“I should have traded in my flip-flops for a pair of boots”
My introduction to the Big Horn Mountain Festival was a series of songs by kids who, during the week, were “a lot of kids who don’t play any music.”
At least, that’s what Tessa Taylor told me.
She had spent most of the week with them, training them for this moment.
And, she was right; before this week and even, to some extent, during it, they didn’t play music. But, somehow, they did now.
As a group of 40, they sang on stage about trading in their flip-flops for boots.
Elise Surrell, a camp participant, had never picked up an instrument before that week. By the time I spoke to her that day, she had already played the bass in front of scores of strangers.
“It was fun,” Elise said. “I made some new friends and I met a lot of new people.”
When asked whether she would play these instruments again or join a band with her friends, Elise nodded in affirmation.
It may be too soon to tell how far Elise’s stage-performing, professional music career will go. But that sits fine with the organizers of the Big Horn Mountain Festival and its corresponding Big Horn Bluegrass Camp. For many in attendance at the festival, music is less about the notes and more about the neighbors, less about the melody and more about the meaning.
“Michelle Shocked once pointed out that music is too important to leave to professionals,” event organizer Bill Bradshaw said.
For this reason alone, the Big Horn Mountain Festival has a “band scramble” event where professionals and amateurs alike play in a string-fed, mountain harmony.
And no one is saying that today’s amateurs won’t be tomorrow’s stars. Morgan Blaney, of all people, knows that.
Blaney, who teaches at the camp, had never touched a stringed instrument before her first camp experience seven years ago. Now, along with bandmates Holly Qualm and Sage Palser, Blaney plays at paid gigs across the state.
Qualm, who only played classical guitar before her camp experience, recalled the events leading up to the group’s role as a professional bluegrass band.
“We knew each other at camp and we went to camp the summer before we formed, and we love each other and played with each other,” Qualm said.
It took some time after their camp experience for the trio to form the band. The band was ultimately formed by the music teacher the three had in common, Lynn Young.
“He put us together for the Stars of Tomorrow Talent Show in February 2016, and we had our next big gig the week after that,” Qualm said.
“Cowboy, great American Cowboy”
Other groups that performed at the festival had been playing music together since childhood.
The Kosel brothers grew up in a musical household and formed their western band, the High-Country Cowboys, in 2003. But they didn’t play in public until over ten years later, when their sister scheduled them to play at a Christmas party.
“Our sister, she’s manager at the local community center, needed Christmas entertainment one Christmas time and she put us on schedule to sing without asking us… so we did it and the folks there really liked it,” John Kosel said.
The High-Country Cowboys didn’t place high expectations on their impromptu yuletide concert. They played their music and left, doubting they would make an impression on the crowd.
“We are very reserved, naturally,” Kosel said. “I mean, we grew up very reserved, and we played music. We didn’t talk on the microphone, and folks could see that we were really tense and reserved. Nobody talked, you know; we played and then we left, and we were kind of surprised when they asked us back.”
The brothers knew they were talented musicians, but they worried for several years over their stage presence.
“When we first started playing, we didn’t have a thing to say,” Kosel said. “There wasn’t anything about what we did that was impressive other than the fact that we played music.”
After a year of playing in Red Lodge, one of their fans finally brought it up.
“Eventually—it probably took about a year—before somebody finally came up and said, ‘You guys need to start talking,’” Kosel said. “So, since then we’ve been working on it.”
A lot has happened since that moment. The High-Country Cowboys now have several awards under their belts, including the Western Music Association’s “Best Traditional Album of the Year” for 2017.
“When you get a few miles behind you, you start to feel more comfortable in the atmosphere, and you also have more to say,” Kosel said.
“Hey boys, I think I’m gettin’ old”
One artist at the Big Horn Mountain Festival has worked on his act for 50 years. Bryan Bowers discovered the autoharp at a jug band party when he was in his twenties. His friend put the instrument in his hands, and Bowers hasn’t dropped it since.
“He played an autoharp,” Bowers said of his friend. “He played with his thumb and his little finger. Little brush strokes. He had hard, calcareous fingernails, no fingerpicks like I wear, and he played Shady Grove. And I was like ‘that’s in tune, and that’s pretty! Golly!’”
Next, it was Bowers’ turn.
“I closed my eyes,” Bowers said. “He said, ‘push down on that chord and let me have your right hand.’ He took my right hand and strummed it across. I went and bought one the next day. That was 50 years ago.”
Bowers loved playing the autoharp, but the passion transformed into something far greater than Bowers ever imagined.
“I never dreamed it would become my life’s work,” Bowers said. “It was just something I was interested in.”
During his early days, Bowers spent some time on the road with the Dillards. They were a seasoned bluegrass band, and time with them helped Bowers learn both the ropes of show business and the strings of his harp.
“They were really, really, really good musicians and writers and performers, and I learned a lot,” Bowers said. “I learned a lot about performing. I learned a lot about the road life. I learned a lot about what it takes to turn in a good show. I learned what it meant to schedule your whole day around the performance.”
There’s more to putting on a show than tuning your instruments and memorizing the notes, Bowers said.
“You’ve got to be clean,” Bowers said. “You’ve got to be rested. You’ve got to have cleaned your instruments. You’ve got to have thought about what you’re doing. You can’t overeat just before the show or you’ll be belching at people…. There’s a lot of dos and don’ts to turn in a show. I don’t get to work for 50 years because I’m sloppy. I didn’t get into the autoharp hall of fame because I’m sloppy. I tune those harps three times each before I walk on the stage.”
If an artist does these things, it helps them put on a good show. If they put on a good show, it’s easier for them to connect with people. And, at the end of the night, it’s easy to see if you’ve done your job.
“If your CD sales are soft night after night, don’t whine about the economy; don’t whine about the ‘stupid audience,’” Bowers said. “Go look in the mirror. It’s you. If your show is good—if you’re reaching people, if you touch people—they’re coming back.”
“Nobody knows, no, and nobody sees; nobody knows but me”
Sometime after Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen took the stage, I slipped away to the campground.
As I neared the humble one-man tent I had thrown together earlier that day, I could hear the strings of a guitar sounding from the next campsite over. I glanced over to see several of my neighbors huddled around a lantern, the LED glow giving just enough light to form outlines and color patches of skin.
“Mind if I join?” I asked.
“Sure, buddy,” one them replied.
I had met two of the tenants earlier that day. They were a group of college students from West Virginia who called themselves bluegrass purists. It wasn’t that they didn’t enjoy hearing the other stuff, they noted… but they had each dedicated several months, even years, to studying music played by the likes of the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe.
One of the students, Nick Blake, invited me to take a seat.
“Want us to play something for you?” he asked,
This was the moment I had been waiting for since hearing about the festival: a moment matching the sound quality of a staged event, but carrying all the intimacy of a family campfire. I couldn’t refuse.
I brought out my camera as they readied their ensemble.
“It hovers in G for a while and then goes ‘D,’” guitarist Josh Pitcock said as he prepared the group for a Buck Owens classic.
Then, it began—a collective, euphonic strumming, a sound as beautiful as cool Appalachian rain on a late summer night.
“Roll in my sweet baby’s arms, roll in my sweet baby’s arms! I’m gonna lay around the shack till the mail train comes back, then I’ll roll in my sweet baby’s arms!”
For a few moments, I went back east. Back home.
While I listened to their music, Bryan Darby fixed me a SPAM sandwich, or, as he called it, “West Virginia Cuisine.” Bryan doesn’t play an instrument, but the Glenville State College kids would argue that he is just as important to the band as they are.
Bryan, Nick, and I talked about the relationship between country and bluegrass as the slices of meat sizzled in the pan. Today’s country has lost a lot of its meaning, they said.
“Everybody today thinks country music is about pickup trucks and drinking beer,” Nick said. “Originally, country music wasn’t about that. Traditional country music was about life… about hard times.”
A young woman slid in next to us. At first, I mistook her for one of the college students. As she started talking, I realized I was wrong. All of the students were passionate about bluegrass and knowledgeable of its history, but she took these qualities a step further.
She introduced herself as Dr. Megan Darby, the head of Glenville State College’s Bluegrass Program. All of the students at the campsite were her students. Some were pursuing a bluegrass major, some were just taking a class, but all of them received instruction from her.
Glenville’s program focuses on traditional bluegrass, taking students back to the music’s Appalachian roots.
“If nothing else, that’s what we try to get our stamp on,” Megan said.
Megan explained the origin of bluegrass, its relation to old country music, and some of the genre’s tropes.
Some of the tropes are overused today, she said. How can a person sing about dependence on hard liquor or dirt-floored shacks if they’ve never been around poverty? If someone is singing about hard times, but has never been through them, they’re not going to be able to connect to their audience on an emotional level.
However, other aspects of bluegrass have remained just as true as they always have been. Community has always been a core component of the genre, stemming back to when people gathered around radios for entertainment, and even before that, when banjos could be heard from the front porch. Megan directed my attention to an older gentleman who was playing alongside the Glenville students.
“This guy here, they don’t know him,” Megan said. “But if he knows the song, he’s going to jump in.”
Eventually, Megan joined in as well.
“You have a pretty voice,” Megan said to the gentleman. “I’ll bet you know ‘The Long Black Veil.’”
The man confirmed that he knew the song.
“Would you sing it for us?” Megan asked.
The man agreed, and the group joined in, producing a song just as gothic as any novel Faulkner’s ever written.
“I knew you would know that one,” Megan told he man. “I could tell by your voice.”
“And home is home. Home is, home is home.”
I walked the campground with Megan and the crew, joining in the various music circles we came across. At about 2:30, I wandered off to bed, exchanging a brief but heartfelt goodbye to my West Virginia friends.
I heard them pack in the morning. I considered saying goodbye to them then, but I’m not great at first goodbyes, much less second ones. I knew I would be in touch with them sooner or later.
Once I got home, I pulled out my phone to listen to a song. Sometime during Friday’s chaos, in
some intermission or another, I was able to shazam a song that blared across the speakers. I knew very little about its lyrics, but it had a fairly catchy tune, so I decided to give the song a try. Within a few moments, my phone began playing “My Sweet Midwest” by the Fruit Bats.
“My baby and I, we live out west… where the air is so clean it’ll burn a hole in your chest.”
As I took in the lyrics, the song became much more than a catchy tune. It was a shared experience. It was the feeling lingering in every person who has ever lived thousands of miles from home. I’ve never lived in the Midwest, but by the second chorus, the song already had my heart.
“The road is the road– takes you where you wanna go. And home is home. Home is, home is home.”
Home is home.
And music is music.
Powerful melodies, beautiful voices… They’re just a part of it. At its deepest level, music does something as basic as pictures and writing: it shares something. And when you share something, sometimes the final form of what you share isn’t anywhere near important as who you share it with.
For more information about the Big Horn Mountain Festival, visit bighornmountainfestival.com.
By: T.J. Parks for 82801