“At times I would describe bluegrass as that first cold sip of lemonade in the Colorado sunshine after the perfect afternoon thunderstorm,” says Jacey LaManna, a junior and ensemble member at Colorado College. “At other times I would compare bluegrass to the wonderful experience of running full speed through an open field towards a large flock of geese. Bluegrass is all things good.”
Bluegrass music is considered a sub-genre of country music and was born from a variety of different musical traditions. It can be traced back to 18th century Appalachia, where its form and style relied heavily on the narrative ballads of the British Isles, Scotland, and Ireland. Later on, bluegrass began to incorporate the sounds of jazz and blues.
Bill Monroe, often considered a trailblazer for the genre, describes bluegrass as “Scottish bagpipes and ole-time fiddlin’. It’s Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It’s blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound.”
Some of bluegrasses’ most popular songs include the Soggy Bottom Boys’ “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” and Allison Krauss’ “Down to the River to Pray.”
The bluegrass program at CC is led by Keith Reed, who began teaching at the school 11 years ago. The program includes private lessons, three ensembles—Hit Factory, the Roustabouts, and Duck Soup—and a block offered every other year.
Music has always been a principal aspect of Reed’s life. It all began when, at a young age, Reed decided he wanted to learn guitar like his brother. From there, he picked up banjo. When he began to teach himself the new instrument by slowing down records on his grandmother’s turntable and picking along with the musicians.
After receiving a Classical Guitar degree from South Plains College in Texas, Reed joined the band Open Road and began his life as a touring musician. For six years, Open Road toured across the U.S. and Canada, playing about 200 dates a year.
“It was a great, great musical experience,” Reed says. “I got to meet and play with all of my musical heroes. It really gave me this sense of what it was like to be a total professional musician and what that’s all about, from stage presence to after the show to signing albums for people when, as an introvert, it’s a lot of face time and you get worn down.”
When Reed began teaching at CC, performance was at the forefront of his instruction.
“I knew how important it was in my world to perform while still working on all of my musical skills,” Reed says. “The last part of a piece or a song is completed when it’s performed perfectly on stage. Everything changes on stage.”
At first, Reed had only four students. Soon, interest began to grow and he decided to form an ensemble. In these ensembles, students are exposed to working as a cohesive group. They work on harmonies, performance, and put on local gigs—things that couldn’t happen in a one-on-one lesson.
Ali McGarigal, first-year, is classically trained in guitar and upright bass, but was looking for something “a little more free and unrestricted,” as she describes it, when she started at CC this past August. She plays the upright bass for Hit Factory, the beginning ensemble.
“It’s been an amazing experience,” McGarigal notes. “We have a pretty large variety of skill levels, but everyone is new to bluegrass and works together to learn, arrange, and perform a variety of pieces.”
Shane Lory, a senior, is also a member of Hit Factory, and, like McGarigal, is in his first year of playing in the bluegrass ensemble. Bluegrass, he describes, “is a sort of crooning, fast-paced, foot-tapping, highly rhythmic exercise in acoustic teamwork. It’s mountains, whiskey, and heartbreak.”
After seven years of playing solo acoustic guitar, Lory wanted to play with a group. “I’m a senior, and I seriously regret not joining earlier!” he says. The oral teaching that Reed employs is different from how Lory has learned in the past, but considers it “an exciting alternative.”
LaManna is a guitarist for the Roustabouts, a name, she says, she “first mistook for a cool new verb. In all actuality a roustabout is by definition an unskilled circus laborer, which I find hilarious and appropriate for the genre.” LaManna’s experience with bluegrass at CC has been essential to her growth as a musician. It has increased her self-confidence while performing and shaped the style of the songs she writes on her own time.
The ensembles play throughout the year at various school and local events, and will have their recital April 21 in Packard Hall. Duck Soup, the top ensemble, will be playing at some larger venues. Performances include: Front Range BBQ on March 26; the Durango Bluegrass Festival from April 15 through 17; and the Pueblo Bluegrass Festival from June 3 through 5.