Bluegrass Bacchanalia

Written by:

“Oh the people would come from miles away
They’d dance all night ’til the break of day”
~ opening lyrics to “Uncle Pen” by Bill Monroe

You hear it at every bluegrass festival and campout: “How late did you stay out jamming last night?” Two o’clock in the morning? 3:00AM? That’s respectable. Midnight? You turned in early, and undoubtedly will be told about what great jams you missed. Never mind that in the “real world”, hardly anyone would even think of calling you on the phone after 10:00PM except in the most dire of emergencies, and midnight is probably way past your bedtime. Somehow, our usual perception of time is suspended at bluegrass gatherings. Picking into the wee hours becomes sort of a red-eyed badge of courage….The later one picks, the more that picker is to be admired for their diehard dedication to the genre. Then there is the holy grail of jam achievements: playing “all night ’til the break of day.” Over the past five years or so, my bedtime at bluegrass festivals has crept closer and closer to what my normal bedtime would be if I were at home, although in the twenty-plus years that I’ve been attending festivals, I have often stayed up until two or three in the morning. However, I have achieved that pinnacle of jamming madness….watching the sky grow light….only two or three times. The first time I experienced this phenomenon of nature combined with bluegrass stamina, a spontaneous cheer erupted from the group of erstwhile jammers when the morning light made its appearance through the tall pines in Grass Valley. There was a collective sense of accomplishment that wove its way through the jam circle, andeveryone drifted off to their tents or RVs shortly thereafter. There seemed to be no reason to stay up picking any longer, once we had witnessed the dawning of a new day.

Although all-night jams are most often the domain of younger musicians, this is not always the case. I remember hearing a story about Walt Jankowski, who was well into his sixties at the time of this incident, calling it a night around 2:30 or 3:00AM. He may have stayed in his camper for ten or fifteen minutes as a group of musicians continued to play outside his rig; Then Walt emerged with his guitar in hand, cursed the pickers and told them they were crazy, and rejoined the jam until dawn. The lure had been too great to resist.

When volunteers were being recruited to run the CBA’s hospitality suite at the IBMA, I seem to recall one of the perks of this duty being “very little sleep.” Even if one isn’t bound by volunteer duty, there is scant motivation to sleep during the IBMA, because to do so would be to inevitably miss some incredible musical experiences. I wonder what other types of music, or entertainment of any sort, lend themselves to the sleep deprivation that is part and parcel of the bluegrass experience. Certainly this isn’t a recent phenomenon; Bill Monroe’s song “Uncle Pen” recalled his youthful experiences when rural folk would gather around the old home place to sing and dance all through the night to the sounds of fiddles, guitars, and banjos. In those long-ago days when one might have to travel great distances to seek entertainment and fellowship, it was important to wring every last bit of enjoyment out of the experience. People worked hard, and when their time came for cutting loose, they played hard. Although there are more entertainment options available in our fast-paced world, gathering to make music continues to hold a powerful, almost primal lure for bluegrass aficionados.

Scientific studies have shown that playing music releases endorphins, leading to increased energy and a sense of well-being. It’s possible that the combined energy of musicians in a bluegrass jam may heighten this euphoria, spurring the players on for much longer periods of time than might be considered “normal” before they are overcome with exhaustion. Besides the physiological changes, jams are satisfying on so many other levels, nurturing one’s sense of belonging, creating, sharing, and just plain having fun. It’s hard to let go of that feeling even when fatigue sets in. I doubt if there is another all-night jam in my future, but I’m happy to have had the experience back when when it wouldn’t take days to recuperate from a night of sleep deprivation. To my fellow CBA members who are having the time of their lives in Nashville this week, just ignore me if I brag about getting a good night’s sleep. You know I’d really rather be pickin’!


Read about: