This week, I had the chance to back up Andy Juhl as a Bluestem Player once again, but this time the venue was wildly different from our usual gigs. This time, we were (rather inappropriately, as it turns out) playing at the 36th Annual National Old-Time Country and Bluegrass Festival in scenic Le Mars, IA. It was…cool, I think, but also curious.
Every time I’ve gotten that dratted fiddle out in a non-symphonic setting around here for the last few years, someone has told me I need to get to this festival, and this year I was actually planning to go and hang out for a day. It seemed to me to be a good chance to listen to what real fiddlers do live, and to get to know better how these traditional music forms work. I’ve always preferred my country music Old-Timey — I can’t stand most of what happens on mainstream country radio nowadays, and I really appreciate the unique nature of the style of play in these trad settings. That said, I certainly wasn’t planning on playing — I’m not a good fiddler by old-time style standards, and I can’t sing in that style, either. Sadly, there is no twang in my Illinois suburbanite soul. I know some of the songs (funny how being a church musician teaches you this stuff), and I know what I like to hear, but that’s it.
So, naturally, instead of going to hang out and just listen for a day like a responsible student of the form, I end up singing and playing on three different days. This is how life works. I am, as I write this, missing a fiddle contest to which I was politely invited buy a guy who can actually play this stuff, and hadn’t yet heard me mangle music on my jumped-up violin. There are some forms of embarrassment that even I manage to avoid.
What was cool:
1) The venue
The festival took place (and indeed, as of this writing, is still taking place) at the Plymouth County Fairgrounds in Le Mars, IA. I had never been there before, but I think I’ll go back if I find another musical excuse. There’s some cool stuff on that site! There’s a whole village of historical and replica buildings to toddle about in, for example. It seems like a pretty lively spot.
2) The atmosphere
This isn’t just a music festival, but it was sure as heck musical at all times! There were people camped out in Civil War-era tents, people doing crafty things, people running workshops on the music, people from as far away as Australia and Ireland playing their stuff, vendors selling everything from festival food to $30,000 violins (I kid you not).
Outside of the fairground’s historic cabin, there was a more-or-less nonstop jam session running every time I walked by.
People were jamming in tents, jamming in RVs, jamming in the middle of the sidewalk…according to a bass player we talked to at one of our sets, the music starts at 9AM and everyone just keeps right on a-pickin’ until midnight (or whenever they get tired).
It was, I thought, a remarkably friendly place to play — a family show, to be sure, with no alcohol sold on site, but still lively. Everyone seemed to be looking for people to play with, and even our out-of-place contemporary folkiness was welcomed.
3) The music
There was an amazing amount of music happening in that nonstop jam nation of a festival. There was a stage dedicated to dance music, a main stage for the BIG acts, a little stage for anyone who wanted to sign up and perform, a big outdoor stage with a jam run by a band, a little outdoor stage chock full o’ Jesus, and no chance on earth to be free of the sounds.
The sign-up small stage was in a building they called the Dobrotorium for the duration of the festival, and it included a marvelous little exhibit of old Dobros and some history about famous players of the instrument. Oddly, though, at no time when I was present did anyone actually play a Dobro in the Dobrotorium. I did hear a kid play The Entertainer on a regular old acoustic guitar, though. He was pretty good. :)
Andy and co. played on the Pioneer Stage first, surrounded by instrument vendors who were, I think, a little worried that people couldn’t test their wares (what with the weather being so miserably drippy and the constant shows on stage). Apparently, there were also Oak Tree Opry shows on that stage, although we weren’t around to see any of that. We did (from backstage) get to hear some absolutely amazing yodeling — I’m not sure if it was actually Greta Elkin (of Londonderry, Northern Ireland — she was at the festival and on the schedule to play), but whoever she was, she was brilliant.
What was curious: The crowd, the style, and the Bluestem Players
I had the impression that most of the crowd was either pretty old or pretty young — lots of kids, lots of retirees, not a lot in between. Obviously, I wasn’t on site for the whole week, and I’m not there now, when the weekend attendees would show, but it was interesting to me to see how the population skewed like that. The music itself is mostly old, of course, but people were also playing and singing their own original compositions written in proper old-time and bluegrass style. The kids I heard and saw playing were pretty marvelous — there were whole families playing together, and they did a great job. I just sort of hung out and listened to a lot of adolescents cruising through (teaching each other, I think) the fiddle bits of The Battle of New Orleans, and I was a bit awed. I can’t get that sound out of my axe! I rather suspect that I also play that particular tune too darn fast. It’s a bad habit of mine.
There were all sorts of interesting class markers in the clothes and the speech and the music, and a lot of interesting limits on what constitutes “real” old-time country music. Personally, I would’ve loved to hear some old-school acoustic blues, but that wasn’t what fit the category here. It is probably not an accident that the crowd was largely white folks. The history of this music as traditionally understood is a history of white folks (and much of it is music from poor white folks, so not the fancy-schmanzy stuff from town), so that made a sort of sense.
The most instructive compliment I received after playing a set with Andy was this: “That was really good singing. I mean, it ain’t country, but it was still good.” I think that about sums up a lot of our experience, musically. Andy’s music isn’t country, really, although it is acoustic and cool and speaks to many things that this audience could find familiar. We threw in covers of Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan and John Prine among Andy’s originals, and we…well, we sort of fit, in an odd way. But it ain’t country. Even when I do the music that apparently does fit (I heard more than a few of the songs that Josh and I frequently play), stylistically I know I’m not quite right.
We had fun, anyway. :) I think I’ll go visit next year instead of playing though — I need to learn!