American Bluegrass tradition lives on at Shoreline

Many people have been involved in music at sometime but had no interest playing
professionally, though some will never go back, others may wish they had a good reason to pull
that guitar out of their closet again.
Cliff Perry and Tom Moran have just the class for those former musicians and occasional
dabblers. No audition is required for the Bluegrass and Americana ensembles, the only
prerequisite is entry­level ability to play a pre­approved instrument.
“If you can walk, you can dance, If you can talk, you can sing,” said Perry.
“We work with what we have,” said Moran.
Bluegrass ensemble has been offered since 2002 when a student requested to add it to the list
of small ensembles, and Moran offered to teach. At that time he was working as an SCC
librarian, but has since become solely dedicated to the class.
About a year later, Moran called Perry in to help teach. Moran’s class caters to traditional
students and music majors during the day, and Perry’s caters to the working and retired crowd
during the evening.
Moran makes a distinction between his and Perry’s class in that Moran’s focuses on Americana
Music, a broader genre that not only refers to bluegrass, but also to folk, country, early jazz, and
blues.
Unfortunately, Moran was unable to gather enough steam this quarter so Americana ensemble
won’t be available again until next spring. Perry’s class is always available year­round and the
typically older group would certainly welcome younger faces.
“This is a hugely welcoming group, the majority of people here started off... not very good. But
with encouragement, everybody gets better,” said Mike Paul.
Paul was a technical writer who has chosen to devote his retirement to music. He has been
studying under Perry for the past 6 years and plays with a few bluegrass groups outside of
class. Paul grew up in the Seattle area and was an Ebbtide associate editor from 1972 to 73.
“Entering the bluegrass community was a way to play music whenever I wanted,” said Paul.
Perry has been active in the bluegrass community since the 1950s; he was first introduced to
the genre by Phil & Vivian Williams, local bluegrass legends who were pivotal in the creation of
Northwest Folklife.
In the 1960s and into the 70s, Perry and a few other like­minded musicians formed “The Hunger
Brothers”, which later became “South Fork.” For 20 years, “South Fork” played every weekend
and toured up and down the west coast. In 1974 they released an album called “Ace of
Spades.”
Today, Perry dedicates his time to spreading his love for traditional bluegrass in his tuesday
evening class and in The Cliff Perry band, which can be heard at one of the many bluegrass
festivals in the area.
But what makes a band a bluegrass band?
It wasn't considered a distinguished style until Bill Monroe and his bluegrass boys came onto
the scene.
“At the time, you had to be there to hear it played.” said Perry. “It came from a lot of different
threads, but Monroe tied it together in the 1940s as bluegrass.”
Monroe’s style of old country had roots in the south as a local style that developed isolated from
the outside world, primarily in Kentucky and North Carolina. When radio discovered them,
bluegrass exploded across the country.
Some of the other famous bluegrass musicians are Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers and
Reno & Smiley. Recent acts include The Reedy Buzzards, Laurie & Kathy, and the Laurel
Canyon Ramblers.
The Grateful Dead were heavily influenced by bluegrass and Americana, and incorporated it
into their music through covers and in the long improvised jams they were famous for.
The style is made distinct mainly by the use of acoustic instruments which traditionally includes
guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass and fiddle. In a typical song, one instrument “kicks off” with a
simple rhythm and the rest of the band follows by layering on top of it.
“You don’t have to know the whole song, so long as you understand the structure, you can
figure it out,” said Paul. This is the concept behind a typical bluegrass get­together, or “Jam”
where musicians do a little improvisation anchored to a theme.
The musicians learn from each other: the more experienced members help the newer members,
and Perry offers guidance to each group as needed. The main goal of the class is to teach
people how to play music in a group – making small tweaks between playing until, eventually,
they are ready to perform.
Perry maintains a relaxed and light mood in his class. The group is usually about 20 people, and
after a group jam to get everyone warmed­up, they talk “bluegrass news”, which mostly consists
of playful banter between Perry and the rest of the band. Afterwards, they divide into groups of
two to eight, which practice separately from one another.
“He picks on us, we pick on him,” said Clare Bright. “They all pick on me because I play banjo.”
Bright is a professor at UW during the day, teaching gender studies for honors. She’s listened to
bluegrass her whole life and never thought she would meet anyone else who was into it until
she met Cliff and found out about his class.
“I’ve met a lot of nice people here,” said Bright. Not only is the environment good for meeting
friends, some musicians who meet in class go on to play together in other bands or form their
own bands.
Unless they feature famous artists, bluegrass shows tend to have little separation between the
audience and performers. The musicians like to mingle with the audience, and often encourage
those with instruments and a little skill to join in their jam.
Although most bluegrass festivals happen in the summer, Wintergrass will be happening at the
Bellevue Hilton in late February.
“The usually conservative hilton becomes packed with blue jeans, beards and dirty boots,” said
Paul. “You can get into a jam in the elevator.”
For more information about the Bluegrass or Americana ensemble, contact Cliff Perry at
[email protected], Tom Moran at [email protected] or Doug Reid at
[email protected].

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