Saturday, July 6, 2013

Bluegrass Jam: In Memory of Past Tunes and Passed Musicians

The cars and trucks parked outside an old, tattered wood-frame store that appears abandoned are the first hints that a bluegrass jam is about to begin. The sign by the side of the road with an adjacent post holding the oval frame for a missing Esso sign confirms the date. Stopping for an hour or more to connect to the spirit of tunes and musicians still revered can rejuvenate the soul.

The sign by the road tells the
date of the next bluegrass jam.
The oval frame for a missing sign
confirms that life is a-changing.

The jam sessions are held twice a month in a shady area behind the store, which has been a music scene in Chatham County since 1999. The musicians seem more interested in enjoying their own company and collaboration than in entertaining guests in front of their stage. These musicians meet in memory of Reno C. Sharpe who passed in 2009, and they perpetuate the values and memories of an era being smothered by the hustle and bustle of impersonal modern life where a person is more likely to send a text message than speak to a neighbor.

A short path from the store leads to
the area where the jam is held
My wife and I arrived only a few minutes after the session had started. The musicians outnumbered the audience. Nine musicians were on stage with only five people in the audience. She quickly observed that she was initially the only woman present, but soon other women arrived as well as young girls with older men who appeared to be their grandfathers. About an hour in the session, a female guitarist joined the musicians who warmly received her and then were delighted when she picked “Tennessee Waltz,” popular since the 1940s, for them to play when it was her turn to select a song. “It’s in C, y’all,” she coached the others for the right key before starting the tune. She also sang alone except for brief sections when a few of the men joined in. In other songs, her female voice combined eloquently with the lower male voices to create a beautiful harmony.

Photos are taken frequently, even by
young members of the audience.
Almost everyone had parked in the driveway in front of the store except three cars that had parked next to the bandstand. One musician, who seemed to be the oldest in the group, arrived late and left early, and he was one of the drivers who unquestionably had next-to-stage parking. The elevated stand, covered by a rusting sheet metal roof, even has a handicapped-accessible ramp for aging musicians who need a little help as he did and can no longer climb steps easily. The chatter among the musicians after a tune had ended indicated that the sheltered stage had been built in 2010.

The Eagle Scout project
improves the area where
the jam is held.
Twelve benches, all named in honor or memory of community members, enclose the stage in semi-circle patterns in an unmowed grassy area underneath huge, leafy trees that provide welcoming shade in summer months. A marker indicates that the benches were part of an Eagle Scout project by Jason Buchanan of Troop 900 in spring 2012. When I was there on a July morning, the audience changed seats and moved among the twelve benches — to stay out of the direct sunrays — as the temperature began to rise. A musician even commented, “It’s hot – just saw a dog chase a cat, and both were walking.”

The house rules specify that only acoustic instruments can be played. After an hour into the jam session, the group peaked with 14 musicians and instruments – nine guitars, one fiddle, two mandolins, one banjo, and one bass guitar. A bass fiddle also leaned against the rear wall behind the musicians, but no one ever played it. By the time the session ended, the number of musicians had dropped to 11.

The music was harmonious, even when nearby cows joined in with their own vocal parts. “I think the cows liked that one,” one guitar player said as a song ended to acknowledge the accompaniment of the bellowing bovines. When the next song ended, another musician remarked, “The cows want more.” Then as the group played and sang “Take These Chains from My Heart,” the last of Hank Williams’ number-one hits, the cows were quiet, perhaps in respect to the memories that the song and the musicians were evoking.

Jam members play by the rules.
As informal as the jam session is, it has etiquette rules and adheres to other expectations of a bluegrass jam. A newcomer in the audience observes how politely one musician is offered to “take the lead.” Before “Why Don’t You Tell Me So?” by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs can begin, the lead announces, “G chord.” Sometimes a musician asks, “Which way are you going?” Another time a musician is reminded that it’s his turn: “That’s yours, Mac.” At one point, “Whose turn is it next?” is answered with “It’s Paul’s turn, ain’t it?” When the lead singer for a song appears to forget some lyrics, a group member says encouragingly, “Just make one up.” When another song ends, “Y’all make me feel so good,” is heard from the stage. An occasional “Good job” is also heard before the next tune begins.

The audience moves occasionally
to find seats in the shade.
The next song was “Crying My Heart Over You,” a hit written in 1982 by Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Carl Butler, and Earl Sherry. The group moved seamlessly between songs with lyrics and others played as only instrumental tunes. As the sun continued to rise, the chords of “Down Yonder” rang out. The sweet blend of instrumental sounds makes it seem like the musicians play together much more frequently than twice a month — jam sessions at the Reno Sharpe Store are held on only the first and third Saturdays of each month, beginning at 10 a.m. In addition, a special annual celebration is held each August. (A video of a bluegrass jam inside the store with Mr. Sharpe — in the background by the window — uploaded in 2009 also helps to preserve these memories.)

The store maintains its ambiance
even though it is officially closed.
The store, built in the 1880s, was moved in 1920 to its current location. Reno C. Sharpe owned and operated the store with his brother after taking control from their grandfather in the 1940s, but it officially closed in 2003, only six years before Sharpe died. However, its history is another story – best told by the family themselves.

My morning was well spent — a time to observe a close-knit community come together and share cherished memories with their music. My only discomfort was the apparent rule that no song could end with applause from the audience. The musicians clearly deserved that usual tribute of appreciation, but perhaps at this place just showing up is all the appreciation that they need.

After the jam, the community continues to preserve memories by adopting a highway.

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