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May 20, 2013

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On a chilly early Saturday morning in late winter, groups of people hustle into the warmth of the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro. Fiddles and mandolins in tow, budding musicians of all ages find seats among the museum’s displays and sit down for an hour of instruction in a kind of music whose sound is much older than most of them.

While open to any beginner, most of the fiddlers in the early morning class are young children. Perched on the edge of their chairs, tiny fiddles tucked under tiny chins, they look and listen intently to the instructor, Randy Lanham, as he teaches them the notes to “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The sound that envelops the room starts as a high whine and transitions into something reminiscent of a horror movie about an attack of killer bees. The parents around the perimeter of the room exchange raised eyebrows and amused looks, but Lanham never lets on that he hears anything less than music in the making. Only someone who loves bluegrass could appreciate the sounds of this progress. Just as a mother can decode a toddler’s garbled words, Lanham can pick out the correct “E” notes he instructs his students to play.

“That’s right,” he says encouragingly to the class while working with one child to get her to hold her wrist straight. His voice never wavers from its patient tone. Somehow, in the cozy setting of the museum, beneath life-size photos of crowds at bluegrass concerts through the decades, Lanham’s calm twang coaxes recognizable strains of the classic nursery rhyme from his students and their instruments. “That’s it,” he says to the class. “Give yourself a round of applause.”  

Among them is 6-year-old Whitley Ford, who, according to her mother, Diane, came home from school after a Bluegrass in the Schools performance and “said she just ‘had’ to learn to play fiddle.”

Whitley’s reaction to being exposed to bluegrass music is exactly what Lanham hopes for as the education director at the International Bluegrass Music Museum and coordinator for its Bluegrass in the Schools program, which reaches 23 elementary schools in the Owensboro-Daviess County area. “When we go into the schools,” Lanham says, “we get up close and personal so the kids can see, feel and touch the sound.”

Lanham and his crew of fellow musicians usually perform for a school-wide assembly and then do about a one-week introduction per school. The introduction, which includes brief lessons on chords, the history of bluegrass, and introductions to the instruments, is meant “to spur interest” in the Saturday Lessons program at the museum, according to Lanham. More participants in lessons result in more members for the Kentucky Bluegrass AllStars, a group of musicians ranging in age from 6 to 80 that features guitar, mandolin, fiddle and banjo. The AllStars perform at the popular Owensboro music festival ROMP each year with the aspiration of being “the largest bluegrass band on Earth” to perform to a live audience.

The Bluegrass AllStars are the brainchild of International Bluegrass Music Museum Executive Director Gabrielle Gray, who has produced music programs statewide under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kentucky Arts Council, the Kentucky Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Gray developed the idea for the AllStars out of concern that bluegrass music was leaving Kentucky. She recalls that, when she began her tenure at the museum in 2003, “I wanted to make sure that bluegrass stayed in Kentucky, and there’s no better way to do that than to teach each generation.”

Generational love for the genre is definitely at play in Lanham’s passion for bluegrass music. Lanham learned to love bluegrass, and later to play it, by growing up listening to his grandfather, a fiddle player. “Just about every weekend, I’d be with my granddad at some sort of event—a square dance, a barbecue … so I was always around other musicians, learning from them,” he recalls. At 14, Lanham experienced a defining moment as a musician and a fan when he got the opportunity to meet and play with bluegrass legend Bill Monroe. “He asked any young musicians to come up on stage with him, and I was the first one,” Lanham says.

The name Bill Monroe doesn’t impress many of today’s newcomers to bluegrass simply because they didn’t know who he was prior to becoming involved in programs connected to the International Bluegrass Music Museum. Thanks to bands such as Mumford and Sons, “I’m having young kids want to learn to play because people like the acoustic sound of ‘newgrass,’ ” Lanham says, admitting that though of course he loves traditional bluegrass, “I really enjoy the newer sound.”

No matter what brings students to Saturday lessons and the Kentucky Bluegrass AllStars, Lanham and Gray agree there are simply more bluegrass fans than there used to be. Gray says the programs have “changed the landscape of the bluegrass scene,” and the greatest achievement of the Bluegrass AllStars is that “the kids we started with are our ambassadors. We’ve anchored bluegrass in its home state, and everywhere they go perform, people will say, ‘Oh, you’re from Owensboro.’ ”

Lanham likens the ability to hear live bluegrass in the Owensboro area, the birthplace of the genre, to going to Nashville and hearing country music. “It’s cool for people from our area to carry it on,” he says, mentioning that other places simply don’t have the ability to put on programs like those he is involved in leading. He says he has received calls and emails from as far away as Africa “with people just wanting to pick my brain and see how they could get something similar started.”

Sixteen-year-old Alexis (“Lexy” to her friends) Roby is one of Lanham’s students who has taken her love and talent for bluegrass to higher levels. Roby began taking mandolin lessons at age 7 to emulate her aunt Mandy, who she says is her role model. So taken was the young artist with the instrument and the sound of bluegrass that, nearly a decade later, Roby is the front person for the bluegrass quartet Blackberry Jam.

“Everything I learned about music I’ve learned from Randy,” says singer/songwriter Roby. After she heard about the International Bluegrass Music Museum’s Saturday Lessons program, she began taking lessons with Lanham, who “put four kids who had never met in a band.” That band, which consists of two young men and two young women who play regional shows (but aspire to move beyond the local scene), just released its first CD, Alexis Roby and Blackberry Jam.

“Randy not only teaches the music, he’s taught me how the music relates to life,” Roby says. “Most of the songs I’ve written are to inspire people. Music is my way of communicating with people, and everything I do is in my music.

“My first ROMP was a little overwhelming,” Roby admits. “I knew I wasn’t the only one [the large audience] was looking at, but it was cool because there were so many people enjoying the music. It was a real confidence builder.”

As a performer and a lover of bluegrass music, Roby is thrilled the ROMP music festival has grown over the years. The teen sums up the event as “awesome” and says, “It’s cool to go and realize you’re not the only kid who likes bluegrass … Everybody likes some kind of music. I think people like ROMP and like bluegrass because bluegrass is upbeat. There’s not that much upbeat music anymore that’s made with real instruments.”

Lanham knows that “not all who [take lessons] decide to be musicians, but 100 percent of them develop an appreciation for newgrass and bluegrass. Before the museum and its programs, there wasn’t near the appreciation.”

Appreciation for the sound of bluegrass music, as well as unintentional influence on Randy Lanham’s part, prompted Jennifer Higdon and her daughters, Veronica, 7, and Eva, 8, to enroll in beginners lessons at the start of the new year.

“Last summer, I took my children to see the Lanham Brothers Jamboree at Diamond Lake Resort,” says Higdon. (Randy Lanham and his brother stage music shows featuring bluegrass, country and gospel each April though September at the regional venue.) “My girls and I were instantly enthralled. The Lanham Brothers Jamboree is reminiscent of one of those good old-time country shows I can imagine my own grandmother taking her children to when they were young. My girls saw other young girls on stage, and something inside them said, ‘I want to do that, too!’ ” Veronica wanted to play the fiddle, and Eva chose the guitar. Their mother says, “I have always loved the violin, so I decided to take lessons alongside my girls.”

Higdon, an educator, had no previous musical experience “other than my mother forcing me to sing in church,” she jokes, but says the Saturday lessons have been “an excellent way to introduce my girls to an instrument.” While Eva and Veronica plan on performing with the AllStars at ROMP this year, Jennifer Higdon isn’t so sure. She may yet change her mind.

“My mom sang in a band for nearly 20 years. I remember being a young girl and watching my mom sing on the same stage at Diamond Lake [where Higdon and her daughters saw the Lanham Brothers last summer],” says Higdon. “Maybe some things in your life are destined to come full circle.”


If you go …

ROMP 2013: Bluegrass Roots & Branches Festival, June 27–29

Yellow Creek Park, Owensboro, rompfest.com  

The stars are aligned to make the 10th annual ROMP celebration the largest in the event’s history. The Bluegrass AllStars—who perform at 11 a.m. on Saturday, June 29—join a roster of musical heavyweights including Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, The Del McCoury Band, Merle Haggard, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Punch Brothers and Sam Bush Band.  Arts & crafts and food vendors, kids’ activities, camping, jam sessions, yoga and “all-night after-parties” complement the toe-tapping, good-time-inducing tunes.

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May 20, 2013

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