The intention of “the bluegrass circle” is to explore how this means of collaborative music-making allows for collective communication and, while concerned primarily with auditory creation, doesn’t rely on language to function. This project aims to explore linear aspects of bluegrass circles that instill a sense of shifting authority into these otherwise boundaryless spaces. In addition, I plan to use my past within the genre of music to explore the roots and history of bluegrass. In trying to document the stories communicated through the circle, I plan to experiment with the how, with the intention of replicating an area in which a bluegrass circle can be produced and explored on campus. 

What defines a bluegrass circle isn’t the success of the song or the organization of a jam. Rather, it’s an amalgamation of storytelling, togetherness, and embracing the mess.

I first picked up a violin at five years old. I was obsessed with the idea of playing a string instrument, as I had spent the first few years of my life growing up with the sound of my dad’s guitar. While I loved the violin, I was not too fond of all the rules I had to follow, from how to hold my bow to how I played the songs. So I stopped playing violin and picked up the guitar at nine instead. By the beginning of high school, playing original folk music at a brewery near my house. I found my way back to the violin sophomore year of high school when a musician friend introduced me to Phil Salazar, my fiddle instructor who taught me the art of learning by ear. Though bluegrass, there is so much more space to make the music one’s own. I most recently began to play the mandolin; my practice with fiddling and playing mandolin in bluegrass circles is more recent, however, I spent my entire childhood playing my guitar in unofficial circles at every dinner party my family held. I was lucky enough to grow up in a community where music was universal.

My dad and I decided to organize a true bluegrass circle at our music shack this past winter. We spent a few weeks printing and distributing songbooks and practicing the setlist. We ended up smoking a pork butt, cooking up some cornbread and beans, and distributing a few too many beer pitchers before settling into the space. We had my dad on mandolin, me on fiddle, my brother playing bluegrass guitar, Pete on banjo, Brian on bass, Jerry on lead guitar, Jason on percussion, and a few other family friends singing along. This circle was more practiced, and my dad ended up taking the role of leader for most songs, but it functioned well as a musical moment in which collective expression was the goal.

In February, I traveled to Atlanta to see Emmylou Harris and Billy Strings in concert. I am originally from Atlanta, and old friends of my dad’s still live there. We met at a friend’s house; he cooked a massive stack of ribs, collard greens, mac n cheese, and the obligatory bucket of beer cans. In this circle, we had me on fiddle and guitar, my father on guitar and mandolin, Eliza – my friend from Wesleyan – on lead vocals, Brant on mandolin and harmonica, Hugh on the keyboard, Matt on backing vocals, Meg on percussion. This circle was much more freeform and less practiced but became collaborative and fun. There were a lot of passing instruments between individuals, and impromptu song choices, including when Matt took the lead to sing Dead Flowers, one of my favorite Rolling Stones / Townes Van Zants songs.