I’ve been playing in lots of music venues lately. My standard two have been the Pickens Flea Market and Gramling Opry House. I finally got around to visiting the Oolenoy Bluegrass Jam, both on New Year’s Day and on their regular Friday night session. Table Rock has also started back up with their bluegrass sessions. I attended the first one recently. I’ve also been invited to several other sessions but just haven’t had a change to check them out.
With the resurgence of COVID in its Omicron variant I had decided to stay away from indoor sessions until things subside. Things seem to be opening up a bit more, so I’ve been tentatively venturing out. I decided to make a list of as many of these as I could. If I wanted, I could be playing somewhere every day of the week.
Most of these are within about a 100 mile radius of Greenville, including some in North Carolina and a few in Georgia. The ones on the outer fringes are ones that I don’t expect that I’ll visit very often. Here’s my list as a Google Spreadsheet.
These sessions run the gamut, from old time and shape note singing to jazz and rock. Most of these are traditional, but a few are rather unusual. Each has its own culture and etiquette, which can sometimes be difficult to figure out on a cursory visit.
The list keeps changing. Fitzpatrick’s in Greenville has closed, so that Irish session doesn’t happen anymore. I marked that one in red and will probably delete that line. I stopped by Gramling last week only to find no one there. When I inquired about the Friday and Saturday jams I was told they had been discontinued, whether that’s permanent or temporary, I don’t know. I marked those sessions in yellow. The upshot is that this is just a guide and you should always check with the venue. I’ve made a few notes, but I didn’t leave too many details, just enough to remind me as to what the session is like.
In addition to my list, Carina Ravely has created a Google Map with music sessions from all over the US and from some locations in Europe. Her’s not only includes regular sessions, but also festivals and other music gatherings. Here’s her map
I’ve only visited a few of these, but here are some of the sessions I’ve visited in the past few weeks…
Pickens Flea Market
This is the one that got me started, and the one where I gained confidence in playing and singing in front of people. I’ve now become as much of a fixture there as anyone else. People stroll by and take my photo as I’m playing.
These folks have now gotten to be good friends and I go more for the fellowship than for making music.
To be honest, I’m not a country music fan and the music here gets a bit repetitious, but I go anyway. I’ll usually wander through the market first then join up with the crew. We usually play from about 9:00 until lunchtime, or sometime thereabouts.
Bluegrass at Oolenoy
The Oolenoy Community Center has been hosting weekly Bluegrass jams every Friday night for over thirty years. I attended their 30th anniversary a couple of years ago, but I’ve never made it up to one of their regular jam sessions.
When I got back from Florida after Christmas I saw that they were having a New Year’s Bluegrass Jam, so I decided to visit. It was a blast and there were some very talented musicians there.
I decided that I really needed to come back for one of their regular Friday sessions, so I headed back a couple of weeks later.
There are two rooms in the old Oolenoy Schoolhouse. The larger room has a stage, and that’s where I thought the more advanced players would be. I headed to the smaller room, where I’d spent my time on New Year’s Day. There I found a small group of Bluegrass players.
In the larger room there were more musicians, several of whom come to the Pickens Flea Market. I really wanted to play with the Bluegrass group, but I had been spotted. The folks I knew wanted me to join them in the larger circle. It was pretty much a repeat of the Flea Market, with the same songs. I sang “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” and let me voice ring out. One woman said that with a voice like mine I should be singing George Jones songs. I’m not sure how I feel about that.
It was still fun, but I was hoping for something different. I was informed that this was the typical setup for Friday nights.
Table Rock State Park
This one is a bit…strange. Table Rock State Park has hosted a Bluegrass session every Saturday afternoon at their lodge for many years. Recently they started back up post-pandemic, so I decided to give them a try.
My first visit a couple of years ago I was told that the experienced players were downstairs and the beginners were upstairs. I remember that the upstairs players were absolutely terrible and the whole jam session fell apart (more on that in a subsequent post). I left early and had not returned until just recently. This time I decided I’d made enough progress to join the downstairs group.
When I arrived there was only the upstairs group and they sounded pretty good, so I decide to join them. There was quite a bit of an audience, and things were going good. However, after we had played a few tunes some other musicians arrived. They started playing some tunes outside, then took their instruments downstairs. Some of the better players with us also wandered downstairs, but the audience stuck around. Pretty soon, though, there wasn’t a critical mass to sustain a jam and things started to fall apart. Yet, the audience remained. I didn’t want to rudely abandon this group and head downstairs, but this was now awkward and no longer fun. Since I’d been there for awhile I made my excuses and left.
Later local musician Joshua Johnson told me that originally it hadn’t been bad upstairs and good downstairs, but that the downstairs folks who already played in local bands started to gather to share ideas and tunes. Eventually this led to the beginner/experienced divide. Regardless, I’m not so sure this is the venue for me.
Hagood Mill AMJAM
A couple of years ago I visited the Amateur Jam (AMJAM) at Hagood Mill and had a pretty good time. I was still a rank beginner (and am STILL a rank beginner) so I figured it would be a good fit. It was fun, but apparently even at that early stage I was considered advanced for the group. Twice I was told that the group doesn’t like to be intimidated by advanced players. On my second visit I was asked if I gave banjo lessons. I guess if you play the chords G, C, and D confidently enough you can fake your way through.
Now, post-pandemic, I was wondering if the AMJAM was still happening. I couldn’t find any announcements on Facebook, the Hagood Mill website, or any of my usual sources. This past Wednesday after my Pickens Flea Market session I decided to head up to Hagood just for the heck of it. I visited the mill and finally had a chance to view their petroglyph display. As I was leaving I spotted folks carrying instruments into the music pavilion across the road. I decided to check it out. Turns out the AMJAM is still going strong.
I asked if I could join in and once again I got the reply that “We don’t like to be intimidated.” I guess that’s their standard response to newcomers. They were getting ready for a gig with the Greenville Music Club, but they still let me sit in.
As with just about all of these sessions they go around the ring asking different ones to pick a song to lead, play, and/or sing. I played along quietly, trying my best not to intimidate anyone. The problem was that all of them were playing and even singing quietly. The seemed quite timid. When it came my turn to pick a song I selected “In the Sweet By and By.” Once again, my voice betrayed me. The woman to my left asked, “Are you a choir director?”
This was a good group and they did welcome me, but it still wasn’t quite what I was after.
Old-Time Session at Jocassee Brewing
Jocassee Brew on Highway 11 in Salem has started hosting Old-Time and Bluegrass sessions on alternating weeks. Thursday a week ago I headed up that way to check out these sessions.
My experience with Old-Time has been a mixed bag. I played one session at the old Claussen Bakery in Greenville back when I had no clue what I was doing. It was a disaster. I visited the Old Time sessions at The Stomping Grounds several times, but found that I didn’t enjoy them much, either. I played at one in Anacortes, Washington, and enjoyed it.
John Crutchfield wrote an article about Old Time Music that discussed “Excluders” and “Includers.”
The joke goes something like this: Two Old-Time oldtimers are taking their sweet old time on a morning constitutional through the sunny glades of Clifftop. They pass a tent with a fiddle-and-bongo duo. “That ain’t Old-Time,” says the one. “Nope,” says the other. In the next tent, a cello is joined by a Dixieland jazz band. “That ain’t Old-Time,” says the one. “Nope,” says the other. From the third tent, they hear a G-tune with an Em in the high part. “That ain’t Old-Time,” says the one. “Well, hold on now,” says the other. The two never speak again….
And in Old-Time, as elsewhere in the cultural landscape, we can generally discover two “camps”: I’ll call them the excluders and the includers. In many ways, these represent two fundamentally different intellectual styles, or even ways of being in the world. There are those who wish to draw a clear line and say, in effect, “That ain’t Old-Time.” Such people feel it is important to “take a stand,” to “separate the wheat from the chaff” and to otherwise make some kind of clear order out of the chaos of culture and human existence in general. Fair enough. Others, perhaps because they feel more at ease with life’s ambiguities and gray zones, will say, “Well, but it’s definitely old-time-ish/moving in that direction/an interesting take/etc.” or, as the case may be, “A little chaff is good for the digestion.”
It’s been my experience that the Excluders are much less fun to play with. They take the music too seriously when it should be fun. This was the case with The Stomping Ground group and one of the reasons I won’t go back to that session. Therefore I’ve always approached any new music session cautiously, especially Old Time sessions.
For these previous sessions I had just played chords on my guitar, but for the Jocassee Brewing session I decided to take a chance and play banjo. I let others take the melody and only played chords on the banjo, but it worked. The music was a blast and I didn’t feel intimidated by people constantly telling me what chords I should or should not be playing.
Honestly, I could have kept playing all evening. The music was fun, as it should be. I plan to head back there this Thursday.
Old-Time at Cedar Mountain Canteen
When I headed up to Jocassee Brewing, I had actually been on my way up to Cedar Mountain for their Old Time session. They have a weekly session on Thursdays and I thought it would be cool since I now own a Cedar Mountain banjo. I got a later start than I would have liked and it was a long way up there. Plus, I didn’t relish the idea of driving back down the twisty road from Caesar’s Head at night in dense fog. As it turns out, Cedar Mountain Canteen also has a session on Sunday afternoons, so this past Sunday I headed up the mountain for that.
The canteen as a nice outdoor bier garten next to a stream and since it was a fairly nice day, that’s where we played.
This was another fun group. They all seemed to know each other and I was definitely an outsider. One thing different about this group is that a couple of them used printed music. I was kind of glad to be able to glance at the Pegram Jam chord charts for some of the tunes. I still just played chords rather than melody, though.
It’s been fun to visit all of these sessions and see how they all operate. I know I’ll never get around to all of the ones on my list, but I’d like to try to visit as many as I can. Some meet at the same time, so I’d have to make some choices as to which ones to visit.
One thing is certain, though. I’ve been to enough of these to develop some opinions about what works and what I prefer in a music session. In a later post I may explore some of those thoughts.