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Teaching passionate bluegrass fans

Telluride

I'm typing this from the Telluride Bluegrass Festival... sitting on a lawn chair with 10,000 other fans (average age is under 30...I'm one of the older people here), in the most spectacular box canyon that makes the acoustics like nothing I've ever heard. (And these guys, and gals, seriously know how to mix. It's worth coming here just to hear what I thought was impossible--an outdoor mix that sounds like you're within the finest concert hall on the planet. Then again, it might just be the contact high...)

So what's up with all these passionate fans? Bluegrass musicians do something most other genres don't--they teach their fans. A lot of these artists understand that listening to a show like this makes you want to rush home and grab your guitar, dust it off, and start practicing. So they support that. They give free workshops in town to both attendees and the locals who didn't get a ticket. You'll find a three-time Grammy winner sitting on the front porch of a bakery, picking with some of the street players.

In the merchandise tent next to the CDs and t-shirts, there's a huge rack of books and videos/DVDs by many of the artists teaching their particular style. These people don't act like rock stars, even though most have won not just Grammys but Oscars and any other award. Dobro master Jerry Douglas has played on over 1,000 albums. But you're likely to find him on a park bench, giving tips to a 12-year old.

The most important message I get here is that it's about a culture of collaboration and working and helping others. The folks on the stage are constantly interacting with one another, showing up during each other's sets to help out--something I rarely see in the rock world. But the key for me is that there's also plenty of learning for those of us who don't play a bluegrass instrument, but want to appreciate the music more. Many of the artists will talk about the history of the songs, and the instruments, and it's really cool when they teach you to recognize and deal with seriously tricky timing like 7/4.

I don't just sit here and soak up the sun... I learn. I didn't even like bluegrass when my friends first dragged me here in 2001, but by the time I left, I knew so much more. And what I learned made me appreciate it. And the more I appreciated it, the more I came to love it. I'm not a bluegrass musician, but as one who now truly appreciates it, I kick ass. I can usually name the currently soloing player without seeing--or being told--who's on stage. I recognize subtle differences between banjo picking styles. I can spell "dobro".

The more we reverse-engineer passion, the more we see how learning plays the central role. Where there is real passion (not just temporary fad devotion), there is always a desire to learn and grow and improve whether it's snowboard, chess, photography, opera, cooking, or appreciating the difference between a four and five string banjo. The more I learn, the better the experience. the better the experience, the more likely I am to want to learn and know more, and the more likely I am to tip over into being passionate.

What other domains have a culture of teaching their fans? It can work for anything.

Gotta go -- the Bela Fleck/Jean-Luc Ponty/Stanley Clarke set is about to start. This is not your father's bluegrass.

Oh yeah, it's also my birthday, and I can't imagine a better place to be. : )
I'll be back on Tuesday...

Posted by Kathy on June 19, 2005 | Permalink

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» Teaching passionate bluegrass fans from Shawn's Thoughts
Wow - Kathy's posting from Colorado at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. This festival is on the short-list of places I want to take my daughter before she's too cool for stuff like this. Only Kathy could link a serious... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 19, 2005 9:59:03 PM

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My favorite blog posts -- whether I'm reading or writing -- are those that take everyday examples and use them to teach marketing or public relations lessons. That may be because I love to tell stories. Or it could be because I believe people learn ... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 20, 2005 4:31:15 PM

» Telluride Bluegrass Festival from achievable ends
Creating Passionate Users has a great post on the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. And I've added the festival to the things I'm going to have to do before I'm 55. The most important message I get here is that it's about [Read More]

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Comments

Happy birthday Kathy!

Posted by: Matt Moran | Jun 19, 2005 11:16:40 PM

Thanks for another great post. I have been reading this blog for a couple of months now and just love it :-) But, anyway, the reason for me dropping a line is off-topic, pure and simple: Happy Birthday, from another guy who just celebrated yesterday as well .... Stephan

Posted by: Stephan | Jun 20, 2005 4:13:20 AM

As Napoleon Dynamite would say, "Lucky!" Have a wonderful time and Happy Birthday!

Posted by: Wendy Maynard | Jun 20, 2005 10:37:38 AM

Every once in a while you find an orchestra that does the same kind of thing; the conductor takes time out to talk to the audience and explain the history, the background and the form as well as the challenges in performing this piece, etc. But there is one piece that has always stood out for me: Peter and the Wolf. It is a wonderful to show how musical instruments have their own voices, and how they are used to compose a story. This is a magical way to introduce children to the world of classical music.

Sadly, much of the classical music culture lacks that intimacy, hence the lack of more wonderful work that is like Peter and the Wolf.

Posted by: Mike S | Jun 20, 2005 10:46:01 AM

Happy Birthday, Kathy.

Posted by: Brian | Jun 20, 2005 11:53:02 AM

Saw Fleck/Clark/Ponty in Hampton, NH the other night... great stuff. Watching those guys communicate, particularly Fleck and Clark was electric... Ponty appeared to fit the snooty french guy stereotype perfectly, especially on stage with those other two. Great musician nonetheless.

Posted by: Michael Brindamour | Jun 20, 2005 11:59:17 AM

This was the first time that I was at Telluride and it bordered on a religious experience. It's nice to know that I wasn't the only blogger there taking advantage of the free wi-fi!

I completely agree with your post. I watched a show at Elks Park and sitting about 3 people away from me (also watching) was Emmylou Harris. The best part is that nobody smothered her; the people just let her watch. I also saw Mike Gordon a bunch and people just let him walk around.

And did you see Fleck/Clark/Ponty play during Bobby McFerrin's set? It was amazing.

Posted by: a superhero by night | Jun 21, 2005 9:22:41 AM

This was the first time that I was at Telluride and it bordered on a religious experience. It's nice to know that I wasn't the only blogger there taking advantage of the free wi-fi!

I completely agree with your post. I watched a show at Elks Park and sitting about 3 people away from me (also watching) was Emmylou Harris. The best part is that nobody smothered her; the people just let her watch. I also saw Mike Gordon a bunch and people just let him walk around.

And did you see Fleck/Clark/Ponty play during Bobby McFerrin's set? It was amazing.

Posted by: a superhero by night | Jun 21, 2005 9:22:41 AM

I've never been to Telluride, but it sounds like a great festival. I love music, and bluegrass is one of my favorites.

We have a similar situation here in Moscow, Idaho, with the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, held every February. All of the artists who come to the festival do clinics, and many visit area elementary schools through a program called "Jazz in the Schools" (which I volunteer with every year). Many of the artists say this is their favorite jazz festival precisely because the focus is on education.

The jazz festival website is http://www.jazz.uidaho.edu/ if anyone's interested.

Geoff

Posted by: Geoff Allen | Jun 21, 2005 12:17:06 PM

Hey thanks for the birthday wishes Matt, Wendy, and Bryan. And Stephen, happy birthday back at you!

Superhero: When Bobby McFerrin announced that the Trio was coming back, I could barely believe it. And I spent the entire McFerrin set trying to parse out the different parts he was "doing", and I'm convinced it's not humanly possible for that to have been one person. Wow. And the little Sam Bush/Chris Thile moment during the Sam Bush band set was wonderful. I found the Duhks to be a really fun surprise too -- I caught their festival set as well as their Elk Park thing. By the way, I was the blonde sitting near the mixing board with my Powerbook, trying desperately to keep people from spilling beer on it... ; )

Geoff: thanks for the link to the jazz festival; I was thinking that jazz probably had a similar sensibility.

Mike s: what a great note about Peter and the Wolf. I, too, wish there was more of that...

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jun 21, 2005 9:23:55 PM

Every few days, I read a review of a concert I totally should have been at in the SF Chronicle. Now and then I stumble on them *before* they happen - fortunately, it sounds like this one happens will be repeated next year. I'll add this to New Orleans's jazz fest as something I've got to check out.

Kathy - you're spot on with your comment about how bluegrass musicians stand out in their willingness to interact with their fans as fellow musicians. This is very fundamental about what I like so much about various types of folk music, cajun, blues, and so forth. You don't have to have the technical talent of Itzak Perlman to play bluegrass in it's purest, most soul-inspiring form. There are, of course virtuoso musicians who can do amazing things with a mandolin, fiddle, banjo, etc - and they sure are fun to watch. But the music is structured so that a merely competent musician can actually play alongside the best, and it blurs the line between a fan and a participant.

I'm not surprised to hear about the young crowd - I played a lot in high school. I'm over 30 now as well (by a very safe margin), but I got to get back into this. Thanks for inspiring me to pick up my fiddle again!

Posted by: Geoff B | Jul 1, 2005 4:11:17 PM

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