TERRE HAUTE —
The next Grammy-winning bluegrass band could form, at random, in a college campus hallway, on an otherwise quiet Saturday night.
Or, at least the musicians will have some fun.
The chance to share in one of America’s oldest music forms draws dozens of banjo, guitar, mandolin, upright bass and dobro players to the GM Room of Moench Hall at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology for a three-hour jam session on the last Saturday of every month, from October through May, year after year. Officially, the organization wears the lengthy name of the National Crossroads Bluegrass and Acoustic Music Association, but the pickers and singers who comprise its membership simply call it “Nack-bama.”
Mostly, they call it “fun.”
“Everybody, when they leave, they say what a good time they had, and say they’ll invite their friends,” said Laura Pounds, fiddle, bass and banjo player, and NCBAMA vice president. “So I think that’ll keep it going.”
So far, so good. The group’s monthly jam session started in 1982 and hasn’t stopped since. It shifted locations a few times, from the Carpenters Union hall on South Third Street to the National Guard Armory on the city’s northside, before settling in for the long haul at Rose-Hulman. The faces have changed — some early organizers have died, other regulars have moved elsewhere, some show up for a season and then scatter, and some keep coming back.
The format involves a featured band, which performs on the main stage at the beginning and end of the activities. In October, the popular Wabash Valley group Diamond Hill Station served as the headliners.
A monthly raffle (with jammers bringing in the items) and the $15 annual family membership fees help pay the top-billed bands, but admission is free. In between, all of the visiting musicians pair up in groups of four or five, and jam (improvise) to songs they all know or teach each other. At any point, regardless of skill level, those impromptu clusters of players and singers can take the main stage in an open-mic forum.
“If you know a few chords or hot licks in ‘G,’ you can play about anything,” said Mark Grayless, a NCBAMA jammer since 2001 and pastor of Union Christian Church in Terre Haute.
Dave Voltmer, a 73-year-old electrical engineering professor at Rose, was among the jam’s originators 30 years ago, and still plays his banjo in a unique “claw hammer” style at each NCBAMA jam. He favors an offshoot of bluegrass, old-time mountain music, but the unplugged, acoustic sound remains at the core. It’s the genre, and the enjoyment of it, that perpetuates the jam’s tradition.
“People like the high harmonies and instrumentation. It’s pretty much upscale and more virtuoso performers. Maybe you could say it’s the roots. People who are derisive would say it’s songs from the heart sung through the nose,” Voltmer said, with a chuckle.
Whatever the reason, bluegrass continues to draw musicians and their families and friends to the NCBAMA jams, trekking from Indianapolis, Washington and Worthington and Odon in southern Indiana, northern Indiana, eastern Illinois, and across the Wabash Valley to the stage at Rose. Years ago, a group of Purdue University students routinely journeyed from Lafayette.
“Bluegrassers” exist around the globe, but their numbers in any one place may be small. Jams, festivals and concerts bring them together.
“Where there’s bluegrass, bluegrass players go,” said Voltmer, who hosted a bluegrass radio show, “Rosey’s Pickin’ Parlor,” on the campus station WMHD from 1982 until retiring the program this fall.
The roster of players who’ve shown up at the NCBAMA jams includes some of the most recognizable names in bluegrass. In its early days, in the 1980s, a young Terry Eldredge strummed and sang. The West Terre Haute native left town as a teenager for a music career in Nashville, Tenn., and now is the lead singer of the Grammy-nominated band The Grascals.
One of the early featured bands at the monthly jams was a group featuring a couple Wabash Valley musicians and a teenage singer and fiddler named Alison Krauss. More than two decades later, Krauss, along with her band Union Station, holds more Grammys (27 awards and 41 nominations) than any living performer of any genre. “She wasn’t the Alison Krauss back then,” said Roy Lucas, a guitarist and banjoist who joined NCBAMA six months into its existence and hasn’t stopped since.
The presence of teenagers and young players — such as Krauss and Eldredge — persists even now.
“We’ve got some great young artists here,” said Voltmer, who mentioned, among others, Marshall, Ill., fiddler Marie McGlone and Graysville mandolin ace Solly Burton.
Less experienced young people also bring a refreshing energy to the jam atmosphere. “The youngest people are playing right up there with the oldest people. There’s no age discrimination in bluegrass,” said Lucas. He and his wife, Peggy — who plays upright bass, guitar and mandolin — are both in their 70s. “We both play with kids 15 years old,” Roy said, “and they’ll say, ‘Can we jam with you?’”
That mix gives Lucas confidence the jams will live on for another 30 years.
The smiles found there won’t hurt the jams’ longevity either.
“It’s folks you want to be around,” Voltmer said.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.