The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Thursday December 2nd

Pickin' Some Grass

Bluegrass lovers turn to the Hill for a taste of music's historical roots and homegrown local performers.

But until just a few years ago, Chapel Hill bluegrass lovers were scrambling for their place in the music mix. That is, until a renewed national interest in acoustic music -- sparked partly by the success of the soundtrack to the film "O Brother, Where Art Thou" -- fueled the style's surge in popularity.

"A lot of that has to do with people wanting to be really real and roots-y," said Lizzie Hamilton, member of Chapel Hill bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers. "Bluegrass is something they can related to. It's real accessible music. It's something that can be enjoyed by fans of all ages."

And that's music to the ears of both faithful and fresh Triangle bluegrass fans.

"If you are a fan, this is actually quite a good place to find it," said UNC music Professor Jocelyn Neal. "This area is the birthplace of so many significant bands and performers. Doc Watson is from North Carolina. Earl Scruggs is from North Carolina. There's a lot of history in the area."

Regional ties have added to local affections for bluegrass music.

"I think that people are always a little bit proud of the art form that emanates from their home and are willing to support it," Neal said.

Fans can now find an ever-increasing number of Triangle organizations and businesses eager to support the homegrown music.

Founded in 1995, the Triangle Folk Music Society aims to promote bluegrass, old-time, deep country, gospel and many other styles of ethnic and regional traditional music by regularly bringing those performers to the area, said society board member Clarke Thacher.

"Usually we bring in people on the singer-songwriter and traditional sides, with some crossover," he said. "Bluegrass is part of the whole spectrum. Certainly it's got the common threads between the folk tradition and the bluegrass tradition."

And UNC students have an especially valuable resource when it comes finding the acoustic-driven music, Neal said.

"There's a lot of direction towards bringing live music onto campus and bringing campus to live music," she said.

The Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence sponsors Thursdays on the Terrace, a free music series that will bring 14 artists or groups, including the Steep Canyon Rangers, to campus this semester. In conjunction with the curriculum in folklore, half of the performers in the series are based in folk, old-time or bluegrass music.

"In terms of the local area, you've got a bunch of students who are actually taking classes right now where they're supposed to be learning about some of this music," Neal said. "Anytime you're linking up an educational experience with the possibility of supporting that in your hobby or your personal interest, it can help fuel that."

Several local businesses, such as the Mellow Mushroom, a Franklin Street restaurant that hosts Bluegrass Night on Tuesdays, have been credited with reaching out to a younger audience and encouraging up-and-coming musicians.

"They have a lot of young bands that are doing a lot of interesting things with the music," said junior Mark Arduini, a regular Tuesday night patron at the Mellow Mushroom.

But joining the ranks of such performers takes a little more effort.

"Bluegrass is a style of music that is still basically taught by an apprenticeship learning method," Neal said. "You don't take a class in how to play bluegrass. You really find a band or a performer who's willing to let you sit in and learn with them."

For Hamilton, a fiddler and vocalist from Fairview, finding the Steep Canyon Rangers happened mostly by chance.

As a freshman, she met up with four UNC seniors who had just started up the bluegrass band. Hamilton was added to the band.

"They were group of friends that played together, but not seriously until their senior years," she said. "They didn't really think it was going to happen."

For aspiring bluegrass musicians who might not have her luck, Hamilton said there is hope.

"The thing about bluegrass is that the network of people is real small," she said. "Everybody kind of knows everybody else in the scene."

The best way to join that network is to attend venues that offer regular bluegrass performances and get to know the regulars who attend the shows, Hamilton said.

"Most of the people who listen to bluegrass play bluegrass," she said. "It's very rooted in the tradition of jamming, of people getting together and playing, playing tunes everybody knows. There are a lot of pickers out there."

Regardless of the performer or the place, the growing appeal of bluegrass can be found within the music itself, Arduini said.

"It's got this certain sincerity to it," he said. "You can tell the people who do it do it because they love the music and because they care. You can find that in other kinds of music, but it's not so much inherent.

"Bluegrass is just music that's sincere, and it's real, and it's about real life."

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