I love music, all kinds of music, and I love people who love music. People can be diversely opposite yet come together uniquely over music.Every year for eight years or so, my brother John has helped put on a Bluegrass Festival in North Platte. He has asked me to come every year. Living in California, (where there are ample entertainment options) and looking at the weather history this festival has, I have respectfully declined, until this year.
I’m excited to tell you about it, even though the weather was still miserable – snow, wind, rain and mud.
As I said, this was my first experience and I knew nothing of the goings on. I will try to describe my experience. Hope I can do it justice.
The festival is held at the Lincoln County Fairgrounds. There are three warm buildings that host the festivities -- the dining hall, the ag building and the arena. The ag building has a craft fair and a small stage where professional musicians and luthiers (makers and fixers of stringed instruments) hold workshops. The dining hall is of course where there is food and pie -- lots of pie -- and the coffee is always on. The dining hall also hosts jams and you can sit there all day and listen for free. The jams and workshops are open to all comers.
The jams are important to my brother and he can be found there with his beloved Martin guitar every chance he gets. A group of musicians gather around and play music together, without a concern to please an audience. The jammers, if you will, are common folks who come from all over the country to be here and many times are joined by professional musicians.
I want to say I was moved by how accepting and loving these musicians are. All musicians of every level are accepted and encouraged. I saw a 90-year-old blind fiddler and a 12-year-old beginner banjo player jamming together. More than once, I was moved to tears by the intimate camaraderie as well as the music.
My mom loves these sessions and goes right into the middle of the jam circle with her walker and oxygen tank, taps her foot and hums along. No problem, they embrace her. These jams start the afternoon before the festival begins and continue almost non-stop until deep into the night on the last night.
Now the shows – I struggle to know what to call this part. The music is beautiful and homey and comfortable. The musicians I saw are extremely talented and fun to watch. Several times I was moved by a song, and more than once one of the musicians looked me in the teary eye and I could tell my emotion moved him/her. The connection between the crowd and the bands was heartwarming.
In the bluegrass genre, it seems that jokes abound too, and I can’t imagine anyone who has any appreciation for music, and the work and talent it takes to perform well together, would not love these performances.
The entertainers love their music and love their audience too. Some of them are real characters. When they finished their show, they changed clothes and stood in line to eat in the dining hall with the rest of us. They revere each other. More than once I stood with a group of entertainers out in the cold wind, and listened to one of the legends of bluegrass tell an impromptu story. I watched as they worshiped each other and accepted my presence. I was lucky, being with John, to be allowed into the backstage area to witness warm-ups and preparations for their shows, where they go to extremes to give the highest quality performance they possibly can. What you see is what you get here too – real nice folks.
If you don’t know the music, go to You Tube.
The festival is in need of more volunteers, sponsors, and of course, fans. Like too many things that appeal to older generations, it does not attract enough younger people.
Thank you to Courtney Ewald, the force behind this event, and my brother John and his wife Peggy who labor all year to keep it alive. I had a great time!
For more info, search the web for the North Platte bluegrass festival.
By Mike Martin, a 1969 graduate of North Platte High School currently living near Modesto, Calif.