Get Smart About: Durango Bluegrass Meltdown

by DGO Web Administrator

April’s here, which means that it’s Meltdown time. Who better than the stalwart host of KSUT’s The Grass Is Bluer, Hugh Felt, to get you smart and set for pickin’ and grinnin’?

What’s unique about the Meltdown?

Well, it’s not a summer festival. It’s a literal Meltdown. Durango’s shaking off the winter and looking forward to summer and the Meltdown is sort of the start of that. It’s a chance to hear some really good players, to make and reconnect with some friends, and for those who play, to maybe learn a few things and work on their skills. It’s very social, it’s very low-pressure. It’s a festival that also fosters a lot of youngsters, which is great. A place where they can participate and learn from others, maybe find a good role model, even busk a little!

Bluegrass has its origins in several folk traditions – old time, Celtic – what makes it unique as a genre?

Well, Bill Monroe liked to sing very high leads and harmony parts, which is how the “high lonesome sound” came about. Jimmy Martin built upon that. Bluegrass honors traditions, but it also encourages players to stretch out a bit – you know, expressing themselves. There’s a diversity to it, it’s inclusive. People playing music together, really gathering around it.

Gathering as in jamming? Will there be a lot of that at the Meltdown?

Oh yes. Jamming is a very important part of the Meltdown. Players sharing knowledge, trading songs, helping one another to get better – you don’t get to be Bela Fleck overnight. But circling up and taking turns on the breaks –

Breaks?

You could also call them solos.

If I wanted to sound like I knew what I was talking about what would I call them?

Breaks. The notion is to feature all of the instruments that combine to make the sound. It wasn’t just Bill Monroe up there! Each piece of a bluegrass band – you might also call them a string band – is vital to the overall sound. It’s a nice mix of timbres. So the break is often just playing through the chorus or verse. The really good bands might split breaks between two musicians so that they trade phrases back and forth. It might even be each musician playing a quick line, each in turn, and then before you know it, they’re all playing together again. As I say, bluegrass honors the traditions but also encourages creativity and expression.

Is that what separates the wheat from the chaff, so to speak?

I’ve always liked harmony singing, and so I listen for that in particular. But yes, the dexterity necessary for the tempos bluegrass played is also an indicator of a solid band or musician.

The Strater Hotel allows players to jam in the lobby and specified areas. What’s the etiquette of jamming?

Yes, they’re very kind about that – especially for how late it can often go! If you’re looking to jam, it’s good to know the fundamental chords and shapes of whatever instrument you play. Know them well enough that you can pick up what others are doing by just looking. You don’t have to know everything up and down the neck, by any means. If you like to sing, there’s always plenty of opportunity there. Sing along. When breaks are being taken, quiet down a bit so that they can be heard. If you’re not ready to take a break yourself when your turn comes, don’t worry, you can pass it along and someone else will take it. I think bluegrass really says, “Hey, come on in. Sit in the back row if you want, or come right in close.” You don’t have to say a word or sing, but playing in a jam circle can make you better. It’s a socially engaging kind of music. Learn what you can along the way. Be encouraged and encourage others. That’s another nice thing about the Meltdown- people who are very adept and skilled at their instruments are often found helping those who are just beginning, offering them tips and suggestions.

Which bands are you looking forward to seeing?

Boy, there’s a number of them. Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley – I’m a big fan of Blue Highway, so it’s always nice to hear Rob. Foghorn Stringband will be a big draw. Really good stuff. Six Dollar String Band is an awful lot of fun. This year is more of an old-timey, sort of folky lineup, which should be very good.

Cyle Talley highly recommends going to the Meltdown Barn Dance, which features local favorites Six Dollar String Band and Portland, Oregon, heroes Foghorn Stringband. If there’s anything you’d like to Get Smart about, email him at [email protected]

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