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A Year in the Life of a Bluegrass Addict


By Mark Currie, Lancaster

IT ALL STARTED in March 1997. After two years of looking for some Bluegrass in Britain, Andy Crowe and I finally got a lead. My girlfriend Gill came home from work with a telephone number she found Chester, via the NWBN on the Internet. Brilliant! A ’phone call found Derek Brandon, Bluegrass mad and full of enthusiasm. A newsletter followed. My name appeared in the contacts page and we got a ’phone call from Gary Sommerville, forty miles down the road with an Earl Scruggs Mastertone. Wow! Gary was around the same stage of learning as us and we started to have a go at Bluegrass music.

A trip to Melling Tithe Barn to see New River Ranch (USA) and Rainy City (North West) knocked us out! we were buzzing for weeks after. Warrington (The Millstone), Oldham (the Dog and Duck), Silsden with the excellent Knotty Pine String Band and Omagh (Knotty Pine again) and our summer education was over. Back to winter and some hard graft on the guitars. By this time ‘Boston’ Bill Gilson from Kendal had come along with his flatiron F5 mandolin, but unfortunately Gary had to pack up because of work commitments. Learning Bluegrass without banjo was not easy so yours truly took it up as well as the guitar.

We pick round at each others houses at the moment every Tuesday night and Saturday afternoon plus any other night we get (most nights). Bill Kerr, an old mate has now joined in with guitar and vocals and is as hooked as we are on the music (its catching) Our aim is to get a pub pick going after winter when hopefully we will be able to put out a decent beat and hit Lancaster with Bluegrass, something it has never seen (at least we don’t think so... but perhaps you know different?)

Derek & Jean Brandon sit in with Mark (left) and the
Hot Septet at Edale. Pesty on beer pour.

We had a visit over the winter from Bill Lloyd, a local old time banjo man and a fantastic singer, who gave us the inspiration to have a go at singing. This is still a bit hit and miss at the moment, though Boston Bill went to the Sore Throat week organised by Andrea Preston and came back with plenty of info to keep us going.

We have a go at a lot of songs and have found Pete Wernick’s Bluegrass Songbook to be invaluable. A typical night will start of with The Wreck of The Old ‘97, Long Journey Home, Bury Me Beneath The Willow (wet the whistle at this point), into Man of Constant Sorrow, Pretty Polly, Little Maggie (we’re all big Stanley fans). Then onto Things in Life, Valley of Peace, Bile Them Cabbages Down (Don Stover rules OK) and Tell It To Me (a real favourite of ours, the first song where we really went for it). We might ‘do’ Lonesome Road Blues (by some freak chance we got the harmony really easily on this one), St. James Hospital (we’re working up to the full Infirmary version), Cripple Creek (we must have had another tin of beer by now), Tennessee Waltz, Ain’t Nobody Goin’ to Miss Me When I’m Gone and Foggy Mountain Breakdown (oh yes, one day!)

The thing I really like about the Bluegrass scene is the help on offer from good players. Having been into Blues for some years, I found it full of Guitar Queens who would show you nothing and learning was slow. Bluegrass, however, with its picking sessions, is something else. Andy and myself have tended to “hide behind the tent” We see or are shown something then slope off and try it; we don’t want to ruin a good thing. But we are fairly confident we will be able to sit in next year - it’s not easy for beginners, confidence comes with ability, in our eyes.

This year started with the Barbican. Andy Crowe, Bill Kerr and I shot down the motorway to London. Nearing London we saw a Rolls Royce with the number plate JDC1. We looked for the “Have you hugged your banjo today” sticker but there wasn’t one. Clearly this was an impostor - we would have to wait a few hours longer to see the real JDC. I thought the Barbican was a fantastic ‘do’, a really good way to kick off the season. J.D. had a remarkable likeness to Andy’s dad (are they related? Andy can have my banjo if they are) Let’s hope the Barbican happens again next year. Is there any chance of getting Ralph Stanley over, I wonder?

Edale was next at its’ new Nottingham venue. I took a look at Chris Moreton’s guitar workshop and found masses of info to take home with us, this learning is never ending. Some excellent bands here and some new friends. I met up with Mark Taylor (banjo), a real character from Chesterfield who got me jamming with his crew. I played terribly but at last I’ve had a go. It definitely seems to get easier each time you try.

At night we had a pick (and serious drink) with Portsmouth duo Mike Fowler (guitar) and Steve Jones (banjo) of the band Future Sound of Kentucky. Again loads of top tips; cheers guys. We finished of Edale with a Sunday pick with Derek and Jean, Mike, Steve and a few others.

Conwy was next. Andy Crowe, Pesty (a none player who likes the music) and myself, bumped straight into Mike and Steve and crew. Drinks all round and we’re off! Conwy is by far the best festival I’ve been to yet. It’s held in the park in the middle of town so you can get to all amenities very easily. The bands played in a marquee in the park and in the Civic Hall in town.

There was also a big jamming tent. I saw a few of the bands, the excellent Baker’s Fabulous Boys, Down County Boys and the Clem O’Brien Band. I didn’t watch many of the paid performers because there was a session right outside our tent which was too good to miss. The guys from Portsmouth attracted a group of musicians over and it turned into a real Bluegrass party! Even some of the old timers were getting in on the act. Security was very friendly, patrolled 24 hours and did a great job.

There’s a few more festivals to go and then it’s back to Winter, when I hope to get around the country to as many sessions as I can (including Chester, at 80 miles...)

All this, new mates, tuition, good fun and great boozing came as a result of a 'phone call and a fiver in the post to NWBN. Cheers D and J and all who contribute to the news mag.

Mark Currie, Halton, Lancaster, England

PS. Anyone passing through or stuck in Lancaster who wants a pick, give me a ring - 01524-812264.


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Updated 23rd Jan 1999