Just Pickin'

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."

The sense of belonging Lenny Handler is talking about is by no means exclusive to bluegrass fans. Teenagers probably feel something similar when they huddle en masse before the stages at punk shows, and the motley caravan that for decades shadowed the Grateful Dead is worth its own sociological study. Jazz and folk festivals, meanwhile, have brought together the loyal followers of those decidedly uncommercial genres for more than 40 years. But there is a sense of unity and community, of shared values, among bluegrass enthusiasts that goes beyond a common taste in music. It's more like a lifestyle. Although some people, like Charlie Hudson, are born into an appreciation and love of the music, just as many turn to bluegrass as a musical reaction -- to the assembly-line sounds of modern country, usually, but just as often to whatever's happening in rock and roll, whether it's Bob Dylan going electric or Nirvana going on about teen spirit and angst.

And that falls in line with the very birth of bluegrass, possibly the most reactionary form of music in American history. You can trace the roots of bluegrass to the late Thirties, when the string-band sounds of country innovators such as the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers were evolving into something more modern, more electric, more commercial -- what by the mid-Forties would be called honky-tonk. Most of the musicians who resisted the urbanization of this rural, mountain music turned instead to the sonic innovations of Bill Monroe, a fiery-tempered singer and musician from Kentucky, the Bluegrass State.

Born in 1911 to a musical family, Monroe first played guitar with a bluesman from the area but switched to mandolin when he began performing with his brothers Charlie and Birch (who pushed him toward the instrument because they had already assumed the fiddle and guitar duties). Emulating on mandolin the intricate fiddle runs he had picked up from his uncle (immortalized by Monroe years later in the classic "Uncle Pen"), Monroe developed a dexterous and dazzling style he employed in the Monroe Brothers, formed in 1934 with Charlie after Birch left the trio. The brothers split in 1938 and the next year Bill formed the first edition of the Blue Grass Boys, who made their recording debut in 1940. Their early recordings, as well as their numerous live shows and radio broadcasts, were mostly showpieces for Monroe's blazing mandolin runs and his piercing high tenor, although you can hear the elements of Monroe's style falling in place on the epochal 1940 version of "Mule Skinner Blues," his first solo vocal.

By the mid-Forties, Monroe's Blue Grass Boys had settled into the lineup that would forever set the artistic tone and instrumental makeup of bluegrass. The combination of Monroe, fiddler Chubby Wise, guitarist/vocalist Lester Flatt, banjo whiz Earl Scruggs, and bassist Cedric Rainwater were together for less than three years, but during that time they cranked out numerous bluegrass standards, including "Kentucky Waltz," "Will You Be Loving Another Man?" and "Footprints in the Snow." Nearly everything the quintet did was copied and incorporated by Monroe's legion of followers, from Flatt's syncopated guitar runs to Scruggs's resounding three-finger banjo style to the soaring vocal harmonies that would forever be described as "high, lonesome."

Because of Monroe's volatile nature and grueling work ethic (he toured almost nonstop), the cast of Blue Grass Boys constantly changed following the 1948 departure of Flatt and Scruggs, who took off to form the hugely successful Foggy Mountain Boys. Despite the instability in his group, Monroe continued to dominate the genre, which had by then been named after his influential band, and his innovations helped shape the vision of bluegrass acts as varied as the Stanley Brothers, Doc Watson, and the Country Gentlemen.

Monroe was already a Grand Ole Opry star by the early Fifties, when Charlie Hudson was introduced to the music. "All we listened to was country," relates Hudson. "My dad used to like the old country, like Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams, but he also liked bluegrass. In the early Sixties, we'd listen to the Opry every Saturday night, and Bill Monroe was on there almost every Saturday night. I started liking him and Jim and Jesse and the Osborne Brothers more than I did the country music. The music was more upbeat, and it was all acoustic. I've just always liked the sound of acoustic instruments better than electric."  

An uncle of Hudson who played on the radio in country bands through the Thirties and Forties taught a very young Charlie how to get around on the guitar. "Since I've been old enough to remember, I've been trying to play music," he says somewhat modestly. "I can't remember a time when I wasn't playing. My uncle taught me some chords on the guitar and I just took it from there. Never had any training, learned everything by ear. I started playing the dobro -- bluegrass slide guitar -- when I was 12 or 13, and I picked up a fiddle when I was 26. I've mainly been playing fiddle since I picked it up. It's so intriguing. There's always something to learn on the fiddle."

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."

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.

"If you're born and raised in Nashville, you're going to be exposed to bluegrass, country, all of it," she says. "When I was a child I'd lie in bed on Saturday nights and listen to the Grand Ole Opry. At that time they were playing the older country music, which is very much like bluegrass. But if it wasn't for the arthritis, I'd probably still be playing jazz and classical guitar. I play bluegrass because that's where the dobro fits in." She found the Banjo Shop in 1980 after asking different musicians in Miami where the bluegrass players hung out. Picking up dobro pointers here and there, soon Hill was at the Hollywood store, jamming with some of the musicians she now works with in Cross Roads Bluegrass, a mainstay at SFBA functions and one of the finer area bluegrass groups.

"About the only stuff I listen to now is classical and bluegrass," Hill says just before leaving town for a weekend trip to the twentieth annual Kissimmee Bluegrass Festival. "The stuff they call country now is not as good as the old stuff. It all sounds so much alike. Every now and then you'll hear a great voice, like Garth Brooks or Patty Loveless, but I don't go out of my way to listen to any of them. I just like bluegrass better. It doesn't have that manufactured sound of country today. It's all acoustic and these people are improvising off one another. It's almost like jazz, really. And if it wasn't for bluegrass, I wouldn't be playing music today.  

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