Country music enthusiasts from across the Northern Plains gathered in Rapid City, South Dakota in June for the 27th annual Black Hills Bluegrass Festival. A key feature of the three-day music event were the workshops offered for traditional bluegrass instruments. Jim Kent visited the festival and learned that fans of bluegrass music span all ages.
The Black Hills Bluegrass Festival has been an institution in western South Dakota since 1980. Fiddle instructor Larry Lashley says bluegrass has its roots in Irish, English and Scottish traditional music and is truly a family tradition.
"It was brought over from the old country, but then it was developed in the Blue Ridges and that, and developed father to son, and each time it's passed down to a new generation, it gets a new personality,” says Lashley. “So, it is truly American music"
Truly American and definitely for all ages. Ten-year-old Kassie McPherson has played the violin for a year, but she says she is expanding her musical horizons to include the fiddle.
"I've done the violin classic music. And it's pretty good, but my teacher's really strict,” says McPherson. “One of my friends were doing the fiddle and I thought it would be really cool to do the fiddle, too."
Wait a minute. Fiddle? Violin? What's the difference?
"Well, the violin usually plays more classic music, than upbeat, and I wanted to go with something more upbeat," McPherson replies.
Larry Lashley says it is actually a matter of technique. "The real difference is the traditional fiddle player, because they play several notes, will flatten the bridge, they'll basically customize the violin. They'll pull the sound post back a little bit to get more of the 'whangy' sound, and they'll use a harder, more steel-type string."
But whether it is the fiddle or that other iconic symbol of the genre, the banjo, musician Mark Leslie says bluegrass epitomizes the American spirit. "You know, you see it on a lot of truck commercials and that kind of thing, but I think it has a lot more application than that,” says Leslie. “And it has a lot more deep roots and feeling than just being used in some car commercial somewhere."
Chris Penning has just finished sitting in with Mark Leslie at the banjo workshop. Chris says he has wanted to be a part of the deep roots of bluegrass since he was a kid.
"I kind of grew up listening to that and I had to finally just get the banjo out and try to learn how to play it,” says Penning. “That's what bluegrass is about, playing the music with friends out on the porch. That's kind of the way it grew up, out of the churches and all that. But there's a million players...a million different styles. And that's what makes it fun."
Over at the fiddle workshop, one of those million players is cutting her teeth on the very first fiddle she has ever held.
And after just one hour of practice, and a little coaxing, five-year-old Grace Sherill shows what she can do.
Bluegrass is the type of music that brings people together. Professional musicians, amateur players and even little Grace Sherrill are doing their best to keep that tradition alive and well in South Dakota.