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Musicians bound by bluegrass music

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Fans, players at Vine Grove festival say the music builds lasting friendships, sense of community

By Marty Finley

For players and fans alike, the Vine Grove Bluegrass Festival represents more than music.

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The three-day gathering encapsulates the tight community the genre evokes, stirs memories and builds friendships.

In its 13th year, the festival kicked off Thursday evening with the band scramble, which pairs up local musicians into new groups of players who must mesh quickly and hone performances under limited practice time. The festival wrapped up Saturday.

Participants’ names are tossed into a hat and the groups are chosen randomly. In many cases, band members do not know each other and have never played together.

Cecilia resident Jackie Dixon played mandolin with the first group of performers and said he knew a lot of the participants from playing in local jams.

The groups quickly assign roles for musical solos and how they want to do their introductions, he said. Dixon said they often use body language, such as the wag of a leg, to indicate when to stop.

“Then you just let her fly,” he said.

Dixon only has been playing mandolin for a few years and said it takes years of practice to become proficient. However, skill is not the predominant factor in bluegrass, he said. The main goal is to enjoy yourself.

“It’s just fun,” he said. “You do the best you can.”

And because of the bond the genre builds among players, they don’t scoff if someone is not technically flawless. Dixon wagered that none in the scramble would consider themselves perfect musicians.

“If someone messes up, you just laugh it off and move on,” he said.

Mark Gatewood, who lives in the Rineyville area, has been playing bluegrass music for 25 to 30 years and performed on the fiddle at the festival. He had never participated in the scramble before.

“It’s a little nerve wracking, but it was a lot more fun than I thought it would be,” he said.

He said he thrives on those off-the-cuff moments where he is challenged to rise up and perform.

“That’s (why) we do it, the adrenaline,” he said.

Gatewood said he prefers to play in a small room encircled by other performers rather than on an outside stage with microphones. The intimate quality of an acoustic setting cannot be duplicated.

“It’s an up close and personal music,” he said. “I love being in a room full of acoustic musicians.”

The sound, he added, “vibrates off and bounces through you.”

In the crowd, audience members tapped their feet while others danced to the music. Bands frequently interacted with the crowd and seemed to face few hiccups with their new partners.

“It’s just simple fun,” said Kim McAfee, a Campbellsville resident who is a sponsor of the festival along with her husband Doug. She tapped her foot in the audience.

Doug McAfee said the camaraderie driving the bluegrass world is a large drawing point.

“Bluegrass people are just a group of people that stick together,” he said.

Eugene Braden of Lebanon Junction said he has listened to bluegrass for the last three or four years and tinkers with the banjo for fun.

“The banjo is what got me into it,” he said.

Braden said the music is warm and inviting — distinctive even though it’s not “music on the mainstream charts usually.”

“I just love that bluegrass sound,” he said.

Clarkson resident Patricia Dennis watched as her husband, Russell, led the last group of scramblers and had a pang to join in. She also performs in a bluegrass group.

“I had to work or I’d be in there,” she said.

When asked why the festival stands out for her, she answered quickly.

“Good bands and the friendliness of the musicians,” she said.

Marty Finley can be reached at (270) 505-1762 or mfinley@thenewsenterprise.com.