Lessons in bluegrass
Durango Meltdown brings music to local schools

Wild Mountain’s Brad Bartlett and Estella Moore play a tune in front of Miller Middle School last Tuesday. The band will be performing there this Friday as part of the Bluegrass Meltdown’s Bluegrass in School’s program./Photo by Steve Eginoire

by Karin L. Becker

With snow melting down the mountains, it’s time for bluegrass music to swell the downtown streets. The 17th annual Durango Bluegrass Meltdown is in full bloom April 8-10, featuring headliners Avery County, the Freight Hoppers, Mashville Brigade and Sierra Hull. While festival attendees are eager to hear the main stage music, the festival is more than just picking, grinning and late-night jams. Another part of the mission of the Meltdown is to promote and preserve bluegrass music as an American art form and expose young listeners to it. From this, the Bluegrass in Schools program was conceived 16 years ago to bring bluegrass to local school kids. And like the festival, Bluegrass in Schools continues to expand and improve.

“It’s our biggest line up,” says Coordinator of Kids Programming Sally Zwisler.

In addition to adding more bands presenting at more schools, the outreach has expanded to include the adjacent communities of Bayfield and Ignacio. Five bands are performing at seven area schools this year, spanning the gamut of elementary to high schools, this Fri., April 8, the kick-off to the festival. To give the students a taste of a main-stage performance, local sound men will volunteer their time and equipment to provide a professional sound.

“A specialized sound system adds so much professionalism and legitimacy to the bands’ presentations,” Zwisler said. “It’s nothing like a regular PA system.”

Schools and bands alike respond favorably to this 4 program, but for varying reasons. For schools, students benefit from the cultural as well as musical aspects of the program. Bluegrass music is analogous to the melting pot of America. Its roots are steeped in early jazz combined with slave narratives and Celtic rhythms that immigrants brought over, explains Zwisler. “It’s good to get kids exposed to music culture,” she adds.

The time in between songs, when musicians are tuning their instruments, will be used to impart music education as the musicians talk about their instruments.

Set lists differ vastly from the main stage festival performances. During school presentations, bands select songs that are more appropriate to the audience’s age. The San Juan String Band, a band comprised of local foresters and biologists, plays music with an environmental focus. “Conservation education with a tune” is their motto, and their songs’ subject matter includes rivers, trees, mountains and wildlife. Playing both traditional favorites like “The Crawdad Song” as well as originals, they will tailor their set to young kids when they will play at Riverview Elementary.

The Colorado College Bluegrass Ensemble, from Colorado Springs, is made up of music majors and a music professor. Veterans of the Bluegrass in Schools program, the Ensemble is keyed up to play at Ignacio Junior High School this year.

The Squash Blossom Boys, out of Albuquerque, will perform at Durango High School. Capitalizing on the peer-to-peer education, this younger band will appeal to high school students.

Similarly, local band Wild Mountain will use its youthful appeal to interest the teen and tween audience of Miller Middle School. Although this is Wild Mountain’s fourth year appearing at the Meltdown, it is the first time they are participating in Bluegrass in Schools. Remembering the huge impact various guest artists made upon him when he was in junior high, singer-songwriter Brad Bartlett is “really excited to have the opportunity to reach out to kids and talk about what it’s like to be musicians.”

The quartet comprised of Brad Bartlett, his wife, Estella, Rusty Charpentier on bass, and Mark Epstein on banjo, likes to bluegrass-a-cize different genres of music. With this elasticity of musical composition, students will understand how styles morph and influences blend to create new musical sounds.

Teachers and one principal will take on a new role when they transform into musicians, starring in the band Rusted Prairie. Shuttling between three different schools, Escalante Middle School, Fort Lewis Mesa Elementary and Park Elementary, these educators will have the opportunity to play before their own kids.

For students who love music, whether it be band, orchestra or bluegrass, the advice from these established musicians is to stick with it. “It will pay off no matter what,” assures Bartlett. “Even if you are not a professional musician, music will be something you enjoy the rest of your life.” •



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