By Carrie Haderlie
SHERIDAN — Music can change the world. Or, in the case of Buffalo teen Morgan Blaney, it can change a life. Blaney was always shy, her mother, Karen Blaney, said, but she blossomed after participating in the Big Horn Bluegrass Camp several years ago.
“I’ve experienced the camp’s transformative power personally,” Karen Blaney said. “My daughter went from begin a shy girl to a confident, professional bass player … and this year’s All-State jazz bass player.”
Morgan Blaney, now 17, explained that she always enjoyed music but it wasn’t until she was 11 or so when she found the bass. And from there, her love of and talent for music soared.
“I was put into a bass playing class (my second year of the Big Horn Bluegrass Camp) and I remember going home and telling my mom that I’d found my thing,” she said.
Morgan Blaney is now one of three young women who make up the Buffalo-based bluegrass trio Prairie Wildfire. The trio, which includes Holly Qualm and Sage Palser, put out its first album, “Hometown Hearts,” this summer. All three are in high school and remain active in the camp, planning for and teaching at the 2018 Big Horn Bluegrass Camp.
Karen Blaney, who organizes the camp, said the five-day camp was open to kids ages 8-18. This year, event planners also joined forces with a group of bluegrass college students from Glenville State University to offer a one-day workshop for kids ages 6-8.
The camp was bigger than ever this year, with 46 registered students.
Generally, the camp offers beginning, intermediate and advanced classes in bluegrass cello, mandolin, guitar, upright bass, fiddle and banjo. Students also receive instruction in harmonica, vocal harmonies, songwriting, jamming, swing dancing and “how to be a band.”
Seven or eight years ago, the Big Horn Mountain Festival and Johnson County Arts and Humanities teamed up with an organization called Bluegrass Camp for Kids to provide the kids camp, Karen Blaney said. The camp has grown steadily over the years and is now locally run, which enables organizers to cut costs and to select its own teachers.
The bluegrass genre ultimately depends on a communal experience, she said.
“Musicians learn to play by ear and depend on each other, using nonverbal cues to communicate and perform,” Karen Blaney said. “The camp also provides a rare opportunity for kids to be mentored by professional musicians.”
And that’s exactly what happened to Morgan Blaney. The camp was a turning point for her, especially when it came to working with professional musicians. It was at the camp where she met Buffalo-based Bluegrass Jam Class instructor Lynn Young.
“He barely had enough room for me in his schedule, but he found room and put me into the Occidental Jam after just a few months,” Morgan Blaney said. “I was terrified, but I went and I still love it to this day.”
In addition to the members of Prairie Wildfire, the 2018 camp teaching staff included members of the Wisconsin band Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, who also performed in Sheridan this week. Musicians from the Sheridan-based band The Two Tracks and Tessa Taylor, another camp aluma, round out the group of instructors.
The Big Horn Bluegrass Camp is designed to invite children to join a larger bluegrass community, Karen Blaney said. Students learn to play several instruments and to jam, and they form musical relationships with each other and their instructors.
Prairie Wildfire’s debut album was produced by Jacob Groopman of Front Country — a former bluegrass camp manager — and engineered by a former banjo instructor Aaron Youngberg.
“All over town, as a result of this camp, kids are performing and jamming at community events, churches, dude ranches and often at the Historical Occidental Saloon,” Karen Blaney said.
Morgan Blaney said before her first couple years at the camp, she wouldn’t have dreamed of putting out an album at 17, or of having any musical success at all. Now, she loves music too much to ever give it up. She doesn’t know if she’ll always perform, but she’s thinking about a career in teaching.
One thing is certain, though. She wants to help other kids find their passion.
“As a camp instructor this year, I’m teaching two beginning bass classes,” Morgan Blaney said before the camp began.
“I’m very excited about that, because that’s what got me to where I am,” she added. “I’m hoping I can get the kids in the class to have a good time — and I just want them to gain a little confidence. It’s about music, but it’s also about their whole lives.”
And maybe, like Morgan Blaney, their lives can be changed through music.