Bluegrass goes collegiate with classes

October 17, 2009|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

Doubts about Ernie Bradley's musical passion died when he told the story about how he traded $800 and his neck for better bluegrass.

By neck, he was talking is the the fretboard of his gold-plated banjo. Bradley, a local bluegrass teacher, swapped parts with famous bluegrass man Walter Hensley.

"He wanted the neck off my banjo so he could put his name in here, so he could inlay it," Bradley said, caressing the neck of his current banjo. "So I traded my neck and $800 for this neck."

Bradley, 55, of Hagerstown, has many stories to share thanks to his passion for the bluegrass. But the latest chapter in the Ernie Bradley story begins at Hagerstown Community College, where Bradley has been teaching others the art of bluegrass jamming.


Bradley's been teaching at HCC since April 2009. Classes have been held at the main campus off Robinwood Drive east of Hagerstown since the summer.

Classes are currently being held at the community center at Fort Ritchie.

In November, HCC will host a one-day bluegrass workshop at its main campus.

"The need for beginner bluegrass classes in this area was there," said one of his students, Cynthia Hull.

Hull, a real estate teacher at HCC, was instrumental in bringing the bluegrass courses to HCC. She took mandolin lessons for two years after having received a mandolin as a gift. But she didn't think she was ready to jump in and start jamming with other musicians, which limited her options to play.

"While there have been bluegrass jams in this area, there aren't many places for beginners," said Hul1, who's also coordinator of Certification and Licensure at HCC's Centeer for Continuing Education Services.

The HCC course at Fort Ritchie is for beginners hoping to one day hold their own at a bluegrass jam. A successful jammer, Bradley said, can follow all the key changes, can do a quick solo and can read signals - like when to wrap up the song.

Basically, a good jammer can walk into any group and start playing. You don't have to read music. Bradley teaches students how to play by ear.

He said the course isn't meant to be a place for show-offs. It's about building confidence, and drawing out your inner jammer.

"A lot of these guys won't come out of the closet and play," Bradley said.

Bradley is a third-generation, self-taught banjo player and plays with The Grassy Ridge Band. During the interview, Bradley talked about his life as a trucker gigging steadily as a bluegrass musician even through the hairspray fog of 1980s metal.

Currently, he teaches private banjo lessons at his home.

Bradley grew up in Lucketts, Va., and in parts of Maryland, learning to play banjo on his grandfather's throwback washboard banjo, which Bradley displays proudly in his home. It's more than 100 years old. To tighten the head of the banjo, the player would place it over the stove for a few minutes.

"It still has the original cow hide on it," Bradley said.

A little bit of that country Virginia upbringing came out when he pronounced the word guitar as "gi-tah." He says the word sit as "set."

Bradley insists that bluegrass music is the hardest music in the world to play. Your fingers are moving so fast," he said.

Yet, he also insists that if you can type, you can play bluegrass. He made it look just that easy when he played in the living room of his home during the start of this interview.

His skin was pale and never blushed. As he played, his round face was anchored by a bushy white beard, sliced by what was either a subtle smile or the sort of expression you get when a person in deep thought flexes the top part of a single cheek.

His fingers lacked tension as they picked the banjo strings - he prefers the three-finger style over his grandfather's claw-hammer style.

As part of his teaching efforts, Bradley said he's trying to sell fledgling musicians on the appeal of playing bluegrass: That, unlike the image-conscious radio pop and country music scene, bluegrass is a genre that doesn't discriminate.

"I can be a fat little guy and just be that," he said.

Learn to play bluegrass

Hagerstown Community College's Center for Continuing Education is offering a one-day workshop in beginning bluegrass jamming from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7, on HCC's main campus, east of Hagerstown, off Robinwood Drive.

The workshop costs $69.

Call 301-790-2800, ext. 236, or go to .

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