What Is That Music In Them Thar Hills?
With an Ear to the Ground, Kanab Hums Along
On a summer evening in Kanab, a small crossroads town on the Utah/Arizona border, the air cools quickly in the evening but the streets radiate warmth. Along Main Street, most of the motels have swimming pools and kids swim and ride water slides up until the very moment it is time for dinner. European tourists in bright clothes walk the street eating ice cream cones and looking in the darkening shop windows. Outside Chef's Palace Restaurant, neon lights hum and crackle. Porch swings creak in 2-2 time to the sound of lemonade. Even though it is dusk in town, soft warm red light bathes the red cliffs, buttes and mesas behind town. At the neocolonial Parry Lodge Restaurant, lawn lights blink on, and the now-empty pool glows with blue light, and the hotel's patio is set with tables for al fresco dining. What is different about tonight is that the sounds of whoops, hollers, clapping and cheering drift through town: They are the sounds from the first-ever Kanab Fiddle Championship and Acoustic Bluegrass Music Festival.
Over on the thick, moist, green grass of the junior high school football field, the Mike & Bertye Band is finishing a rousing set of bluegrass music. Mike's baritone voice, mellow and well-articulated, echoes across the field of reclining families and arts and crafts booths and up onto the parking lot where a handful of RV and camper-driving fans are sitting in folding chairs and thinking about dinner. On the grass, some people are just laying back looking up at the sky, others appear to be mixing Mike & Bertye's sincere sounds with the showcase of red rock behind town. Others are playing frisbee, talking, eating, and one young man appears to be performing yogic stretches. A baby crawls through the grass.
The four-person Mike & Bertye band, like almost every other bluegrass band, uses a guitar, a bass, a banjo and a fiddle to weave a soft warm music that is both gospel, historic, modern, happy and sad. To the untrained or uninterested ear it may sound like hillbilly music — picking, strutting, crooning, tapping — but of course, there is more to it than that.
Like Jazz, an American Original
Bluegrass is a quintessential and original American art form. Born of musical tastes from mountain lore, slave passion and jazz and blues, the music has since the 1940s moved from Appalachia across the nation and, now, around the world. It moved West easily in the packs and wagons of travelers and went well and socially with campfire sing-alongs. And like today, the music became almost synonymous with travel, epitomizing a life on the road and also a music that was easy to take on the road. Bluegrass, by design, requires no electricity. Overall, it is an accessible and uplifting music.
"To me, bluegrass reflects rural mountain home feeling," said Kate McCloud, a popular Salt Lake City singer and song writer who made it down to the show to play both bluegrass and a bit of Celtic music, which can have a similar sound if not feel. "It is spiritual and gospel; it is sad and can say tragedy as well as the big happy songs. Even though it came from the east and the southeast, I can adopt it and make it relate to where I live."
Bluegrass came to Kanab part by fate and part by chance. There was already a bluegrass band in town — Slickrock String Band — and community support for music. Community leaders like Cheri Jumping Eagle Waarae took that interest and melded it with a need in the community — get tourists to do more than just buy gas, food and stay the night — and the results, everyone seems to agree, have been quite pleasant.
Tourists, as Waarae explained, regularly come through Kanab but seldom stop — they just keep on truckin' to more popular sites like the Grand Canyon, about an hour to the south, or Bryce Canyon, an hour to the north, or Zion, an hour to the west. "People rarely do more than spend the night," she said. "Our goal is to get people to spend two nights, and that would mean for them to do something locally. Bringing events like this to the community can help do that."
So the community was looking for an event, and it seems the legions of bluegrass fans who regularly ply the back roads of the West, going from one bluegrass venue to the next, were looking for another place to stop, play and listen. Bluegrass, Waarae said, naturally fits into the town and the landscape. Bluegrass fans and bands come and don't leave a lot of trash, don't make too much noise, don't bring exotic drugs or require copious amounts of watchful police and, it seems, can appreciate both the town and the area. At the concert, families let their kids roam, most everyone put their trash in trash cans and there were no fights. That's something you would have a hard time saying about a this weekend's Woodstock.
"People who come and stay love Kanab because it is a small town," said Waarae, who truly has an effervescent personality. "They love the lack of traffic, the small town where they don't have to worry about not locking doors. Fiddling was a good draw for us because this is a musically involved community, and there are lots of people in the area who are fans. I didn't know much about it before the town considered it, but now that we have had a bluegrass festival, I think it fits. We plan on having a second one."
On stage were a group of Kanab girls in pink and purple suits clogging and tap dancing to a bluegrass version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," with a chorus or two from "Keep Them Doggies Rollin — Rollin Rollin Rollin" thrown in for good measure. The girls, some of them must have been six years old, acted like it was perfectly natural to clog to an old movie soundtrack.
Waarae herself is a relatively recent transplant to Kanab. She came West from South Dakota where she lived on a reservation. For her, southern Utah's red rocks reminded her both of home and of her heritage. Her mom was called Red Earth Woman. "This is a quiet, rural area," Waarae said, "and people aren't used to that. Most travelers come from the East Coast or Europe and they don't have this type of country there."
"To me, bluegrass music speaks to anything natural," says Terry Griffith, a singer in Slickrock String Band. "This is as close to God's country as you can get, and music is from God, wouldn't you say so?"
"I have only lived here for a few years," Griffith said after her show. "I moved here because it is a beautiful place, the lifestyle suits us, and there is a lot of support for music here." Griffith, in addition to her bluegrass band, plays the pedal harp in Kanab's symphony orchestra The group's name is Symphony of the Canyons, and people come from all along the border area to play in it. That Kanab, an isolated town of just about 4,000, can field an orchestra says much about the area's eclectic mix and devotion to class. Kanab, because of its beauty, seclusion and convenient location to a stunning array of park and wild lands, has attracted people from all over, who have brought along their hobbies skills and art forms. That, I suppose, is how you can get a bluegrass festival here. Kanab is a melting pot, residents say, because it is a great place to live.
"It really is the greatest earth on show," said Linda Alderman, who was standing next to Griffith, echoing the town's motto. For her, bluegrass fits quite naturally with Kanab's sensual but sharp-at-the-edges rimrock and red mesas. "It is fun to play, and it is tradition and history, and we should never let it die. It is true American music and it ought to be preserved. And it is wholesome. As a single mom I used to take my toddler to bluegrass festivals. You can see how people really focus on the music. I can go to the festivals and no one will bother me. I raised my kids at festivals, and for a while my whole life was planned around bluegrass festivals. It is honest and soul bearing. It really comes from the heart and soul."
Bluegrass "is a true American art form," said Mike Maddux, leader of the Colorado Springs-based Mike & Bertye Band and a national flat picking guitar champion. "And it is something I can be proud of — it's a part of my heritage. It is a melting pot of musical styles, but it is always American."
Bluegrass, he said, has been "an underground success story." Despite being American, reasonably popular, and having a world-wide appeal — there are bluegrass bands in Russia, Slovakia, and Japan — it still does not have mass market appeal. "The number one radio station is not bluegrass, and you really can't buy it in stores. It has to be considered part of the local lore."
"There are private club-like events like this all over the country each weekend," Maddux continued. "You just have to be tuned in to the scene to know about it. I started attending bluegrass festivals in the late 70s ... when I was in my 20s. For me, it is this wonderful music. It is not overrun or out of control — it's just rest and relaxation. It's simple, you can jam all night and don't need electricity. I think it really comes from a special part of America," he said, referring not to a geography of place, but a geography of mind and spirit.
Hanging In the Gymnasium, a Colorful Tradition
Inside the school, on the junior high's basketball court, the artwork is equally Americana though more reserved and quieter. It is a quilt show.
Quilting, in much the same way as fiddle music, came West with settlers. In Utah, quilting has special significance. Settling Utah's deserts and mountains was not an easy thing for 19th century pioneers, who had to scrape together community, family, will and determination to make things work. Quilting then, as it was everywhere at the time, was a necessity: Make a big blanket to keep out the cold. In many Mormon towns, it also became an impromptu gathering. One woman would start a quilt, then neighborhood women would come over to help finish it. Over time, these gatherings came to have their own political and social significance.
"They were made for use," says Jeanne Johnson, fingering the edge of a spectacular century-old quilt hanging from a frame. Johnson says they were built only after families had collected a bundle of used or discarded fabric — sometimes using old dress ties or feed sacks. "It is," Johnson said, "a good example of making do with what you've got."
What did Utah families have at the turn of the century or during the Depression? Not much. Yet, the quilts hanging in the gymnasium were nothing if not works of art. They have soaring, symbolic colors, subtlely-repeating patterns, contrasting yet complementing colors and knot patterns as old as Utah. I am not an arts and crafts kind of guy, honestly, yet standing among the quilts I could feel both an appreciation for the blankets and a certain reassuring closeness. Another thing I liked was that like a true art, technology can not make a better quilt. The best ones still take time, vision and skill.
"They recall a simpler, back-to-basics time," said Johnson, who is a member of the local Color Country Quilting Guild and a life-long resident of Kanab. That time, she said, was one that came before the mega super-stores. "They came out of necessity: If you wanted a blanket, you had to make it. For me, they represent both history and tradition. It is kind of fun to have your great-grandmother's something or other. But now, they are more revered. A lot are made for show or as wall hangings. As we get more affluent, they are less necessary and we have them for keepsakes. But is it still fun to make them in a group. It is even better if the men are off doing something."
Bluegrass, Like the Sounds of Summer
It is the epicenter of summer. The thick green grass of Kanab Middle School is moist from yesterday's rain. It is starting to get dark, and cooling off. Summer, even in southern Utah's desert, is a short season. By September, just 50 days away, the mountains around here could get their first dusting of snow, and color will start to seep into the high county aspens and oaks.
Mike Maddux and his band have just finished their second set of the day. The crowd is thin, and the announcer tells the crowd to go home and tell their friends and family to come tomorrow — entrance will be free, rather than today's $6. Mike, still wearing his reflective wrap-around sunglasses, a black leather vest, white shirt, black denim and what I think are lizard-skin cowboy boots, leans against his pickup to get out of the sun, and open a beer.
"Bluegrass is roots music; it evokes a beautiful setting. Even if it comes from Appalachia, it can have meaning here because this is a beautiful place. It is rural and it has mountains, and the people can understand it ... Our musical ideas from America, from the railroad, from my grandad's farm, and I'm thinking about writing a song about my dad, who passed away in February. I want to try hard to create a lasting statement and sense of art. But you have to take it seriously to make it right and create something worth doing, and that lasts. The bluegrass music made 50 years ago still stands as a model for today. That's a great art form. If you can hear music and really understand it, and get the spirit of it, that is phenomenal. It wouldn't have an international following if it were garbage."
If you've got questions or suggestions for someplace to visit, write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Otherwise, I'll see ya on the road!
A special thanks to Parry Lodge (435-644-2601).
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