A number of years ago I went to Camp Bluegrass with my brother. And I’ve told this story more than once in sermons and sharing, but it’s worth sharing again! The camp was something my brother mentioned to me and it sounded like the perfect opportunity to spend some good one-on-one time with him, commuting 30 min. each way daily while staying at his house in Lubbock, TX.
So he went as a beginner banjo player and I took my mandolin, thinking I could experience the most musical growth on it (and boy did I!). That’s all background to the story I want to share…
On the opening morning, the whole camp gathered (about 200 people) to meet the instructors. There were about 20 instructors on the various instruments (guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass, fiddle, dobro, vocalists). After being introduced by name, they were introduced musically. They all played unamplified and, as is the custom with bluegrass music, took turns improvising.
Several things struck me during this 10 minute “introduction.”
- While the auditorium was AMAZINGLY equipped for amplification of this style of music, they played down on the floor (unamplified), which meant that when one of them soloed, the other 19 instruments played very, very softly in order that each might be heard. And each one, in turn, was heard clear as crystal.
- I am fairly confident that the piece was unrehearsed, though it was familiar to each of them. They just soloed in the order of the 20-person line they formed across the stage, and the handoffs from one instrument to the next were SEAMLESS. As each neared the end of their improvisation, they “set up” the next, who often picked up a riff or sound from the one before and wove it into their own improvised solo. And each nodded at and honored their ‘neighbor’ (and even left space for the applause of the one who went before).
- There was very little ego up front, though these were world-class musicians. This was borne out in class, when these virtuosos would patiently meet each of us at our level and help us grow. These soloists weren’t trying to upstage their neighbors, but build on, add to, support, and interact with what each had brought.
As the week progressed, I came to appreciate bluegrass as a particularly humble and communal musical art-form. While one can get written music, most tunes and chords and licks are learned from the community, around the circle or in friendly and willing collaboration off to the side. The whole culture of bluegrass is family and friends sitting around swapping stories, tunes, lyrics, and encouragement – and is one of participation WITH rather than attention TO a performer.
Musically, all that was fascinating, compelling, and inviting – and plenty to marvel about, but I could not help but see and hear and share in all that as a Christian and as a pastor and think this is what the church should be like, from the humility to the participation to the invitation to the fellowship, with the Good News as our song.
Sound like a church you’d want to be a part of? I sure would.