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Area bluegrass musicians gather at historic Bowles House for old-style Bluegrass Porch Pickin'

July 27, 2013|By ALICIA NOTARIANNI | alnotarianni@aol.com
  • Old-style Bluegrass Porch Pickin' on the porch of the historic Bowles House.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

HANCOCK, Md. — When Dale Deyoung was in her late teens, she listened mostly to bluegrass and folk music on vinyl records.

Then, she “moved on to other things,” she said.

On Saturday, when the 52-year-old Baltimore resident headed out for a bike ride along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath in Hancock with friends and family, she unwittingly rolled back to her bluegrass roots.

About a dozen area bluegrass musicians — or “pickers,” as they are known — had gathered on the porch of the historic Bowles House on the banks of the canal flatpicking and stacking harmonies at a free, old-style Bluegrass Porch Pickin’.

When Deyoung initially passed the 1780s farmhouse, she didn’t realize it was the park’s Hancock Visitor Center, she said. She thought it was “a really cute house” overlooking the waters of the Potomac River. She noticed a couple of people sitting in rockers on the porch, and thought it was “picturesque and scenic.”

Apparently, “Banjo Bill” Adams of Hancock and his gang had taken to the back porch for their quick picnic lunch of bean soup and fried chicken. When Deyoung turned back and passed the house again, she encountered even more than she had the first time.

“And so we were coming back, and then I was like, ‘They’re playing music, too!’ It’s amazing. And the kind of music and everything. I was like, ‘I can’t believe it.’ It just was really cool,” she said.

Pickers called out key signatures and chord progressions while tuning instruments and ribbing one another between songs such as “Maple Sugar Sweetheart” and “Blue Ridge Cabin Home.”

“Are we playing a G chord or A or who?” a picker asked.

In true bluegrass breakdown style, the pickers took turns playing a melody as others improvised accompaniment around it.

“You don’t double it,” called out picker Martin Tucker of Falling Waters, W.Va.

“I do!” Adams challenged, playfully.

Heaven Moore, 21, of Clear Spring, a seasonal park guide for C&O Canal National Historical Park, said the last-Saturday-of-the-month porch pickin’ events draw bicyclists, hikers and campers to the visitor center from the canal’s towpath as well as the Western Maryland Rail Trail. During the pickin’, visitors come in more and stay longer, she said.

“So it’s less about just coming in and seeing the house. It becomes a whole sort of experience when the musicians are out there,” Moore said.

Wayne and Ann Barry, 62 and 61 respectively, of Shepherdstown, W.Va., have visited a number of sites along the canal, and decided to bike in Hancock for the first time Saturday afternoon.

“If I would have known there was music, I would’ve come sooner. We pay for this stuff,” Ann Barry said.

Barry said the pickin’ provided historical context to the home and the canal, helping to illustrate “the waterman’s way of life.”

Adams, who heads up the jam sessions, said he was playing his banjo on the banks of the canal one day in 1971 when an occupant of the house sent a child to tell him to play on the porch. The occupants moved out and the park service acquired the house in the 1980s. In 2010, it was opened as a visitors center.

Adams has been playing weekends on the porch all the while. Once a month, he invites friends.

“Bluegrass is about camaraderie,” Adams said. “Most of these guys I’ve known 20 or 40 years. And most are like me — they’d rather play than eat.”

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