Our Bluegrass Journey
"...you can do nothing on the supernatural level through your own strength; whereas, when you become God's instrument, you can do everything...for in his goodness he wishes to use inadequate instruments, like you and like me." - Josemaría Escrivá
Our family discovered bluegrass in the hills of southern Indiana (not far from Bill Monroe’s old music park in Bean Blossom). The music seemed to somehow rise up out of those hills and we acquired the taste for it, and it quickly became one of our favorite pastimes. It’s very simple music, yet complex and mysteriously deep within this simplicity. And sometimes, on those dark evenings when nothing seems to be going right, it allows us to sing about the sad human condition in a joyful way. Over the years, our family has truly fallen in love with bluegrass, and our study of the music has become a project we are doing for God.
To play good bluegrass music, it seems to me that it's best if we play by memory, and we must play quietly enough to hear one another, yet loud enough for everyone to hear the song. The melody is repeated and passed in a circle between the musicians, until everyone in the group has had a chance to play the lead. That's the real art of bluegrass: to play (or speak) while listening. And to me, it is a symbol of our family life, and also of our role as members of the community at large.
We chose Mount Nebo as the name of our family band because Mount Nebo in the Hoosier National Forest was where we were living when we first encountered the music. But as a family band, I sometimes think we are standing like Abraham on Mount Nebo, overlooking the promised land (while unable to fully enter into it quite yet). We certainly experience a whole range of challenges and emotions every time we play, whether we're simply picking in the living room after dinner, performing at a nursing home, or entertaining a corporate event of 300+. Sometimes we have a lot of fun playing together. And sometimes it ends in a huge "family blow-up", which often involves one or more of the kids quitting the band (before rejoining a few hours later).
In these moments, we try to remember how important it is to bring God into our work. We say a prayer, asking him to enter our hearts, to forgive us, to help us to forgive one another's faults, and to repair the damage and pain we've caused each other. The musical precision required by bluegrass forces us to pay attention to the details, to keep working until we get it right. And when someone in the group is off, we need to tell them patiently and respectfully, with tact and special grace so we don't hurt their feelings and cause the dreaded "family blow-up". For these reasons, and because we regularly play as a group, our study of bluegrass has naturally fostered a practice of the virtues. It’s a tool we're using to learn and practice how to love one another.
In my opinion, anyone with the necessary means and desire can do this with his or her family, regardless of musical talent. I’m not exceptionally gifted musically, and neither are most of my children. It all seemed to kind of start by accident, really. When she was 7, my oldest daughter met Kara Barnard in Nashville, IN and decided she wanted to learn to play the banjo. And since I had to drive her to these lessons, I decided to also take a lesson on the guitar while I was there. After about 6 months of this, practicing together at home, some of my other children saw how much fun we were having, and they wanted to be a part of it too. They also wanted to experience the special bond their sister and I seemed to share. So, they started taking lessons with us at Kara's, and it became a fun activity for the whole family, and it wasn’t long before their grandparents offered to contribute by helping us upgrade their instruments! Of course, it helped that we didn’t watch TV, play video games, or spend inordinate amounts of time on the internet. You might say we were sufficiently bored? All of our children began taking lessons when they expressed interest and seemed ready, between the ages of 4-7.
Eventually, we found Timothy Nutter, a great local bluegrass instructor (originally from West Virginia) who was willing to work with all of us, and we started taking lessons from him as a family each week (including my wife and I) on the banjo, fiddle, mandolin, bass, dobro, mountain dulcimer, and guitar. And through daily practice, perseverance, and hard work, we slowly improved every week. Starting a family bluegrass band wasn’t the dream we had in mind at all in the beginning. It just happened!
One of the great advantages, I think, of taking family lessons and studying music of the same genre (as opposed to an individualized study) is that we all learn the same songs at the same time, each according to our various abilities. This allows us to play the songs as a group, which really reinforces the effort we put into it, and encourages us to master the music and our instruments in general. Always having someone else to play with seems to make the study of music alot more fun!
I think it’s important to note that we allowed our children to decide which instruments they wanted to learn and they have always chosen to play them with total and complete freedom. We make it a point to stress freedom in this regard, almost every week. And we have never forced them to attend a single lesson. We do, however, make it very clear that if we pay for them to take lessons, they are obligated to practice every day.
Today, the music we play as a family gives us and our children an alternative to the popular culture. It also fosters friendly intimacy with those we play for. Friends become better friends. Strangers occasionally come up to us with tears in their eyes. And when we play on the public stage, I think many people are often able to recognize and share the joy and gifts that a large family has to offer. There is also a multi-generational and underground culture attributed and attached to this music, which we are easily able to plug into and enjoy. My children’s bluegrass music has also proven to be an incredible gift for the forgotten souls in our local nursing homes. They freely give to them something they have worked very hard to attain.
Our work as bluegrass musicians, like any honest work, is a gift we can offer to God and to others. Ultimately, it has the potential to lead us and those around us to God. My goal is to teach my children to become an instrument holding an instrument every time we play. And my personal dream is to someday play bluegrass music for the Pope!