Arthur Bates of Locust Grove, a longtime bluegrass fan and participant, plays during the bluegrass Jam Saturday at the Tahlequah Veterans of Foreign Wars Post. Photo by Betty Ridge

Toes were tapping Saturday evening at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Building on Water Street as bluegrass musicians and fans gathered for a jam session.

The event was the first of a series around northeastern Oklahoma, designed to perpetuate and promote the love of bluegrass and old-time country music.

Other jam sessions will be held throughout the area, said Don Casady, president of Green Country Bluegrass. He invites families, and all people young and old who like to perform, listen, and relax during an enjoyable evening of music.

“In order to bolster our membership, we’re going to go around to the towns and let people know who we are,” he said.

About 250 families participate in Green Country Bluegrass, and Casady encourages it as a family activity. Although there are not as many young people learning and participating in bluegrass as Casady would like, it’s not unusual to see two or three generations attending the events.

The generational appeal was embodied by sisters Jennie Wilson and Joyce Sharp of Hulbert, who were listening and tapping their toes Saturday evening. Sharp’s son, Rickey Conley, was playing his banjo in one of the jam sessions, and his 15-year-old son also is an up-and-coming bluegrass musician.

“I used to work at Western Hills, and I love to hear the bluegrass playing. I worked there for 25 years,” Wilson said.

For years, the state resort has hosted bluegrass and fiddlers conventions, attracting hundreds of people from across Oklahoma and nearby states. When she left her job there, Wilson missed hearing the various artists perform and watching the dancing.

The group strikes up a tune, and the singer moans, “I am a man of constant sorrow, I’ve seen trouble all my days.”

“This reminds me of when I was a kid,” she said. “This is the kind of music Daddy used to let us listen to. He wouldn’t let us listen to rock ‘n’ roll.”

Never mind that the bluegrass music being played in the back room where she sat provided a foundation for today’s country music, and many of the other popular musical forms today. Back in the 1950s, Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, with their sultrier sounds derived from traditional forms, were just too radical.

The tone of the music changes, to one more upbeat: “Goin’ up Cripple Creek, goin’ in a run, goin’ up Cripple Creek to have a little fun.”

Wilson thought it would be a good idea for more young people to come out and listen to events such as the bluegrass jam.

“I just love it,” Sharp agreed. “And you don’t have to be around smoking and drinking — that’s nice.”

Compared to the price of a typical music event, the bluegrass jam was also quite affordable. The price was right, with free admission. Listeners could sip coffee and snack on doughnuts.

Green Country Bluegrass sponsors a bluegrass show the third Saturday of each month, from October through May, at Wells Middle School in Catoosa, across from the Hard Rock Casino. Admission is $7 for the event, from 5:45 to 9 p.m.

Casady said this Saturday’s concert features two young bluegrass groups: Slick and the Bubbas, who range in age from 12 to 15, and the Rockin’ Acoustic Circus, who are 16 to 18. Saltcreek, a group composed of adults, also will perform.

People who attend aren’t always content to just sit, listen to the featured bands, and tap their toes.

“There’s jamming in the hallways. A lot of people just bring their instruments and sit down and jam, rather than watching the show,” Casady said.

He said no alcohol or drugs are allowed. But there are concessions.

“You can fill your belly as well as your ears,” he said.

The music continued.

“Take these chains from my heart and set me free,” one vocalist intoned.

The microphone passed to another man in the circle.

“My love is gone, my story ends, with just a teardrop on the rose.”

“Everybody take a turn,” the singer said when he finished, passing the microphone again. “Are you ready to stretch your vocal cords?”

Greetings among old friends frequently punctuated the gathering.

“Hey, stranger!” one man exclaimed, warmly clasping another’s hand. “It’s been too long.”

Casady said a lot of people who enjoy bluegrass in this area, and he wants to see them get together and share their passion.

He said the Green Country Bluegrass Association has been in continuous operation since about 1925, and is probably one of the oldest continuous bluegrass organizations in the country.

“Unfortunately, bluegrass is the type of music people have been playing for years. We don’t have enough young people. If the music is to be kept alive, we need to have people keeping it alive and growing,” he said.

Casady chose Tahlequah for the first of the area jams because he grew up and graduated from high school here, and attended Northeastern State University.

“I know there are a lot of pickers in this area,” he said.

People like Judy and Jess Hill from Fort Gibson. They brought their bass and banjo, respectively, and joined with a few other musicians in the back room to pick out some lively tunes, with a couple of old friends and anyone else who chose to join in.

“We four have been doing this for about 40 years. We get together once or twice a week,” Judy said. “We love it and we have a good band.”

She turned back to her instrument as they began “There Is a Tavern in the Town.”

In the main room, Arthur Bates of Locust Grove cheerfully strummed away with a circle of musicians.

“I’ve been going to Green Country for the past 20 years. I think I was at the first one they had up at the park on top of the hill,” he said.

He’s played with numerous groups around the area, and enjoys getting out and having a good time.

Another singer began: “My heart is sad, and I’m in sorrow, thinking of one I love.”

And the band played on.


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