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Enjoying Bluegrass at Sedalia

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By John Barnhart

    Sedalia Center’s annual Bluegrass at Sedalia had a line-up that included the oldest continuously performing Bluegrass band in America — the Virginia Mountaineers. It was started by Clinton King more than 60 years ago.

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    “Clinton started this band in 1947,” said Larry Hall, who now leads the band. Hall was 15 when he started with the band in 1959 and took over leadership after King’s death.
    “He was my second cousin,” Hall said of King.
    King’s son, Stan King, is also with the band. He plays mandolin.
    Hall plays banjo, but he originally started out with guitar when he was 9.
    “When I was 11, I started hearing the banjo and I wanted to go to it,” he said.
    This wasn’t just a “want to,” it was a passion and it had to be a passion for him to succeed.
    “In those days there were only a handful of banjo players around,” he said.
    This meant that there was nobody to give him lessons. He played Earl Scruggs and Don Reno records, listened to them and worked to make his banjo sound like what he heard.
    Now aspiring banjo pickers have a lot of opportunities to learn. Hall said there are videos and people who give lessons.
    “There was none of that back then,” Hall said.
    Hall does not read sheet music. He plays strictly by ear.
    “You have to put it in your head before you put it in your hands,” he said. “You can’t put it in your hands first.”
    Hall said all bluegrass musicians play by ear and that’s why a musician from one group can fill in on short notice for a missing member of another group. That’s why Jane Crim, a member of Deep Blue Express, was able to fill in for Tom Edwards, the Virginia Mountaineers normal bass player, who was unable to perform on Saturday because he recently had heart surgery. Of course, Crim wasn’t an unknown quantity to Hall. He knows her, so he knew she could do it. He also knows that she sings beautifully and gave her a solo vocal in each of the band’s two performances.
    The “play by ear” character of bluegrass music is why bluegrass musicians can get together in impromptu jam sessions that sound as if they were rehearsed. This was a sound frequently heard from the RV campground during the weekend.
    The play by ear character of bluegrass music probably is a result of the genre’s roots. Hall said it grew out of hillbilly string music which Bill Monroe turned into bluegrass.
    “He came up with a version that was in overdrive compared to the old stuff,” Hall said.
    During one of their performances, the Virginia Mountaineers fiddle player, Bonny Beverly, introduced one of his students, Lacey Shelton to the audience. Beverly said Shelton, who is 13, is one of bluegrass’ “up and coming” fiddle players. Teacher and student performed together.
    “You need young blood to keep anything alive,” Hall commented.
    Having a day job is important. Hall is retired, he worked in the parts department of an auto dealer. Crim is a retired teacher — she taught English and history. One musician, Stewart Scales, who plays bass for New Standard, is an adjunct instructor at Virginia Tech.