Pickin' on the peninsula

Bluegrass music thriving at jam sessions

Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2008


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  Deanna Beauchamp plays a dobro. Photo by Will Morrow

Mike Abels, Rick Matiya and Steve Caswell play guitar during a bluegrass jam session last month at the Kenai Senior Center. Sessions take place every Thursday.

Photo by Will Morrow

Alaska may not be the bluegrass state, but the music has a thriving following here on the peninsula.

Every Thursday night at 6:30, musicians get together with guitars, mandolins, fiddles, and banjos to jam.

"You never know who's going to be here or what instruments," said Stu Stuart, who organizes the event at the Kenai Senior Center. "We even had a kid here with a clarinet and he got some bluegrass out of that clarinet."


Stu Stuart plays mandolin. Stuart began organizing the sessions at the Kenai Senior Center after enjoying the sessions at Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna.

Photo by Will Morrow

The Kenai jam may lack the cowboy boots seen at Nashville's jams, but it still packs plenty of kick.

On any given Thursday there are 10 to 15 musicians, playing various instruments at a variety of skill levels. Some musicians play multiple instruments at an expert level and instruments are passed around the circle like a peace pipe, each person taking their turn at the electric bass or dobro.

Dick Weaver has been playing bluegrass music for over 60 years and he's recorded a couple of home albums, doing all the playing, mixing and vocals, which sound distinctly like Johnny Cash, himself.


A jam session gets under way. Participants take turns picking songs for the group to play.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Another player just picked up a mandolin three months ago.

"Anybody's welcome and spectators (are) too," Stuart said. "Any skill level. We appreciate anyone coming."

For novice players, the jam can be the perfect place to learn, and more experienced musicians can hone their skills with the help of other players.


Deanna Beauchamp plays a dobro.

Photo by Will Morrow

There has been a long-running jam at the Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna on the first Thursday of every month. Stuart began attending that jam in December of 2007 and decided to see if there was a way it could be expanded. He checked with the Kenai Senior Center last fall and now the jam is held there every week except the first Thursday of the month, when it moves over to Christ Lutheran in Soldotna.

"Last December was the first time I went and I've only missed one since," Stuart said. "I thought it would be good for the senior center and the bluegrass community too."

Although the jams all start at 6:30 p.m., they end whenever people start to leave.

"Someone asked me (this summer), 'When do we stop playing?' I said, 'When it gets dark,'" Stuart said. "We're done playin' whenever everyone's done playin'."

After attending the jam for a couple of months, Stuart decided he wanted to learn how to play. He asked Dave Coleson, who makes and plays instruments locally, what would be the easiest to learn and Coleson recommended mandolin.

Although Stuart picked up his first instrument in April, he's been a fan of bluegrass as long as he can remember.

"I grew up in New Mexico and over in Arkansas and Oklahoma," he said. "We'd listen to the Grand Ole Opry and Louisiana Hayride. That's how I started. I was always interested in country and bluegrass."


John Landua, on banjo, looks over th shooulder of Terry Debban during a bluegrass jam session.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Despite his recent introduction to playing, Stuart has become one of the jam's organizational leaders.

"I just keep getting more involved all the time. I don't know how it happens," he said.

In addition to the weekly jam, Stuart has put together a myspace page for the jam and he's looking into other ways to implement bluegrass into peninsula life.

On July 19, he is putting together a bluegrass festival to be held on the lawn behind the senior center. The event will also serve as a fundraiser to help the senior center buy some new sound equipment.

Stuart said that he is looking for area musicians to be involved in the festival.

"(We're looking for musicians) anywhere from the Kenai Peninsula or Anchorage," he said. "As long as it's bluegrass or country."

Stuart also is looking into the possibility of holding a fiddle competition or other activity next winter.

"The winter is when we need more stuff to do," he said.

Bluegrass may be a worldwide phenomenon, with bands playing at festivals throughout Europe and into Asia, but its roots are dug in American soil.

According to the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Ky., as settlers moved into the Carolinas, Tennessee, Kentucky and the Virginias, they began to write songs about their daily lives in the land. Most of this music came from more rural areas and the songs tended to center around life on the farm and in the hills. The music became known as "mountain music" or "country music."

Around the 1900s, the music became more widely spread around the county with the invention of the phonograph and the popularity of radio.

The Monroe Brothers were a popular duet in the 20s and 30s with Charlie on guitar and Bill on mandolin. In 1938, the Monroe Brothers split up and each went on to start their own band.

Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, named after his home state of Kentucky, can be given credit for bringing bluegrass music to popularity, as well as giving it its name.

Although many bluegrass fans date bluegrass to when Monroe, who is often credited as the father of bluegrass music, and his band appeared on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in 1939, it is widely believed that banjo player Earl Scruggs made it what it is today.

Scruggs joined Monroe's band in 1945 and implemented "Scruggs style" banjo playing, a three-finger style of picking, into bluegrass music.

When Scruggs left the band, he joined former Monroe bandmate, Lester Flatt, and created the group The Foggy Mountain Boys. It was in this band that the dobro, named for its creators, the Dopyera Brothers, was introduced to popular bluegrass music.

Scruggs and Flatt gained national prominence through their work on the soundtrack for "Bonnie and Clyde," as well as the television show "The Beverly Hillbillies." Since that time, bluegrass music has been prominent in movies like "Deliverance" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

Today, musicians perform traditional bluegrass and incorporate different forms of music such as jazz, Celtic music, contemporary country, gospel and rock and roll, which is sometimes referred to as "newgrass" or "progressive bluegrass."

In addition to Thursday's jams, musicians also get together on Wednesdays to play at lunch at the Senior Center and on Sundays at 6 p.m. for a gospel bluegrass jam at Mt. Redoubt Baptist Church.

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