DAYTON— “It’s a legal high,” Joanie Bennet said of the twice-monthly bluegrass jams at the Tongue River Valley Community Center.
Bennet is one of the regular attendees at the jam sessions, which take place on the first and second Sunday of each month. Although the title may say differently, bluegrass is not the only music heard. Players of all levels come to play a variety of song types, from folk to blues to rock.
The sessions are informal, and usually have about 10 people in attendance from Dayton, Ranchester and Sheridan. They started about eight and a half years ago, when a few local players asked Erin Kilbride, the executive director of the TRVCC, if they could have a time and place for communal riffing and fellowship.
“They just love to get together,” Kilbride said. “Not in front of a big crowd, but just to be able to share their talent.”
Most of the players are amateur musicians, but have plenty of experience. They sit in a circle and each person chooses a song and the key in which to play. The sessions are nearly all improvisational, with few sheet notes in front of them. If someone doesn’t know the song, they play harmony, usually basing their notes on what a guitar player is playing.
It’s a jam session, so they don’t play the same songs over and over, but instead play a new song each time. That makes it more fun, and feel less like work or a band practice, Bennet said.
The main instruments are the guitar and mandolin. Bennet and Elsie Peters, another regular, also played the violin and Bennet played the harmonica briefly as well. Because of the loose nature of the sessions, sometimes they switched instruments in the middle of a song.
“People jam and just always find a way to play,” said Bill Bradshaw, who was playing a mandolin.
Bradshaw, along with Rick Clark, helped start the Big Horn Mountain Festival in Buffalo. They also cofounded the jam in Sheridan that now takes place at Luminous Brewhouse.
Clark started playing the guitar in college in the 1970s after his girlfriend at the time, who came from a music-heavy background, bought him one. Clark likes the guitar because of its endless possibility, saying that there is always something new to learn.
Guitar player Jack Wood attends the Big Horn Mountain Festival each year. After the shows, he jams in the parking lots with professionals and amateurs alike, calling it another great chance to learn and increase his love of music.
In Dayton, the group usually jams for two hours, but sometimes goes deep into the night if the chords feel right, feeding off each other’s energy. Attendance was high initially, Kilbride said, but now it goes up and down. In the warmer months, more people attend, sometimes mixing things up with a banjo or stand up bass. Music can bond players of all skill levels and ages. Bennet calls it “the highest art” for its ability to transcend all other human barriers, even language.
In Dayton, sometimes teenagers and people in their 70s play alongside each other, both embracing music’s uniting power.
Terry Peters, playing his mandolin, goes “strictly for the fun of it,” he said. It’s not a competition, but keeps him in touch with the community.
Wood agreed, and said the jams keep his music skills sharp.
“If I didn’t come here, my guitar would just sit in the closet,” he said.