I think the phrase “If you have to ask, you’ll never understand” certainly applies to bluegrass music. At least that is the way I’ve felt when I’ve returned from a festival or a jam session and tried to explain it to a non-bluegrass friend or family member what it is all about. It can be frustrating trying to explain to someone who has never been to a jam session or bluegrass festival why it is so exciting. Fortunately, I have found a solution to this problem in the form of Emma John’s new book Wayfaring Stranger: A Musical Journey In The American South. Now when someone asks, all I have to do is hand them a copy of this book.
Emma John is a writer, and classically trained violinist, from London, England who decided to travel to America and learn how to play bluegrass fiddle. Her home-base during her stay was in the western North Carolina town of Boone, but she traveled extensively during her time in America so that she could also experience bluegrass music outside of Appalachia. Before coming to the United States, Emma knew little about bluegrass music, the people who play bluegrass, the festivals, the jam sessions, the contests, the difference between old-time and bluegrass, or the origins of bluegrass and its various branches—including newgrass, jamgrass, and progressive bluegrass.
During her travels she experienced every aspect of bluegrass music, bluegrass life, and the bluegrass community and she describes it all in a very humorous, entertaining, and engaging fashion. Many times, I found myself laughing out loud when reading her descriptions and impressions of various bluegrass people, places, and things from the perspective of a British citizen trained in classical music. While her descriptions are extremely humorous, they are not rude nor derogatory. During her journey Emma truly fell in love with the music, the people, the country, the community and—as usually is the case with bluegrass folks—she was accepted with open arms.
In addition to reading about her experiences at, and impressions of, bluegrass jam sessions, shows, festivals, the IBMA convention, and contests, you will also follow Emma as she struggles to learn how to play bluegrass style fiddle. She attends a Pete Wernick jam camp, becomes friends with a group of Boone musicians who lend advice, takes private Skype lessons with Matt Glaser, finds a mentor in fiddler John Hoffman (who she refers to as the “white-haired guru from Galax”), and describes experiencing somewhat of a musical epiphany after visiting the Kruger Brothers.
Emma does a pretty darn good job at explaining various aspects of bluegrass history, the difference between old-time music and bluegrass, the difference between traditional bluegrass and more progressive bluegrass, the history and vibe of jamgrass, the experience and etiquette of jam sessions, the bluegrass festival atmosphere, and what contest fiddling is all about.
And this is all done in such a light-hearted and humorous manner that it is extremely engaging. That is why I’m buying copies for all of my non-bluegrass friends. I think that they will not only understand my life better, but I predict that they will be greatly entertained as they are educated. It doesn’t surprise me that Wayfaring Stranger was listed as one of Newsweek’s best travel books of the decade. Highly recommended for fans of bluegrass music and their friends who want to understand why.