Phil, a banjo camper from Massachusetts writes:

Hi Pete,

Well, it had to happen sometime I guess — Someone’s actually going to pay me to play the banjo! I’ll be playing in a parade on July 5 – riding in a horse-drawn haywagon. I’ve put together a pick-up band consisting of a pretty strong rhythm guitarist (whom I’ve played with a bit before), a mandolin player and a bass player (neither of whom I’ve met before). We’ll have one rehearsal and that’s about it!

My plan is to have chord charts handy, and work up six fairly easy tunes that we can play in a loop. Since we’re playing to a “rolling” crowd, I thought this would be enough material (except perhaps for the people riding on the wagon with us).

I wonder if you have any advice for this – my first paying gig? I’m pretty new to this and I’d like it to be a success for everyone involved.

This is excellent, Phil. I’m very happy for you! Your plan sounds good. But I bet you’ll soon figure out that it wouldn’t hurt to play something else easy instead of the 5th repeat of one or more of the selected tunes. You might also surmise after a time that almost anything you all know would work in this situation, and you will have more fun playing for your own satisfaction than as if the crowd really needs to hear only the best of the best. They might hear 15 seconds at a time, and most of that time will be covered by the novelty to them of the fact they’re hearing the refreshing sound of bluegrass. Otherwise, it’s mainly important that the instruments are together and sound good.

I’ve picked these six tunes for their jammability, recognition factor, and their “country” feel.

  • Lonesome Road Blues — These 3 can be filled out with a vocal verse or two
  • Salty Dog Blues
  • John Hardy
  • Dear Old Dixie — More complex harmony, but a great country feel
  • Turkey in the Straw — who hasn’t heard these two
  • Foggy Mtn Breakdown
  • (Cripple Creek) — Standby’s
  • (Ballad of Jed Clampett)

Good choices. I think you’ll find that Jed (familiar) and Foggy (fast and with “hooks”) will do the best. Also, Cripple Creek is catchy, Dear Old Dixie has good chords and the hook on the “stop”. Lonesome Road will sound more generic (not bad necessarily), but John Hardy, as a “lick vehicle”, can easily lose out as a way to engage listeners, who need more in the way of catchy melodic elements. If you and the mando can play clear and strong on Turkey, that will be some nice variety.

If it’s not too late to round up a decent fiddler, that would not only sound good, but look good. After an hour of nothing but picked instruments, it’s really nice to hear a bowed one. And think of a slow piece to do now and again, just for variety for you all.

How you all look while playing is a pretty big element for this type of gig. I don’t know exactly what “the part” is, but you should all make at least some effort to try to look it. Probably denim, maybe boots, maybe some kind of nice but not too flashy western shirt, and a decent hat of almost any kind for those who have them, would do nicely. Part of your value is scenic, and don’t forget to really have some fun, or at least try to look like it. Those who can, should try to make some eye contact with, and relate to, the crowd in any way that works.

As a performer, especially in a somewhat symbolic, and visual situation, I recommend trying to stretch beyond the usual blank look that people have when jamming. Look at each other, be somewhat animated, encourage each other verbally, smile if there’s “anything” worth smiling about. Not a bad idea to go Yeehah once in a while which if done in various ways will make you all grin. In short, get a bit into the heads of the audience people, kids and grownups alike, and think of what you enjoy doing that they would like too. It should come out just fine, and if it is, they just might hire you every year.

Have a blast!

P.S. I’m also in the process of getting a twice monthly bluegrass jam started out here in western Mass. I’ve even got some radio advertisement on a local bluegrass program, but unfortunately, it’s rained each of the scheduled days and their rain dates. There’s nothing like this in my area, so I figured a public park and a handful of well-placed Flyers might be worth a shot.

Rain, go away! This is bound to work out if you stay with it for a while. Be sure to get it on any radio program that will announce it.