It's Thursday evening and the hayseeds are sprouting in Severna Park.
It's a pickin' party alongside the Baltimore-Annapolis Trail Park, where bluegrass performers include a court commissioner, a yodeling retired waitress, an engineer, a high school football coach and an elementary school student.
Once a week all summer, the porch of the barn-red and mustard-colored Earleigh Heights ranger station becomes a stage. Anybody who wants to pick, sing, play or listen to bluegrass is made welcome at the musical equivalent of a potluck dinner.
The "Pickin' Sessions" are semi-coordinated by the Anne Arundel County Bluegrass Association, a sort-of group that president Maynard Huddleston says is as disorganized as an organization can be and still be an organization. He emcees the free, three-hour jam, often introducing amateur musicians he met five minutes ago.
"If they are bad, well, they are bad," says Mr. Huddleston, of Severna Park. "We just say, hang in there; it's only two or three songs. You got a cheap ticket, you get a cheap show."
The jams start anything but promptly at 7 p.m., as billed. By that time last Thursday, about 30 people were milling about with mandolins, accordions, coolers, lawn chairs and blankets, though one group did arrive with a tablecloth and flower centerpiece for the table they were hauling.
An hour later, and with rain threatening, 130 musicians and listeners were having a huge party, enjoying standards that include "Just Build Me a Cabin in the Corner of Gloryland" and "Rocky Top."
All the while, fitness freaks ran by on the trail. Youths who looked as if they were outfitted for a roller derby caught a chorus of "Mountain Dew" as they spun around on in-line skates.
With a pick on every finger and his banjo hanging in front of him, 39-year old Bob Tice of Arnold wandered around in search of the people with whom he plays in a sometime-band. That's Sergeant Tice, a child abuse investigator with the Anne Arundel County Police Department.
"Child abuse is serious business. In my line of work, especially in child abuse, we generally don't make a lot of people happy. This is the perfect contrast," he said.
The crowd on the grass generally hums and strums; grown-ups take their shoes off, toddlers clap to the beat. Some folks call out songs to bands, others roam and chat with friends.
There's nothing like an admiring audience, says Stan Davis, 61, of Arnold. He's a civil engineer by day, but straps on an accordion after work. He says he took up the "stomach Steinway" in the Navy because a piano doesn't travel on a warship all that well. The bluegrass his southern shipmates played grew on him.
"This is easygoing, laid-back music," he says.
While other players tote their instruments in scuffed cases, Andy Borland brings his in a bowling bag. The 54-year-old football coach at Severna Park High School plays the jug.
He took up puffing into the gray object five years ago because his knowledge of bluegrass songs was far superior to his musical talent, he says.
Aside from the fun, the Durham, N.C., native says, this is part of being in a community where young people learn that people are multi-faceted. "I want to be a role model for my community. I live here. I work here."
There are younger performers. Lindsey Hanson, 7, bounded up the stairs with her violin to scratch out "Oh, Susannah." In a few bars, she was backed by a jug, accordion, fiddle, a couple of guitars, a banjo and a stand-up bass. And that's just on the crowded porch. Another few fiddles, a Dobro and a guitar or two could be heard nearby. Being a star performer was quite a thrill for the Crofton child, who only took up violin a year ago.
And there are older performers. On pickin' nights, John Treanor, a 64-year-old Washington Superior Court commissioner, leaves behind his black robes and takes his fiddle a place where a scarecrow is the closest thing to a stuffed shirt he'll find. The grandson of a Boston Symphony Orchestra instrument repairman grew up on classical violin. But the earthy sounds of bluegrass drew him to the music 20 years ago.
Now, he's addicted and says he must fiddle at least once night a week, though last Thursday's Severna Park jam, nearly an hour's drive from home, was his third of the week. "It's like peanuts," he says in a Boston accent that contrasts sharply with the drawl usually associated with this form of music. "You can't really stop," he says.
Picking junkies can find a bluegrass jam any night of the week within an hour's drive of the nation's capital, which may not be as tony a city as outsiders think it is.
Washington has been called the "Bluegrass Capital of the World" by WAMU-FM, the Washington public radio station that plays more bluegrass music than any other FM station in the country. The International Bluegrass Music Association has cited a U.S. Census Bureau survey that says 40 million Americans like bluegrass and they are 15 times more likely to earn more than $50,000 a year than are other country music devotees.
Music is popular
"Bluegrass is hot. It's a niche- oriented audience. They are die-hard," said Bob White, program director for WANN-AM, an Annapolis station that airs a two-hour bluegrass show each Saturday afternoon.
With a white rose in her hair and the fringes on her green shirt swaying, Lorraine Keefer takes to a porch already crowded with musicians. The retired waitress came from Carney to yodel.
"I go everywhere they'll have me," says the self-taught yodeler. Her two sisters from Essex and a new beau who she doesn't want to know her age are with her.
She performs "I Want to be a Cowboy's Sweetheart," and amid applause and howls of delight, does a second yodeling song.
Not musical but want to join in? The trunk of Mr. Huddleston's car often has a tambourine. And you never know who might be willing to share a washboard.
The picking jam started a few years ago in a Crownsville bar, not conducive to a family audience, says Mr. Huddleston. It moved outside to Kinder Park last summer, then to the current location on one of the most popular parks in the state. Indoor jams are held the first Sunday afternoon of the month at VFW Post No. 175 in Manhattan Beach.
Now, sighs Mr. Huddleston, if only some cloggers would turn out.