The Carolina Bluegrass Band aims to bring local, North Carolina traditions into the previously classical-based Department of Music.
The band started in 2016 as part of UNC’s Bluegrass Initiative, which also included hiring prominent local bluegrass musicians like Russell Johnson and Hank Smith. Johnson, who is the director of the Carolina Bluegrass Band, is internationally recognized as the frontman for the bluegrass band The Grass Cats.
“I’ve pretty much devoted my adult life to bluegrass," Johnson said. "It’s a great music, and it’s very tied to the state of North Carolina.”
Some of the biggest names in bluegrass history came out of North Carolina, including Earl Scruggs who revolutionized the style of guitar used in bluegrass music, and Doc Watson, who Johnson said was “one of the greatest flat-pickers to ever live.”
Johnson said prior bluegrass experience is not required to audition.
Reese Krome, who grew up playing classical violin music, has been with the band since the first semester it was offered. Now Krome has been in the band for five semesters and plays the fiddle and the mandolin.
“All the instruction I’ve had in bluegrass has been through UNC,” Krome said.
Other students, like senior Marin Herold, had more informal exposure to bluegrass music before joining the band.
“My parents and I would listen to bluegrass all growing up,” Herold said. “Then my dad taught be how to play the guitar at a pretty young age.”
Despite only being in the band for two semesters, Herold plays the guitar and provides vocals for the Carolina Bluegrass Band. She said they are currently preparing for their upcoming benefit concert.
“My role is just to keep everyone focused on having fun — and yes, it is serious business training for a concert, but at the root of it bluegrass is a really fun music to practice,” Herold said.
Each semester, the Carolina Bluegrass Band is taught as a one credit hour class and students partake in a very informal audition.
“You meet up one on one with the director and he brings his guitar in and tells you to play anything you know that is bluegrass related,” Krome said.
Students are expected to practice outside of the weekly two-hour class and prepare for the upcoming performances, but overall Krome said it is not a strenuous time commitment.
The Carolina Bluegrass Band aims to practice traditional North Carolina bluegrass music, while also moving the genre into a more modern direction.
“It’s important to me to see the music keep moving forward," Johnson said. "It’s different than it was in 1946, but there’s still so much of that period in what we play today with the structures we use. But, it is still continuing to grow."
Johnson and Krome both encouraged anyone with musical ability and even a passing interest in bluegrass to audition for the band.
“It’s changed my college experience entirely," Krome said. "I didn’t expect to be a part of something new that was going to take off, but I do think I’ve been a part of something great here."
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