to them."

With the success of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and its Grammy-winning soundtrack, bluegrass and traditional country music have become the consumable pop morsels of the moment, particularly among listeners who tend to flit among musical styles.

Yet bluegrass trackers say the movie's success followed a trend rather than led it, fueled by fans seeking a music form perceived to be authentic and outside the marketing mainstream.

"As happens many times in the entertainment world, this is one of those overnight successes that has taken 15 years to blossom," said Dan Hayes, executive director of the International Bluegrass Musicians Assn. in Owensboro, Ky.

Bluegrass fans have come to the music from different directions. There are older fans--such as Baumert, an Arkansas native whose family roots run deep in the Ozarks--who hear the notes of home in the music.

Some are folk music fans seeking to strip that form back to a simpler and more authentic root. And then there's the legacy of the Dead.

"There are the jam bands, sort of a takeoff on the whole Grateful Dead scene, with groups from Phish to Leftover Salmon to the Dave Matthews Band doing it," says Hayes. "Those are not bluegrass bands, but there's a relationship in the sound, and a lot of those fans are finding bluegrass and roots music through that side door."

Although embraced as traditional music, bluegrass arose in the 1930s when singer-mandolinist Bill Monroe invigorated slow-moving "old time" music by speeding the tempo and adding intricate acoustic solos and high-end harmonies.

Folk fans rediscovered the music in the '60s and '70s, but it faded again in the '80s until a third wave of interest developed in the late '90s, fueled in part by such mainstream country performers as Ricky Scaggs and Dolly Parton, and the iconoclastic Steve Earle, who have embraced it.

But the real growth has come in the festivals, which have expanded from about 50 in the mid-'70s to more than 500 a year, Hayes said.

The Grass Valley festival is preceded by a three-day music camp that drew 112 students last year, the first time it was held, and 173 students this year. Attendance at the festival itself, in its 27th year, has grown steadily from a few hundred to more than 5,000, about three-quarters of whom stay in the campground, organizers say.

One of the music's draws is familiarity. While new bluegrass acts write many of their own songs, the genre has a wide set of standards that provide a common language at the jam sessions. Many of the songs have a hokey, kitschy tone to them, the lyrics unabashedly waxing nostalgic for a romanticized past that may have never existed.

But other songs can be piercing in their lyricism, rooted in universal themes of loss and longing--emotions perfectly evoked by keening harmonies and the lonesome wail of a fiddle.

Another appeal: the simplicity of the festivals themselves.

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