Just Pickin'

For South Florida bluegrass fans, it's not just music, it's life

We're having a few technical problems with the sound equipment, so the music will be starting a little late," announces an apologetic voice over the public address system, penetrating the early-afternoon quiet in this heavily wooded corner on the grounds of the Ives Estates Optimist Club in North Dade. The music should've started at 1:00 p.m. -- the usual kickoff time for these monthly music affairs, hosted by the South Florida Bluegrass Association. Still, no one in the audience of association members, regular attendees, and curious first-timers seems to mind.

And who in their right mind would care? After all, it's a beautiful Sunday, with the sun peeking in through the thick, natural awning of several giant oak trees. The wind these last few days has been noisy and gusting, but today it's reduced to a mild, calming breeze -- a breeze that carries the scent of hot dogs, hand-sliced French fries, and spicy chicken wings being sold near the entrance gate. So while the audio kinks are being worked out, there are plenty of diversions for the scattered crowd of about 60, most of whom are talking among themselves, kicking back in lawn chairs, or having lunch at one of the wooden picnic tables scattered around the site. If you have to wait around for something, this is a pretty good place to do it.

Soon enough the technical problems are solved and by 1:30 or thereabouts the Dixie Darlings take the stage. The best music of the day, however, is already being played -- not on-stage, mind you, but over near one of the picnic tables, by Charlie Hudson and Steven Hurst, members of Southern Bred, a local bluegrass group. Southern Bred isn't scheduled to perform for another couple of hours or so, but Hudson and Hurst, both armed with acoustic guitars and standing not two feet from one another, are already deep into the music. The former is grinning widely, dark eyes glowing beneath a brown suede cowboy hat, teeth clinched tight on a cigarette. The latter is staring intently at Hudson -- first at his hands, which dance effortlessly along the aged wood of the guitar, then to his eyes, then back again to the hands. Hurst is conjuring a gentle, rolling rhythm while Hudson picks out a simple melody on lead. Then they swap instruments, with Hudson laying the groundwork for Hurst's single-string picking.

They go at it like this for about twenty minutes, playing traditional instrumentals pulled from bluegrass history for an audience of maybe five people gathered around the table. Then the musicians move on. "That was a workout," Hurst says somewhat breathlessly as he wipes the sweat from his forehead. He unstraps his guitar, puts it back in the case, and ambles over by the stage, where some other members of Southern Bred have gathered to rehearse. Hudson, though, keeps his guitar on, and after engaging in a bit of small talk with an enthusiastic well-wisher ("That wasn't nothing," Hudson says. "Just pickin' and grinnin'") he wanders around the grounds, picking tunes for anyone who will listen, that grin never leaving his face.

"I was just having fun," Hudson says a few days later, in a drawling voice turned coarse and grainy from too many cigarettes over his 48 years. "Bluegrass is basically very happy music, even though the words are sometimes sad. It's the music of it, it's more upbeat. It's hard for me to explain it, you know? It's just happy, happy music."

Hudson likes to think of bluegrass as America's music, and he's been playing it around South Florida longer than he can remember -- at least since the mid-Fifties, shortly after his father moved the Hudson clan from Cordell, Georgia, to Miramar. In the Seventies Hudson and some friends used to get together at T.Y. Park in Hollywood to play some bluegrass. Mindful of the music's importance, not to mention their passion for it, Hudson and his friends thought it might be a good idea to "get something together like an association, a nonprofit thing that would keep bluegrass going." Hence the South Florida Bluegrass Association (SFBA), formed in 1973, one of the oldest such groups in the nation.

Boasting nearly 300 members, the Hollywood-based group puts its annual fifteen-dollar membership dues toward concerts held the first Sunday of every month at the Ives Estates Optimist Club site, as well as the yearly Everglades Bluegrass Convention, held at the same location every February. The SFBA is just one of five similar groups based in Florida, and one of the nearly 350 formed in the U.S. since the mid-Sixties, when bluegrass was first embraced nationally by devotees of the urban-folk movement. These groups -- along with an underground network of tiny record companies and community radio stations -- are the heart that keeps bluegrass alive despite its isolation from commercial radio and the major record labels based in country music's capital of Nashville, Tennessee.

The members "are all regular people that come from different walks of life," says SFBA president Lenny Handler, a 69-year-old New Jersey native who, along with his wife Bonnie, has been involved with the group for about ten years. "A lot of them come from the hill country of the South, even from up North. We've had Canadians who come down to play bluegrass with us. There's even a Brazilian who's a member of our club." And what's the attraction? Handler echoes Hudson's comments: "It's lively, happy music. It's not like that sad stuff you hear in country music. And the people are nice. I mean, really nice. Bluegrass people are good people. You get a real sense of belonging with these people."

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