Festival turns focus on bluegrass sound

Bluegrass music may find little space for itself on commercial radio, but Columbia will offer it a berth tomorrow at the Lakefront Festival.

Blue Daze, a four-member group of Maryland residents who play traditional and contemporary bluegrass, western swing and original works, will make its fourth appearance at Lake Kittamaqundi.


The 5-year-old group consists of Chuck Van Meter on guitar, Columbia resident Tim Kruzic on banjo, Mike Jenkins on electric bass and Glenwood resident Lenny Whitehead on mandolin. Vocals are sung by all four.

Blue Daze is the only bluegrass offering at the festival this year and was chosen for two reasons, said Rick La Rocca, festival director. "One is that they're local, and the quality of music is top-notch."


Though the band is local, it has been getting greater notice. It won the 1991 Gettysburg Bluegrass Camporee regional competition. And Blue Daze was nominated for the International Bluegrass Music Association's emerging band award.

Last year, the band released a self-titled -- and self-financed -- debut compact disc, a collection of 12 songs that includes original works, an instrumental and even a cover version of the pop song "Please Come to Boston."

Bluegrass Unlimited magazine said in a review of the CD that "[t]he band's sound is characterized by a gentle harmony blend over a crisp but smooth instrumental rhythm, a combination sure to win it many new fans."

Contemporary bluegrass may seem like a contradiction in terms since bluegrass is a style of country music that began only in the 1940s. It relies on stringed instruments and blues-influenced harmonies, often with high-pitched vocals and instrumentals.

"We don't have the 'high lonesome' sound" of traditional bluegrass, says Mr. Whitehead, 44. The group relies on "contemporary rhythms, a contemporary sound instead of sticking to being rigid in tradition, a smoother sound -- instead of a harder sound -- which is aiming for a broader appeal."

Before the group was formed, "we played together for pleasure for some years," says Mr. Whitehead, "We got along, and we tried it. It's been a good mesh ever since."

Despite the group's contemporary bent, Mr. Whitehead says Blue Daze is influenced by traditional bluegrass performers such as Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe -- the father of bluegrass music.

Still, members are well aware that they are performing a genre of musical with somewhat selective appeal.


Although devoted bluegrass fans trek to festivals in the summer and clubs in the winter, the music doesn't enjoy the mainstream pop success of its country cousin. An exception would be the crossover success of such artists as Alison Krauss, who rose to fame playing the fiddle and singing bluegrass.

"It becomes more popular all the time, but it's limited by the exposure of the music because commercial radio really won't deal with it," Mr. Whitehead says.

Although they perform 30 to 50 times a year, band members all have kept their day jobs, which are diverse: a carpenter, an environmental consultant, a medical lab chief and a telephone technician.

It's a schedule that seems to work well, given their other responsibilities.

"We're all comfortable. We're all married. We all have children," Mr. Whitehead says.

Blue Daze will perform at 8 p.m. tomorrow at the Columbia Lakefront Summer Festival at Lake Kittamaqundi. Admission is free. The concert is sponsored by the Columbia Association and Re/Max Columbia. No glass containers or alcoholic beverages are permitted. For rain cancellation information and schedule updates, call 715-3388.