Bluegrass Takes a Village

Redwood Ramblers Farewell Show at Amnesia, SF, August 2016

Squinting out past the bright stage lights across the bar, I see a crowd of familiar faces smiling back at me — friends; fellow musicians; our entire community. It’s August 1st, 2016, and Joseph and I are playing a farewell show at Amnesia, a local San Francisco bar that hosts Bluegrass Mondays. In four days we would be leaving the bay area to move to Nashville.

Joseph, my husband, and I play bluegrass and old-time music together in a duo called the Family Shipp (previously the Redwood Ramblers). Our musical journey began about six years ago when I came home one day to find a banjo in my living room — a birthday gift from Joseph. I still remember the feeling of the smooth lacquered wood in my hands, the strange, hypnotic ring when I strummed the metal strings. I nearly drove Joseph mad practicing each night, but I fell in love with Bluegrass all the same. Shortly after he learned to flat-pick on guitar, then bravely took up the fiddle. I eventually learned to play old-time frailing on the banjo.

What started out as hobby for us blossomed into a lifestyle. We made friends in the music community and started jamming together. We began frequenting the bluegrass festivals and camps — Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival, Portland Old-Time Gathering, and Walker Creek Music Camp. I helped found the Handsome Ladies, a non-profit supporting women in bluegrass, with seven gals who I had met through the community. Eventually Joseph and I formed the band and started performing and playing out at local venues in the city and private events.

The monthly Handsome Ladies jam at Amnesia, SF

In bluegrass, community is everything. I don’t just mean your fellow players but also friends and family. The former become your peers and mentors, the latter, your early fans and forgiving audiences. These are the people that help sustain your musical growth throughout the ups and downs with their support, friendship, motivation, resource-sharing and camaraderie.

Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival, 2015

Bluegrass music is inherently social, its roots stemming from community dances and social gatherings. Unlike any other genre, most of the fans of this music are equally well-versed in the playing. At Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival, the most prominent northern California gathering, festival-goers come to partake in communal late-night jamming as much as they come for the polished stage acts. Camping in the tall pines of Grass Valley, CA, you can hear the fiddles howling and banjos rolling until sunrise.

There’s little fame or fortune to be found in playing bluegrass. Most players are in it for the community and for the love of the music. Amateur musicians (and some professionals) often have days jobs that pay the bills, while the music provides passion and personal fulfillment. Through this devoted network of bluegrass music-lovers, players like Joseph and I are able to learn etiquette, build repertoire and get exposure to new techniques. Musicians you idolize became teachers and inevitably, friends. Friends become bandmates, singing partners and musical collaborators.

The Portland Old-Time Music Gathering, 2016

People in the scene socialize frequently around the music, providing a wealth of opportunity for practice and bringing more fun into the playing. People teach each other the history behind songs, socialize new artists and highlight older, forgotten artists. These social events became a gauge for your playing progress and give much-needed motivation, especially during plateaus in growth when there’s temptation to give up.

If you were traveling to a new country, you would probably read about the local culture and history, learn some of the language and visit their cafe’s and restaurants to meet locals. Learning bluegrass music is very much the same. If there’s only one piece of advice I could give to anyone who is just breaking into bluegrass it is to find and immerse yourself into the community. Seek out local jams, go to the live bluegrass shows and learn about the festivals and music camps. Introduce your family and friends to the music so they can better understand your enthusiasm and support you down the line.

After nearly seven years in San Francisco and an epic musical journey, it was time for Joseph and I to leave. It wasn’t that we had outgrown the city but rather, the lifestyle we wanted was no longer feasible there. We were ready to settle down, buy a home, make a family and seek a new quality of life. Moving to a new city is hard, but by far the most difficult part of leaving is saying goodbye to the community we had spent years building and nurturing, one we love and cherish like family.

But as a testament to the strength of these relationships, we are already being welcomed into the Nashville bluegrass scene through the connections of bay area friends. And even better, these new mutual friendships help us feel even more connected to our old friends.

At our farewell show — the culmination of our time playing in San Francisco — the impact of seeing our entire community standing before us like this, cheering for us on this unexceptional Monday evening, was overwhelming. If it weren’t for this group of wonderful people, we would undoubtedly never have made it this far. And in this new chapter, wherever the music takes us, we will always have them to thank.


Michelle Haft is a Nashville-based product designer. Joseph Shipp is a photographer and designer-in-residence. They play old-time music together in a band.