Arkansas Bluegrass Jam Session

These Bluegrass Journals...

by Joshua Heston

This road less traveled, often not a cliché but rather a lifetime of choices — oft difficult paths to tread. Questions of following the heart no matter the cost.

It is the culmination of long hours on the road, of afternoon pickin’ parties, of winter pies and summer tomatoes. It’s the flashbulbs of national conventions and the near-empty halls of a so-totally-not-sold-out show.

It’s a hard life, this bluegrass life. But it’s a good one ’cause it’s true. We did not choose this path for security, affluency, or fame.

We chose this road for there’s something in the music, the lyrics, the resonation deep within saying, I am true. I am honest. Now and forever. Because I am human and this is my song...

Finding Your Nitch*

by Cindy Clark

It was about three years ago, right now, when I was reaching a mid-life crisis of sorts. I had decided I didn't have any dreams left and I didn't even have a decent hobby... except for drinking coffee (which is an admirable addiction but not a good hobby). 

It was about two months later I first lifted the upright bass off its side and strummed the G, D, A, E... in that order. My husband had found the bass on sale and bought it at Christmas, hoping one of our kids would find an interest in playing. I had not even taken a second look at it. I couldn't read music and I had no interest in playing the bass.

Most of you know the story of how I came to be a “bass player,“ but for those of you who don’t, here is the Reader’s Digest version:

My dear friend Gayle Roberts sent me an email about a youth band contest held every year in Branson, Missouri’s Silver Dollar City where “the past comes alive!”

Gayle liked my boys’ music playing and thought they would be good competitors in the contest.

We Googled about it — which is what the world does now for information — and I contacted Mr. Callaway, the head of entertainment at SDC. I sent him a YouTube video of my boys. He called me to say that they were good but that we were auditioning for a band contest and the two boys alone didn’t qualify as a band. He said, “If you can get a band together, then they would qualify.” I told the boys. We brainstormed a bit about possibilities. It was then that I picked up that bass....strummed those first notes and mused, “Hey! Do you think that I could play the bass for you if we entered that contest?”

I credit my son Jed with my most motivational piece of encouragement...

He looked at me, rolled his big brown eyes and said, ”Oh, come on mom!” It wasn’t the kind of ”come on mom” that meant, “OH, please try!” It was the kind that meant, “You couldn't possibly do that!”

For me, that was a challenge, a dare — fuel to a fire I didn't even know was smoldering in my heart. I asked him to show me which strings made what notes. He did. Then he played a song in the key of D which meant that I could play the whole song on the bass without ever fretting on the fingerboard. Having a decent ear for music, I was able to hear the changes and accomplish them quickly.

The rest is history.

Two months later, my boys — along with two other kids and me — played four songs in a two-day contest. In a competition where 14 other bands from around the country competed, we placed third. 

Thus was the end of my mid-life crisis and the beginning of not just a hobby, but  a passion that had been deep inside of me for years — one that I didn’t even know I owned.

I started playing music and singing with my kids. It has been hard, maddening, and wonderful, all at the same time. I love, love, love it.   But, please don't become bored yet... because that is only the backdrop for this note.

Get a cup of coffee and please finish reading at some point because what I want to communicate is deeper and better than just how I came to play bass....

I want to communicate how I’ve found the best part — the “creamy middle” if you will. I want to communicate what I love the most about coming to this place in my life. As usual, I am finding when I have a revelation it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Usually, the revelation grows and the more I discover, the sweeter it becomes.

God works with me that way — probably all of us — if we just stop and think about it.   Yesterday, the boys played at the Arkansas Bluegrass Association Jamboree at a senior citizen’s center in Benton, Arkansas. There might have been 50 people there in all — an attendance that was down approximately 75 percent from past jamborees according to the host of the party, Mr. Tipton.

A charming older gentleman, Mr. Tipton seemed very disappointed at the low attendance. He all but apologized for the low numbers, but said, “We’ll have a good time anyway.”

I looked around the room. It was a typical bluegrass crowd for Arkansas. I may have been one of the youngest people in the room — at age 47. Older bluegrass audiences are not the most animated but they are certainly the most loyal and I believe they enjoy their music more than any other fan of any other brand of music!

They are the kind of audience that sometimes looks bored but when you finish, they smile big and clap loud!

I love, love, love bluegrass fans! They are the best! We took the stage and opened with an instrumental. Then Jed sang the next one.

I watched the crowd as we played (I like making eye contact with people when we play). I like watching their faces when one of my boys does his magic with fancy runs and impressive licks.

But most of all, I like singing to the audience. When it’s my turn to sing, I try to sing straight to them...individually. I don’t sing songs I don't like... and usually, I like a song not only because of the melody, but because the words mean something to me.

I like seeing someone and realizing what I'm singing to them means something to them too.

I like that moment when our eyes meet and I discern an emotion has been tapped...an “aaha” moment has been shared by us. We both like this and maybe for some of the same reasons.  I like feeling that a human-to-human connection has been made. 

Don't you love it when someone says something to you or tells you about an experience and you not only understand what they are saying, you know you’ve felt what they felt?

Pardon the dramatics here but it is somewhat of a religious experience for me. I love connecting with people. That’s what Jesus did too. He understood them and connected with them. I like it when I am understood and when I understand someone else. It, to me, is a basic element of love. To connect and feel something together.

I’m trying to think of a word for it...but the only one that keeps coming to my  mind is good.

It is good. 

I sang a song about Jesus:

He is more than any friend could ever be / He more than meets the need / He is more...

I looked into a lady’s eyes as I sang. She smiled at me with her eyes when I sang. She believed what I sang, just like I did.

It was good.

Perhaps the best part of the whole experience yesterday was meeting the people after the show. I love the nice compliments that everyone lavishes on my boys and me.

Vanity. I still have plenty of that.

However, it wasn’t that part that was the best.

It was meeting people who told me their names and shared their lives a little bit. I met a precious lady named Iwana. She told me she was 80 years old and she lost her husband of 57 years in July. She and I talked about losing people who are precious and she shared how she was getting through it with the help of her sons and friends.

We talked a long time and I was genuinely encouraged by her.  I met other people who talked about things that were familiar to me — common experiences not because we were so alike but because we had grown up similarly, but generations apart.

When we left, I felt good... real good.

We all won. They enjoyed us and I enjoyed them. What a deal! When God gives you some  special gift (whether it is an experience, an opportunity  or a tangible thing), thank Him for it and live out of it as much as you possibly can. If it reaches a point where that gift seems like it wasn’t as good as you first thought, thank Him for it.

He is going to teach you something by it. But, if that gift was a dream — a passion you had deep inside — and you realize that, don’t let go of that passion!

Keep the passion and ask God to show you how to best use that passion His gift stirred inside you.

Playing music with the kids and singing with them? It was a gift but that gift created a passion in me for something bigger than just playing music and singing songs. It filled a desire in me that was there when I became a nurse... long, long ago.

The passion to connect with people. To see joy in them and to share suffering with them.  There have been  times when it seemed too hard too keep living that passion. Living it was not “good for us” and not the best. But for some reason, I don’t seem to be able to let go of that passion. I've tried and somehow hearts get turned and bad times fade and we seem to somehow play music again.

It’s not always fun. Sometimes it just seems like hard work. But there are those days — days like yesterday when it seems almost my calling.

I love people. I love singing (especially with my kids). And I love connecting.  

So, to my husband who bought the bass on a whim: Thank you, honey.

To my friend Gayle, who without even knowing she was part of a wonderful gift coming from God to me: Thank you, dear friend.

To those of you (and you know who you all are) who have listened to me bellyache about every little aspect of this whole big ride: Thank you friends.

To those of you who made it to this point in my ramblings, Thanks for reading! I hope it connected with you somehow.

And most of all, Thank you Lord Jesus...for new mercies every day...and for giving me the gift of getting to connect with people...and for giving us all passions.

It's all good.

December 5, 2010

March 1, 2015

plate 1. From left, Beci Coffey (in blue), Bill Nesbitt (with guitar), Sam Coffey (with banjo), Sally Ann Clark, Donny Catron, Sophie Clark, Ethan McClung (foreground), and Cindy Clark (on bass) at Joe McClung’s home near Eureka Springs. February 7, 2015. Photo by Joshua Heston.

DA Callaway

plate 2. The “Strongest Man in Bluegrass,” D.A. Callaway. Photo courtesy of Cindy Clark. 2008.

SPBGMA 2015 Report

by D. A. Callaway

I’m back home from SPBGMA (Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America) Convention and Bluegrass Music Awards held February 5 through 8 at the Music City Sheraton in Nashville. The hotel was completely sold out for this festival of great bluegrass music.

Musicians jammed day and night in small circles covering the expansive lobby, in hallways, in stairwells, on balconies, in the courtyard and even out on the sidewalks. Musicians and music lovers could continue all night on the first floor of the hotel. The upper floors were to be quiet after midnight.

There were several concerts by professional bluegrass bands on the main stage in the hotel ballroom, which was also the location for the annual awards presentation as the International Bluegrass Band Championship.

Lorraine Jordan & DA Callaway

plate 3. Lorraine Jordan with DA Callaway. Photo courtesy of DA Callaway.

I particularly enjoy the contest, as I get to become acquainted with musicians and bands I wouldn’t otherwise see. To win this competition, bands must display perfect tempo and timing; Each note must be spot on, both vocally and instrumentally. Any deviation from perfection can be costly, as judges are instructed to be alert for the slightest errors in timing and intonation.

Consequently, winners are well-rehearsed and they don’t take chances. Cash prizes paid to the top 10 bands total $10,000.

There is no doubt the winning bands earned every dollar.

2015 SPBGMA Contest Results:

  1. Lindsey Family (KY)
  2. Ditch Diggers (VA)
  3. Turkey Creek Band (TN)
  4. The Hinson Girls (SC)
  5. The New Balance (IN)
  6. North Country Bluegrass (WA)
  7. Loose Strings Band (VA)
  8. Gray’s Crossing (TN)
  9. Tyler Williams Band (TN
  10. Bethesda Bluegrass Band (NC))

Each band played in three separate rounds of competition, each with a panel of six judges. High and low scores are tossed out for each performance to keep any one judge from spiking any particular band either with an intentionally high or low score.

That means only four judges’ numbers count toward the final tally, which makes it about as fair as possible. Bands are ranked by the total scores from all three rounds.

There is no question that the contest winners are all musically excellent.

The downside, if any, is that judges may only score on criteria listed on the score sheets. Audience appeal, energy level, excitement and entertainment value play no part in the scoring. If not, the outcome may have been different. That was obvious by the fact The Baker Family of Birch Tree, Missouri, received the only standing ovation given over the two days of competition. The crowd loved them.

I also love the Baker Family. Carrie is the mother of the group as well as guitarist, and her delightful children complete the ensemble. Carina is the mandolin player with a big beautiful voice reminiscent of a young Rhonda Vincent or Connie Smith. Elijah plays the upright bass with vim and vigor. Trustin plays banjo quite well and is a young virtuoso on the fiddle. Everybody sings.

I was thrilled to see the Bakers perform some impromptu concerts at various locations around the Sheraton, where they couldn’t help but attract eager listeners and sell a few CDs. The Baker Family is definitely one of the most bookable bands I saw at SPBGMA. I already knew they were a fan favorite from their past performances at Silver Dollar City, where they’ve agreed to return on May 24 & 25 as well as June 2 & 3.

That’s my report from SPBGMA, a place where musicians and satisfied listeners gather to celebrate the music of America.

February 11, 2015

D. A. Callaway Silver Dollar City Events 399 Silver Dollar City Parkway Branson, MO 65616

Cindy Clark

plate 4. Cindy Clark strikes a pose before the show, August 17, 2014.

Cindy Clark

plate 5. Close-up of boots and bass present an evocative image of bluegrass in the 21st century. Photo courtesy of Cindy Clark.

Cindy Clark

plate 6. StateoftheOzarks editor Joshua Heston with Cindy Clark at Joe McClung’s February 7, 2015 jam session. Photo courtesy of Cindy Clark.

Cindy Clark

plate 7. The Clark Trio & Bill Nesbitt with DA Callaway at Silver Dollar City, Septembet 2014 (from left, Bill Nesbitt, Sophie Clark, DA Callaway, Cindy Clark and Sally Ann Clark). Photo courtesy of Cindy Clark.

Cindy Clark

plate 8. “He is going to teach you something by it. But, if that gift was a dream — a passion you had deep inside — and you realize that, don’t let go of that passion!” — Cindy Clark.

SPBGMA 2015, Nashville, TN

by Kelli Kingrey-Courtney

Question: What’s better than bluegrass music? Answer: Bluegrass music shared with great friends!

And that’s exactly how I spent my time at the SPBGMA Bluegrass Music Awards & Convention this year. My 10-hour trip started out traveling with fellow Iowa bluegrassers, and I swear we laughed the entire way to Nashville!

Kelli Courtney and Larry Cordle

plate 9. “I finally got to officially meet Larry Cordle!!!!”

Last year was my first time at the SPBGMA Awards. I went to listen to the Farm Hands Bluegrass Quartet debut a song I had written which they recorded on their new album. (“Down This Old Gravel Road” is track #5 on their newest CD from Pinecastle Records, “Better Than I Deserve”.) Somehow, though, this year topped last year.

Kelli Courtney

plate 10. “Tim Graves, this year's inductee into the Hall of Greats as well as Dobro Player of the Year!”

I’ve met so many new friends since last year, and the bluegrass community is like an ever-growing family to me.

There were some great acts on the main stage including Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, Rhonda Vincent & The Rage, The Grascals, Larry Stephenson Band, Chris Jones & The Night Drivers, Flatt Lonesome, Nothin’ Fancy, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, Special Consensus, Marty Raybon & Full Circle and James King Band.

But as if that wasn’t enough, there were several other sponsored showcases going on in different suites throughout the hotel.

There were some up-and-comers such as Blue Mafia and Breaking Grass, a wonderful family band (Williamson Branch), long-time bluegrasser from Minnesota Dick Kimmel & Co. (featuring Becky Buller), and the incredibly talented songwriters’ trio of Larry Cordle, Carl Jackson and Jerry Salley featuring Val Storey.

Kelli Courtney

plate 11. From left, Charles Eddie Ridenour Jr., Jeff Graves, Lori King, Kelli Courtney and Brian Rowe.

And if you’re into jamming, SPBGMA is THE place to be.

As soon as you enter the lobby at the Sheraton, you see wall-to-wall jam sessions. It’s a wonderful sort of chaos that just can’t be explained. You really have to see it for yourself. Jamming is allowed all hours on the first floor of the hotel during the convention. Good thing too, because the jam session I got myself into on Saturday night lasted until 5 o’clock Sunday morning!

Throughout the convention, you can attend workshops (if that’s your thing), visit with the bands at their merchandise tables, and you can try out various instruments in the different vendor halls. There is definitely something for everyone if you’re a bluegrass music lover!

Kelli Courtney

plate 12. “Me with THE Jerry Salley!”

With Sunday evening came the awards presentations along with even more fantastic stage performances.

If you decide to make a trip to Music City for the 2016 SPBGMA Awards & Convention, I can promise you won’t leave disappointed. I had only planned on going one time but after experiencing everything, I knew I’d be returning every year! And for me, the wonderful friendships I’ve made through the music is really what it’s all about.

February 12, 2015

Kelli Courtney

plate 13. “Momma [Cindy] Clark” by Bethany Burie, May 30, 2014.

* Due to the unique and pioneering nature of our regional focus, State of the Ozarks establishes an idiosyncratic form of Associated Press Style throughout the pages of the magazine. The magazine also recognizes alternative and sometimes unique spellings indigenous to the Ozarks Mountains, Mid-America and the Deep South.

StateoftheOzarks accepts "nitch" as a proper and satisfactory — albeit regional and Americanised — form of the standardized word "niche," derived from early 17th century French, meaning "recess" or "to make a nest," based on the Latin nidus "nest."

— Joshua Heston, editor, March 1, 2015

dogwood petal Dominic Chambers

plate A. “And the score is... Houston Airport, one; Dominic, zero. ”

Storming Raleigh

by Dominic Chambers

I was sitting alone in a dark terminal in the William P. Hobby Airport in Houston and I was happy.

Not because I had missed my connecting flight and couldn’t fly out until the next morning. Certainly not because the hotels were full and this terminal would be my home all night. And definitely not because I was running on only four hours of sleep!

No, I was happy because I was headed to Raleigh and to IBMA — the International Bluegrass Music Association’s convention.

No delays, no layovers, no, not even hunger pangs could bring me down. A musical storm was brewing — a storm to match the one which had closed this airport and filled the hotels — and I was headed straight for it.

Touching down in North Carolina the next day was only the beginning. The rush of performing, jamming and finding friends both old and new alike hit me like a hurricane. This was a hurricane of a relentlessly acoustic and most lively nature.

We wandered the streets of this Deep South city — tempted by all kinds of delectable things to eat and drink, from the comfort food of The Mecca to local pizza joints to moonshine stands — soaking it all in.

Dominic Chambers

Echoing from skyscraper to skyscraper was the music.

Whether it was the Kruger Brothers serenading a crowd with perfect brotherly harmony or the Snyder Family wowing the audience with energy and talent, the music never stopped. This relentless stream of melodies and harmonies was the living sound of Americana. From banjos to cellos, musicians filled Raleigh’s streets — and our happy ears — with countless styles, tunes and melodies.

We offered our own flavor to the musical melting pot that is IBMA, playing on the Youth Stage downtown. But our most exciting musical encounter started after midnight on Saturday as the festival began to wind down.

Siblings Sophie, John and I started up a jam circle with the Willis Clan (an incredible family of musicians and dancers from Nashville). We had recently met the lovely family but had not played any music with them... until now.

What happened was incredible.

Joined also by Caleb Lindsey, Jared Lindsey and Mary Meyer, a musical storm broke loose. The melodic hurricane pulled us all in as we passed around tunes, solos, and melodies, each adding our own twist.

Starting off with the Willis’ original, fast-paced Boys from Boston, we proceeded to mash-up everything from Owl City’s Fireflies to Flook’s Morning Nightcap.

Dominic Chambers

plate C. “It’s been real, Raleigh”!

By the time we were done, new and vibrant friendships blossomed, melded together by the joy of jamming with fellow young people.

Sitting in a lonely airport early that week, I could not have anticipated the musical experiences about to happen. But when those melodic storm clouds receded, wonderful new friends and incredible music were the only things left behind. IBMA 2015 can’t get here soon enough!

October 12, 2014

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