Bluegrass music takes root in Walla Walla Valley

The musicians hope the jam sessions where all acoustic string players are welcome will grow on people.

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A group of musicians performs at Jacobi's Restaurant on the first Friday of each month. Other bluegrass performances are at Skye Book and Brew in Dayton on the second Friday at 6:30 p.m. and Waitsburg High School music room at 7 p.m. on the third Friday.

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Sue and Lewis Turner listen to the music at Jacobi's Restaurant on Friday. Their son, Jimmy Turner, is one of the bluegrass musicians.

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During the monthly bluegrass music session at Jacobi's Restaurant on Friday night, Jo Shay plays the mandolin along with Glen Morrison (right) on guitar.

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Musicians strum their instruments during the bluegrass music jam.

WALLA WALLA - From the mountains of Appalachia to the rolling hills of a-Palouse-a, a growing group of bluegrass performers is playing to keep its circle unbroken.

"Basically we are just trying to get some people together to help them learn how to play bluegrass music," group coordinator Kate Hockersmith said.

The group that Hockersmith plays with almost every Friday, and sometimes a few other days of the week, is known as the Mythical/Movable Blue Mountain Bluegrass Jam.

It is an open bluegrass jam session where all acoustic string players are welcomed to learn and share bluegrass tunes.

As for the "Mythical/Movable" part of their name, Hockersmith explained that over the last four years the jam sessions have changed venues numerous times.

In Walla Walla they once played at the Colville Street Patisserie and at Merchants Ltd.

Through the years, people would stop members of the group to describe how they heard great bluegrass music from a band they never heard of again.

More times than not, the mysterious troubadours of twang heard around Walla Walla, Waitsburg and Dayton were the same group Hockersmith has been helping to coordinate for the last four years.

Recently, the group finally settled into three regular locations for open jam sessions.

One of those sessions is for beginners, with the other two for intermediate and above instrumentalists.

That's not a problem for fiddler Becky Wiessner, who also plays the violin for the Walla Walla Symphony.

"It's fun. You don't have to practice," Wiessner said.

Then her husband, Harry, who plays acoustic bass guitar alongside his wife, added, "And you don't have to be on stage."

But you do have to be in the circle, or at least close to it, as you play and learn bluegrass tunes.

On Friday at Jacobi's close to 17 string players joined the circle. There were also some "new faces" in the group, Hockersmith said.

The mandolinists outnumbered the guitarists, and the guitarists outnumber the bassists and banjoists, who were neck-in-neck at two each.

Acoustically speaking, the brick walls of the back room helped fill the area with a bright, cheery, twangy sound. The downside was the vocalists tended to get

drowned out by the instrumentalists, leaving the listener wondering why the singers didn't use mics.

"We have never done that. We have talked about it at times, because in Jacobi's the sound is weird in that room ... But it is not really a performance so much as it is just a jam," Hockersmith said.

The musicians took turns learning and teaching bluegrass songs. While around them, people sat at tables and had dinner, and maybe a few drinks.

"Everybody sits in a circle. And everybody takes a turn picking a song and trying to learn songs. It's all good. As long as I know how to do it," Wiessner said, just before taking up her fiddle and proving that she did know how to do it.

As for the unbroken circle, Hockersmith's link goes back to the Appalachia of West Virginia.

"Being in my grandmother's house in West Virginia, when they were playing cards and listening to bluegrass music to the Wheeling Radio Bluegrass Show," Hockersmith said.

To keep the circle unbroken today, Hockersmith said every third Friday, the group does a beginner's bluegrass jam at Waitsburg High School in the music room at 7 p.m.

Starting this week Hockersmith is also coordinating a banjo class at the high school on Wednesday nights.

As for the other two regular sessions, Jacobi's Restaurant, 416 N. Second Ave., hosts the Mythical/Movable Blue Mountain Bluegrass Jam every first Friday at 7 p.m., and Skye Book and Brew in Dayton on every second Friday at 6:30 p.m.

On March 27, various members of the bluegrass jam will hold a benefit fundraiser for the Pioneer Park Aviary to be held at Waitsburg High School Auditorium at 2 p.m. Cost is $10.

The Blues is for the Birds! fundraiser will feature the Blue Mountain Troublemakers, The Rezonators and The Ryegrass String Band.

To learn more about the bluegrass jam, banjo lessons or the Bluegrass is for the Birds! fundraiser, call 337-8787.

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