| Blue Grass Ensemble Takes on the World
"You can't choose love, it chooses you," sings Megan Vaught as the band practices one evening.
The Blue Grass Ensemble stands in front of O' Donovan's Hotel on their trip to Ireland last summer.
But for these talented students, musicianship chose them. From Ireland to Renfro Valley, Al White and his Blue Grass Ensemble are making news with their down home music, fun performances, and talented musicians. But these are no ordinary musicians, they are the best of the best, carefully selected for the quality of their music and performance skills. And who better to direct the band than multi-instrumental musician Al White, who's family past-time is bluegrass music.
Their most recent performance, an hour long presentation for the Berea Forum, invoked country memories of sweet molasses and pulled taffy. Throughout the performance audience members were tapping their feet and swaying to the beautifully crafted songs. The group played several old songs, along with a few contemporary ones, such as "Man of Constant Sorrow," from the movie "O Brother Where Art Thou?" But the Soggy Bottom Boys had better watch their back, the string band performed the song as if it were their own, with such precision and enthusiasm you would think they wrote it themselves.
As the afternoon wore on, the band never tired, each song performed with more oopmh than the next. Watching the fiddle players sawing away for an hour makes me tired, but they never faultered. The group is truly talented, bringing to the room a scene straight from my old front porch- sitting there at dusk, the clean country air around me as my momma sang and my daddy played the banjo.
The group has been at Berea College since 2000, where Director Al White started with 5 band members. Today it has grown to 6; two fiddlers, one banjo player, one singer/mandolin player, a bassist, and White himself on guitar.
Starting with the member with the band longest, we find Ryan Blevins, guitar, mandolin, and banjo player. Ryan has been with the group since it began in 2000. He graduated in September of last year, but due to White needing a bluegrass banjo player, he stayed on to help the group.
Next is Amber Field, who has been with the group for three years. Amber is a fiddle player, and also a nursing major at Berea College. "We all have different majors, philosophies, and ways of life, but we play music together."Amber says, on the most rewarding part of playing with the band.
The next member is also a fiddler, Jacob Krack. He is an independent major. He's been with the group for a year and a half. When Jake entered the band, White moved from the fiddle to the guitar, so that he could bring Jake on, who is one of the best fiddlers in the country.
Also with a year and a half under her belt is singer/ mandolin player Megan Vaught. Megan is a psychology major. "We get a sense of family, and a chance to get away from academics!" Megan replies to what she likes most about playing in the band.
And the newest member, who really isn't new at all, is Jeff Hodge. Jeff began playing with the Blue Grass Ensemble in 2000, but then took a leave to study in Tailand. When he returned to Berea College in fall 2004, they already had a bass player, Jonas Friddle. But when Friddle graduated in December, Hodge once again played with the band. Hodge is a general music major.
And lastly, but certainly not least, is Al White himself. He was the founding father of the group here at Berea College, and a member of the band. He plays every instrument. Al is a professor at Berea College, who teaches Appalachian String Instrument lessons.
Together these students and alumni make up the Blue Grass Ensemble. They share a comradery and a pride in music together. But it's not all work and no play, these band members make practice entertaining. In one practice session, Megan Vaught says to Amber Field, "That's a mighty shiny fiddle you got there." Amber Field replies, "I can see my reflection in it!"
The Blue Grass Ensemble will be playing for the Berea Chamber of Commerce in March 18th, 2005. Next they will be playing at Renfro Valley, April 1st-2nd. They will also be playing for the Contra Dance on April 23rd. Other performances are in the works.
Previous performances include a two week tour of Ireland, Berea Forum performances, private parties, College performances, and performances with other Colleges, such as East Tennessee State University where Al White's Brother-In-Law is the director of their Blue Grass band. (White's family is very active in Blue Grass music, as his other Brother-In-Law directs a Blue grass band at Bellmont College.) Al hopes to travel oversees in the future again, the trip to Ireland was a huge hit.
Joining this ensemble is tough, with lots of competition when there is an opening available. White only accepts students who have professional talent, and who will work hard for the group. Practice is usually once a week, with extra practices and rehersals for upcoming events. Currently the group is in need of a Blue Grass Banjo player for the fall. Interested individuals may contact Al White at 986-2558. Serious inquiries only, please.
For those that aren't professionals, who would like to learn how to play one of the instruments mentioned above should look into lessons taught by Al White. At the beginning of the semester students may interview for a private lesson in banjo, guitar, fiddle, or mandolin. This process is competitive, with more entries than he can accept. Al currently has several student who have never played before, along with others who have. Priority is given to those with previous experience and upperclass status, but all are welcome to apply.