I first began seeing bluegrass jam sessions up close, I could
not believe what was happening before my eyes. I clearly recall
the following scene which occurred in a parking lot in Lavonia,
Georgia more than twenty years ago. Four men were standing
together with instruments (guitar, banjo, mandolin and bass),
and from the conversation, I could tell they had just met.
After they had tuned their instruments, one of the men suggested
a song (I think it was the old North Carolina fiddle tune
Water Bound, but I am not sure) and he asked if the
others knew it. The banjo player said he did, but the other
two players (mandolin and bass) said they did not.
"Oh, its easy" said the guitar player, and
the banjo player kicked it off with a full verse break. By
the fourth beat of the kickoff, all the instruments were playing.
After the kickoff, the guitar player sang a verse and a chorus,
and then the mandolin player played a wonderful break. Next
the guitar player sang another verse and chorus, only this
time the chorus was sung in three-part harmony, with the mandolin
player singing tenor and the bass player singing baritone.
Remember, these are the same two men who seconds before had
said they did not know the song. The song finished up with
another banjo break followed by a final verse and chorus (again
in three-part harmony). The whole performance was excellent,
seeming as tight to me as many of the acts on stage.
And it was not a once-in-a-weekend occurrence, for as I watched,
the men repeated the same type of performance many times on
many different songs. I was hooked. It was clear that just
as I was hearing this music for the first time, the musicians
who were playing the music were also hearing it for the first
time themselves, and they were personally delighted with their
A magic afternoon for them and me alike, provided by four
men who may well have never even learned each others
names and may have never seen each other again. Their music,
like much of the music in bluegrass jam sessions, was only
performed once, and to hear it, you had to be there.
What I witnessed that hot July afternoon long ago was the
wonderful legacy left to us by Bill Monroe, a legacy from
the time when he invented bluegrass music over fifty years
You see, when those men were playing together and were making
that wonderful music, they were operating under a set of mutually
well-understood rules. These rules allowed them to seamlessly
construct wonderful music, and even learn new songs, on
the fly as they performed.
At the same time, these rules allowed them tremendous freedom
to improvise and show-off their individual skills. Because
of the rules, each of the musicians knew exactly what was
expected of him in each part of the song, and so long as each
player played by the rules, the music worked.
So what are the rules? Well, I dont claim to know
them all. For years, I have read everything I have been able
to find about bluegrass, but, being a musician of modest accomplishment
(that means I am not very good), I only know the basic rules.
I will begin with the general rules, and then I will get more