Where to find ‘mountain music’ this summer
“It’s not as much of a year-round thing as in the
South,” says Dale Palecek, president of the Badgerland Bluegrass Music
Association, which was started by Wisconsin
bluegrass artists 16 years ago. “It’s thought of as something you see at summer
festivals and fairs.”
festivals have always been supportive of bluegrass and its crowd-friendly
appeal. Bluegrass legend Del McCoury will
headline the Potawatomi Bingo Casino stage at Summerfest on June 27, for
But Palecek says there is also a
thriving base of year-round bluegrass fans and musicians in southeast Wisconsin. Palecek
estimates there are about 20 bluegrass-related bands in the area. This includes
not only seasoned vets like the Sawdust Symphony, but also younger bands like
the high-school-aged trio Inland Moss.
People’s definition of bluegrass
varies, including subgenres like “jamgrass” and “streetgrass.” Regardless of
which variety, Palecek notes bluegrass’ ongoing appeal through the generations.
“There’s a musicianship to it, there is
melody, and a skill of picking that has a lot of energy to it,” Palecek says.
“I know when I started playing in my 20s there was an energy that drove me to
it. There’s simplicity to it and at the same time a complexity, so you can play
it on any level.”
One place to catch live bluegrass on a
regular basis is at the Bremen Café for its “Midweek Mountain Music” night.
Musicians Colin O’Brien and Chad Witty share the stage along with other
musicians every Wednesday evening.
On a recent Wednesday, O’Brien took the
stage, strumming his guitar while Witty picked away on the banjo. To say the
atmosphere was low-key would be an understatement. An eclectic mix of older
hippies, younger college kids and delinquent-looking juveniles were all hanging
around casually in Bremen Café’s simple setup. The small stage itself features
water pipes running up one side of it, and a backdrop made of a dull beige
curtain that looks like it came from granny’s house.
O’Brien played guitar, violin and
banjo, sometimes playing along on a harmonica or tapping out the rhythm with
his foot on a rectangle of wood hooked up to an amplifier. O’Brien and Witty
rolled through songs like the classic “Big River Blues” while a group of four
people improvised a square dance, hooting and clapping. The set list came
naturally, with the musicians discussing what to play next as they went along.
They covered the “Bullfrog Shuffle” by Bela Fleck and a song by old-time
Appalachian folk musician Hobart Smith. They played “Banjo on my Mind,” which
O’Brien also plays with his band Salt Creek. The two players trotted through a
fun set of easygoing bluegrass, displaying their familiarity with the art of
Besides summer festivals and small
venues like Bremen Café, bluegrass fans can find more “mountain music” if they
seek it. For example, there is a bluegrass jam at the Borders bookstore in Fox
Point on the second Sunday of every month.
“It’s out there,” Palecek says of local
bluegrass. “You just have to look for it.”
Midweek Mountain Music is free and hosted at the Bremen Café every Wednesday at 10 p.m. You can find out more about local bluegrass, including a calendar of events, at www.badgerlandbluegrass.org.