Just Pickin'

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

As a young adult, Hudson played fiddle, guitar, and dobro in honky-tonks around Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale while holding down full-time jobs, mostly doing auto body work. "I never did pursue music like maybe I should have," he laments. "But my dad always taught me you've got to work for a living, and it's hard to make a living as a musician. Right after I quit school I got married, then I got drafted into the army in 1968, so I never really had a single life. I went straight from my mother and father's house right into being married, so I always had to work and keep going so I could pay the bills." Still, Hudson says he's always managed to get in at least two hours of practice every night. "Unless I'm real tired when I get home from work and fall asleep, I'll play at least a couple hours," he says. "I've just always had it in me to want to play."

Although there are some professional musicians in the South Florida Bluegrass Association, most of the performers who gather at the Ives Estates stage each month are strictly amateur, despite the technical prowess of a good many members. Some of them come together every week for the jam sessions at Wizbang Music, an intimate acoustic-instrument shop in Dania operated since 1989 by Shirley Whisner. A Philadelphia native who's been in Dania since 1980, Whisner first opened the store as a clogging lessons and supply shop. When the Banjo Shop in Hollywood closed for good in 1993 (after providing area bluegrass musicians an informal atmosphere in which to play for more than 25 years), Whisner adopted a similar jam-session format for her store.

A musician herself, Whisner says her love for the music prompted her to open the spacious back room of her shop to local country and bluegrass pickers on Wednesdays and Saturdays. "I had always wanted to play," says Whisner, whose father was a guitarist and vocalist who performed on radio broadcasts in West Virginia. "I just hit 43 one day and just didn't find too much interesting in my life. So I asked myself, 'What would you like to do?' So I picked up the guitar."

Attracted to the music for its incessant, driving rhythms, Whisner spent much of the Eighties attending bluegrass festivals across the U.S. with her three children, all of whom are bluegrass players. "I think people have this stigma of the bluegrass fan as being this toothless, barefoot, incestuous type of degenerate, but it's not like that at all," Whisner says. "There are doctors, lawyers, blue-collar workers -- everybody loves it. And anywhere you go to hear it, you just fit right in. We have strangers who come into the store all the time and fifteen minutes later they're playing with the people like they're long-lost buddies. And the egos aren't there. Nobody thinks they're great. It's all for the love of music first, before anything else."

The Wizbang jams are casual affairs, to say the least. On Saturdays, the pickers start arriving at the shop in the early afternoon and take a folding chair from a corner of the back room and open up their instrument cases. A big semicircle is formed and fiddles, mandolins, guitars -- lots of guitars -- are all tuned, and then the music just starts. There's no bandleader or director; someone calls a tune, someone counts it off, and the players fall in, some of them with grace and precision, others with the awkward tentativeness that pegs the playing of a novice.

The resulting program is a varied mix. A chaotic run through the country-blues standard "Sittin' on Top of the World" leads to a ragged-but-right take on Merle Haggard's "Swinging Doors." An older woman with dark brown hair and a hollow-body guitar belts out a wavering but impassioned "Delta Dawn," then another woman, maybe in her late forties and decked out in a royal-blue shirt and matching cowboy hat, turns in a respectable version of the Charlie Walker honky-tonker "Pick Me Up on Your Way Down." Amanda Mears, the fourteen-year-old guitarist and vocalist for the Davie-based Dixie Darlings, takes the floor for a stab at the Johnny Cash hit "Tennessee Flat-Top Box," then Bonnie Handler, a pretty woman with glowing platinum-blond hair, revives the Dolly Parton standard "Coat of Many Colors" and joins 76-year-old guitarist Paul Bain for a moving duet on Buck Owens's "Crying Time."

Handler is a regular at the Wizbang sessions and a guitarist in Charlie Hudson's band. She's been in South Florida since 1978, when she and her husband decided to relocate. But where Lenny says he's a product of the big-band jazz era and claims the only instrument he can play is the radio, Bonnie grew up immersed in the sound of country music. She was born in the early Forties in Smoke Hole, West Virginia, located on the state's second highest mountain between Petersburg and Franklin. The nearest neighbor, she says, was about a mile away.

"My brothers all played music, a mixture of bluegrass and country," Handler says. "Songs like 'Walking the Floor Over You,' 'Ragtime Annie,' 'Sally Goodin.' We'd always have a crowd of people over on Sunday. My mother would start cooking the day before and people would show up, and usually we'd wind up out on the back porch playing music. When I was about five or six I would join in, putting wax paper on a comb and blowing on it. When I was about twelve I decided I wanted a guitar, so my father told me if I learned to play guitar he would get one for me -- not the other way around. I had to learn first. So one of my brothers taught me a few chords on the guitar, and my father ordered me a guitar from Sears and Roebuck, an old Harmony model."

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