Let’s jam! That two word phrase is right up there with “play ball!”. If Bluegrass festivals were nothing but multi-day concerts, they wouldn’t be nearly as popular. It comes down to the jamming. Even watching the festival acts on stage, I hear licks I want to try, and harmonies or melodies I want to sing.
Who do you want to jam with? Some folks travel long distances to festivals and spend nearly the whole time playing with the same friends they pick with at home. That’s OK – playing under the pines in the summer air with your best buddies is truly enjoyable. I reckon maybe half my jamming at any festival includes some good friends.
And festivals give you a chance to pick with some friends you just don’t see often enough. The larger your circle of acquaintances, the more variety you’ll encounter. Almost everyone has a couple of songs they think they sound real good on, and it’s a kick to revisit that song with an old friend or two. And if their two songs don’t change over a five year span, it’s OK to tease them about it!
But the wide variety of pickers at a decent size festival also provides some chances for adventure that you shouldn’t pass up. Try and get yourself in a jam where you can barely keep up, and it is truly exhilarating! The ensemble lifts you up, and you play like you never thought you could. Yes, eventually you’ll crash and burn, and maybe slink away with your tail between your legs, but it’s worth it. Because you’ll experience some seconds of musical thrill, and you’ll discover that maybe the gap between you and where you want to be isn’t that wide after all.
This year I have managed to find myself in several jams where I really had no business being. But I have learned how to maintain a presence without embarrassing myself constantly (there’s always SOME embarrassment, it seems!).
Then, of course, the solo comes around to me, and the jig is up – go big or go home! I can usually get off a decent lick or two and maybe fool the experts – for a while. But a jam session is a place where everyone should feel free to stretch their boundaries. If you’ve never played in that key, or played that song that fast, so be it. Let the darkness hide your red face as you struggle to keep up – that which does not kill you, only makes you better.
But here’s a little piece of advice – when you’re in over your head, have some fun, and then get out while you’re still having fun, and while everyone else is having fun. If you’re really struggling to keep up, and you used up all four of your hot licks, move along and leave a good impression. Trust me, when you leave that hot jam, the aura of it will linger with you and you’ll be a little better in the next jam you find.
Then of course, there’s the jam where everyone settles in, and everyone’s skills are well matched, and they’ll be calling songs all night long. Pull up a chair, pass me the bottle, wontcha, and where’s my capo? Here’s a tune I bet you never heard!