Smile Politely

Jamming away the winter blues

This weekend marks the arrival of a new local bluegrass festival. Billed simply as Indoor Bluegrass Festival it will take place on Saturday at the Independent Media Center in Urbana and will feature four central-Illinois based acts: Grass Roots Revival, High Cotton, The King Family, and The Corn Desert Ramblers. Plus there will be seven hours of jamming opportunities. We spoke with organizer Ed Hawkes about putting together the lineup.

Smile Politely: How did this festival come about? 

Ed Hawkes: There had been some suggestions by folks around town that an indoor festival in the winter would be nice. I’m aware of some other indoor Bluegrass Festivals around Illinois, usually that last a couple of days and are held at hotels, so it seemed like a good idea. I had been having some conversations with Caleb King of the King Family about his band playing at the IMC, so I mentioned the idea of a festival and he seemed interested in helping. We weren’t able to commit to a two-day festival, but thought that a one evening event would work. From there we identified a date, some local bands, and put it together.

The festival schedule says that jamming will take place from 4 to 11 p.m. What will the jamming consist of? Will there be multiple jamming spots? What would you say to the novice who would like to jam but might be a little timid?

Most Bluegrass festivals have jamming where people who may not have necessarily played together before choose common tunes or songs that they can play together. When the festivals are outside they take place in camping areas or parking lots, but inside they will be in spaces around the IMC. C4A the upstairs music school has generously agreed to let us use some space there, and we have some other space around the IMC as well where small groups can huddle together and play some tunes.

For the timid person, I would say that there are all levels of jamming, and people are generally open to new people joining. You can always walk up to a jam, observe for a while and determine if you can play at that level. Even if you decide not to jam, observing other people and what they do is a good way to learn the music, and improve your techniques as well.

You are offering a $25 family rate to the festival and you have the King Family performing. Can you discuss the importance of creating an environment where children are welcome at these events?

I think it is difficult for families to find affordable events that they can all enjoy, and by making this a family friendly event I believe that we are giving families the opportunity to expose their children to music that they would not necessarily get a chance to hear.

You’ve scheduled several different types of acts for this event. What are the differences between each act and what you were looking for in a lineup? The Corn Desert Ramblers are described as Newgrass — can you explain what that term means?

We start with Grass Roots Revival which is a two piece group which is somewhat unique in Bluegrass. They actually cross over into folk, and old-time country music. The kind of music you might have heard on the radio in the 1920’s and 30’s.

Then we go to High Cotton who have a traditional Bluegrass sound with 3 and four part harmonies, and titillating instrument solos. The King Family are a traditional Bluegrass Family band, where the whole family participates. There are nine family members in the band, including two brothers who have won the State of Illinois Banjo Championship. They incorporate a little more gospel in their music, as well as throwing in some of their own originals.

The night will end up with the more progressive sounds of the Corn Desert Ramblers. They do traditional tunes, but put their own unique style to them. Newgrass usually refers to adding some jazz stylings to the music, or unusual chord changes, and adding in tunes that might be considered non-traditional. The term comes from a group that called themselves The Newgrass Revival active in the 70’s and 80’s that included the likes of John Cowan and Bella Fleck.

Any other details about the festival that might be worth mentioning?

EH: It should be a good time, and an opportunity for people to hear some great music, not just on stage, but all around the IMC.


In addition to organizing the festival this weekend, Hawkes is also a member of the CU Folk and Roots Festival steering committee, so we took the opportunity to as him about an upcoming show featuring The Steel Wheels and the just announced dates of the 2011 CU Folk and Roots Festival.

SP: You’ve got The Steel Wheels performing in a couple of weeks on Friday, March 11. Can you talk a little about them and that show? I understand they’re from the Blue Ridge Mountains. It doesn’t get much more Americana than that.

EH: The Steel Wheels are a band that reminds me of the Old Crow Medicine Show, having roots in traditional music, but being able to create original tunes that show imagination, and high energy. As soon as I heard them I decided I wanted them to come play for the CU Folk and Roots Festival concert series.

I see that you just announced the dates for the 2011 CU Folk and Roots Festival. Can you talk a little about where you are in the planning stages for that event? Any news on what changes we can expect this year?

The dates this year are November 4th and 5th so obviously we are moving from our original dates of the last weekend of September, which will make it an indoor festival as well, but including several venues as we have in the past. At this time we are in the process of booking our acts, seeking more sponsorships, and settling on a final design for the festival. Beginning in March we will begin selling early bird tickets for $15, with graduating ticket prices leading up to the festival. Beginning in May $20, and in September they will be $25. We want to encourage people to get their tickets early.

The Indoor Bluegrass festival takes place this Saturday, February 26 at the IMC in Urbana. Open jam starts at 4 p.m. and the concert at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $10, $7 for students and $25 for families.

Steel Wheels perform on Friday, March 11 at the IMC. Advance tickets are for sale for $15 at Heartland Gallery at 112 East Main in Urbana.Tickets can also be bought on line by going to and clicking on the brown paper ticket icon. Tickets at the door will be $20.

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