Bluegrass Jam Session Varieties
We all have our experiences when it comes to jam sessions. Some are good, some are fun, some are chaotic and some are among the best moments you have had in life. A few months back I had a new and different experience of how to set up a jam, and that led to this little article. But before I venture into that evening I want to lay out a few other ways of doing bluegrass jam sessions that I come to think of.
1. The Everyone-Is-Welcome Jam
This is how I was brought up. Through all the years on bluegrass festivals in Sweden and abroad this is what I´ve loved about bluegrass music and musicians. In many ways I think this is the best, most social and friendly way of jamming. It is a great way to meet new people and for novel musicians without a band, this is maybe the only way to practice your skills and get an understanding of how it is to play with other people. The folk music tradition of welcoming and teaching new generations of musicians is evident here. To get into these jam sessions the simple courtesy of asking, -Is it ok if I join in? is enough to be welcomed. However, if you see several of your own instrument already in the jam, it may be a good idea to leave your instrument in the case as a few banjos, guitars or basses soon will kill the jam. So, the strength of this kind of jam is also its weakness. There is often a build-up, a peak and an end phase when too many people join in that is evident. But, if you build the jam session with respect to others it may last a little longer. A balanced everyone-is-welcome jam can still, after all these years, be one of the most enjoyable things in my opinion. It is great to see several of these open jams emerging in different parts of the country and credit to the people who keep them alive and drive them.
2. The Exclusive Jam
As you become a more seasoned musician you will value to hear all the instruments in a jam clearly. You want to listen to the lead singer and hear the harmony singing. When you want this kind of jam, you will invite some of your friends to have a good time. It will be more like a complete band setting and the quality of the music is more of a focus than learning here. This is the kind of jam you often see videos of from IBMA and SPBGMA and nowadays also many emerging musicians team up around a microphone to broadcast their jam sessions on Youtube. I enjoy these kind of jams of course, and I understand that everyone that has been playing a few years do too. Seasoned musicians need that experience. I just hope this approach does not overtake the open jams on festivals completely. That would lessen the learning curve and the open and friendly interaction I so associate with a bluegrass festival.
3. The On-Stage Bluegrass Jam
When entering The Station Inn i Nashville with Dunderhead in 2016 we did not know what to expect. We only knew there would be a jam session that evening. Inside the door we stopped - dumbstrucked! We did not find the "ten-people-in-a-circle-in-a-corner-in-a-bar" kinda jam we were used to see in Sweden. The big spacious room was dead silent. 300 seated people payed their full attention to a small stage at the end of the room. The musicians took up a new song and the audience applauded some instrumental breaks. The Dunderheads decided to have a beer before joining in on the stage. This was my first experience of an on-stage bluegrass jam but a couple of years later when visiting New York I understood some of the more established jam sessions there were also on-stage. There´s pros and cons with everything, and the big con here is that not everyone will be ready to jump on stage and showcase their skills, so in that regard this is maybe more of an exclusive jam. Also, to keep a high musical quality for the audience you cannot be too many people on stage at once, so there is a limit to the amount of people that can participate in an evening. But, the BIG pro here is that you are exposing bluegrass music to new audiences! After all, we all want more people to learn and love bluegrass - don´t we? So this inspired me to set up such a jam here in my hometown. So far it has worked out great!
4. The Find-Your-Bandmates Jam Set-Up
So, now to the story that triggered this article. A while back my family had a weekend with nothing planned. It was one of those dull, grey autumn Saturdays with a mist coming in from the ocean. So when we found a notice on a blues jam on the ship S/S Marieholm, we all agreed to go. We had no idea what to expect but my daughter Wilma had learned "Going Down to the River" by Doug Seegers and also "Wayfaring Stranger", and I reckoned those would be ok in a blues setting. I packed my guitar and we went down to the docks to check it out. When entering the venue we were warmly welcomed by a hostess. She asked us if we wanted to participate in the jam, and if so, what instruments we played and if any of us were a lead singer. So we put acoustic guitar and vocal lead in her list and she fastened a purple self-adhesive dot on our shirts and stated: -So, you are with the purple band. You can now go around and look for your other band members. There will be six of you. You will be teamed with a drummer, a bass player, a harmonica player and an electric guitarist. Your slot is at 8.15 PM. Good luck and have fun! Wow, this was a new experience! It felt like we had come to a party and mingled around to find some new friends! I must admit the blues scene is much larger than the bluegrass scene in this country, and I understand that this way of letting everyone who wanted have a chance to play on stage was both great and necessary with that many people. We eventually managed to get the whole band together, rehearsed a short while and went on stage to perform our somewhat unexpected mix of a bluegrass vocal and a blues band. But everyone was happy and we had a great evening. I though it was a really fun way of setting up a jam, and I haven´t seen it in the bluegrass community so I thought it would be fun to let you know about it. Perhaps it may inspire someone to try it out in the future. If you have any other ideas of setting up a jam or different kinds of jam sessions, please comment below. I value all respectful comments, feedback and ideas :-). Keep on jamming Anders Ternesten