Dan Bilger and Otis Todd (photo by Cindy Steele).
by Mark Blackwell
Being a native Hoosier, I am fairly shocked at the proliferation of gambling joints that have popped up in our state. I am even more surprised at my reaction to that alteration of the cultural landscape because I am an inveterate gambler. Just about everybody who practices wagery (I just coined that term) has a favorite game. For some it might be Blackjack or Craps, others prefer Roulette or Poker. My game is Music.
For a man who can’t read notes or get my fingers around a chord, music is a gamble. Instead of a deck of cards or a pair of dice, I employ the jug, gutbucket, and doghouse bass. When luck smiles on me, I not only stay in time but I can also improvise a pretty good riff or two—that’s a jackpot in my game. But there are those days when I just can’t seem to catch a break.
When I’m practicin’ alone it’s like playin’ Poker against myself. If things go good I’m a winner but all I rake in is a self administered pat on the back. And the times that things don’t work, I consider losses. But there again it is only my time that I’ve lost and I haven’t ended up broke and humiliated. However, the real thrill of gambling is taking the risk in the presence of others. Money gamers may choose Penny Ante Poker at a Thursday night get-together with friends or the hot and heavy casino action. For musicians, the low stakes game is playing music at a jam session.
“What is a jam session?” you might ask—and I’m glad you asked that question. A jam session is two or more musicians who get together to play old tunes and learn new licks. That is what I do just about every Sunday evening. Along about eight o’clock I meet up with four or five fellers over at Joe’s Garage—yes, it’s a real place. Joe plays mandolin and guitar, Rob is usually there on banjo, Bill shows up with a guitar and I throw in some bass notes. Oh, yeah we’ve got new guy, Sam, who’s been playin’ French harp with us since late spring.
Jam sessions, like Poker games, can take place in a variety of settings. I’ve been to sessions in living rooms, woodshops, basements, back-porches, and around campfires. I have also played Poker in all those places. But my particular group generally meets in a garage (maybe that’s where the term garage band comes from). It doesn’t much matter where it happens, what is important is that everybody in the group is sympathetic to a reasonable number of the same tunes.
Like a dealer’s choice poker game, where every hand can have a different set of rules, a jam session doesn’t have to adhere to any one style. There are old-timey, country, jazz, and bluegrass-only jams but a group can venture into a variety of genres if the participants are amenable. With the set up our group has, we should be playing a lot of Bluegrass but we’re not as fast and accurate as we might be. Instead, we like playin’ everything from rough country blues to sophisticated Hoagy Carmichael tunes. It’s fun to bend things around some, like tryin’ to do a rock song string band style. There again it’s a gamble but the only substantial risk is to your self esteem.
The best attitude to take with you to the gaming table, is that luck and skill are on your side and the same goes for jamming. You have to go in to it counting on winning or at least on learning something new. With most sessions you will break even, that is, you will play music without too many mistakes and you will learn how to make the songs a little better the next time. Hitting the jackpot is the time when everybody in the session is “on.”
It doesn’t matter what tune you’re playin’. You can feel that you’re in a groove and the music is playing you. Many times I have found myself, almost in a trance, keeping time with the music, with a grin on my face and I look around at the rest of the group and discover that they are all grinning back at me. It’s those times that we know that we have all drawn a straight flush. And that’s the pot we’re playing to win.
It seems that there are few times in a person’s life that you feel that rush of accomplishment and elation. Watching your child graduate from high school or college is one. You have this desire to claim credit for the success of raising them, having done all the right things at the right time—but down deep, you know that it is a more mystical process. We make the effort. We bring to bear all of our knowledge and skill to create the outcome. But it still takes the right alignment of the stars, luck, and providence to create those precious, perfect moments. That is what happens in the best jam sessions. And it is worth the gamble.
Bill Monroe Memorial Music Park offers an opportunity to experience the jam session in the parking lots and campgrounds during the upcoming Uncle Pen Days Festival in Bean Blossom from September 24 through September 27. Over 25 bands will appear on stage but you can be sure to see and hear hundreds of pickers playing their hand at the music game off-stage. And the Hillbilly Wagon Train Jam is October 2 through October 4.
I leave you with a recipe for
Take 1 to 3 guitar players,
Add some Mandolin chops, 1 Banjo picker, and 1 steady Bass player.
Spice with: Washboard, Ukulele, Fiddle, Spoons or whatever is at hand.
Blend the ingredients with familiar tune.
Cook for as long as it takes for everybody to get a grin on their faces.
Enjoy your jam with relish.