Just Pickin'

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

Handler kept playing until the early Sixties, when "real life," as she describes it, came calling. "I lost touch with music then," she sighs. "I was married and had two children. I was eighteen when I had my first one, and nineteen months later I had my second. I was trying to be a good wife and a good mother and take care of the home, doing the things that were expected of girls back in those days." She didn't get back into music until she and Lenny happened upon one of the SFBA festivals in the late Seventies. She describes the association as "one big family," and says bluegrass festivals for her evoke a seemingly simpler era: "You come to depend on each other, and if someone in the group gets in trouble, everybody's there to help them out. The [festivals] take you back to a time when you maybe felt secure and there weren't a lot of things that you had to worry about. I think that's part of their appeal. Everybody wants to go back to that secure and safe feeling."

Compared to the high-tech, multimedia razzle-dazzle of music extravaganzas like Lollapalooza, bluegrass festivals have a homespun ambiance that hurtles you into the past. Most of them are outdoor affairs that can run anywhere from three to ten days. Nearly everyone in the audience seems to have an instrument with them, and headliners can usually be seen huddled in small groups for impromptu jam sessions or signing copies of their latest small-label release, for sale at the inevitable merchandise booth. Local craftsmen are on hand selling everything from clocks made of driftwood to handmade refrigerator magnets featuring photos of country-music stars clipped from magazines and newspapers and dolloped with glitter. And food, mostly staples of the Southern diet, is everywhere -- barbecued chicken, pork sandwiches, butter-soaked corn on the cob, homemade cakes, candies, and pies.

Electric instruments are usually frowned upon at these gatherings, SFBA events included, and the band configurations are for the most part in strict accordance with the lineup established decades earlier by Bill Monroe -- mandolin, acoustic guitar, upright bass, fiddle, and banjo, with the occasional dobro or second acoustic guitar added. The purity of bluegrass -- with its tight grip on tradition -- is an attraction for some, but for others it smacks of an elitism that frowns upon any hint of innovation or forward-motion.

"There is no form of music in the world that's ever stayed completely traditional and pure," claims David Bricker, a Miami native in his early thirties who plays guitar and writes a music-theory column for the California-based Flatpick magazine. A bluegrass enthusiast well versed in the music's history as well as in the work of upstart artists such as Scott Nygaard and David Grier, Bricker would like to see the SFBA change its policy on electric instruments. "I listen to people like Bill Monroe and Doc Watson because they were trailblazers and innovators and they should be respected as such," Bricker says. "I'd like to see [the SFBA] open up and embrace different people a little more. In a place like Miami, where we have all these different ethnic musics, bluegrass should be reaching out to people who play jazz or blues or folk music, or any type of electric music. But instead, as is typical, people who play a certain style of music divide up into little camps. 'I play this, you play that, and therefore we can't play together.'"

That won't be happening anytime soon, says SFBA president Lenny Handler. "That's pretty much standard throughout the industry," he says. "No drums, no electric instruments, no electronics of any kind. We only use electricity for the microphones on the voices. That's it."

The bluegrass faithful -- both the musicians who play it and the fans who consume it -- can be a cantankerous lot, reluctant to change, suspicious of anyone out to sully the purity and sanctity of the music. Still, the power of bluegrass remains, in its pristine state as well as its more adventurous incarnations. And for guitarist Pat Hill -- born in Nashville but a long-time resident of Miami -- bluegrass is a healing music as well. A childhood fan of country and western, Hill played country guitar as a child, then later moved to classical and jazz guitar while working full-time as an accountant. She came to bluegrass not out of choice but necessity: Stricken with rheumatoid arthritis in 1966, within three years Hill could no longer make chords on the guitar's fretboard.

Resting on the couch in her Palm Island home, Hill fights back tears while talking about the crippling disease. "You don't believe it can happen to you," she says, her sweet Southern voice breaking slightly. "It was very rough, very difficult. One day I just picked up the guitar and I couldn't make a chord any more. My fingers just wouldn't work."

Then in the late Seventies, while watching Hee Haw, of all things, she saw Pete Kirby, an alumnus of Roy Acuff's Smoky Mountain Boys, playing slide guitar on a dobro. "I watched him playing that dobro in his lap and I thought, 'I bet I could learn to do that.'" After making a trip to Nashville, Hill came back to Miami with a dobro, and as she puts it, "went out to the woodshed and practiced, practiced, practiced." Because chords on a dobro are made using a steel bar held in the left hand rather than with fingers stretching across the fretboard, Hill was able to work around her arthritis and keep playing music. But because the dobro is used more in bluegrass than any other genre, Hill found she had to tailor her jazz and classical skills to a music she had heard all her life but never thought about playing.

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