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IN THE SPIRIT: Bluegrass gospel? Try the Urban Stampede

Bruce Elseth just finished singing in a church cantata, and he's ready for a change of pace. "I need to get back to bluegrass music," the guitarist from Newfolden, Minn., said. Farther around the circle of chairs sat Ward Shields, with his long, ...

Bruce Elseth just finished singing in a church cantata, and he's ready for a change of pace.

"I need to get back to bluegrass music," the guitarist from Newfolden, Minn., said.

Farther around the circle of chairs sat Ward Shields, with his long, white hair twisted and tucked under a stocking cap of many colors. Ward, a typical-looking mountain man from Aneta, N.D., built the banjo he plays out of old banjo parts. On his lap, the banjo's backdrop is a white beard that flows all the way to Ward's stomach.

He's not Santa, but he could be, if he'd let his hair down.

Then, there's Rick Else of Grand Forks. Woven among Rick's rugged fingers are several "bones," one of the oldest musical instruments known to mankind.


"In the old times," Rick said, "they took rib bones from a goat, dried them, cleaned them out, then played them as percussion instruments. Today, I have hard rosewood bones. Probably one of the most common songs a person might have heard done with 'bones' is the Harlem Globetrotters theme song, 'Sweet Georgia Brown.'"

Rick, who loves acoustic jam sessions, said bluegrass music "is very warm, relaxing and simplistic. I started playing bones two years ago after picking it up from a bone player at the Steam Threshers Reunion in Rollag (Minn.). It's a nice instrument to play, and it's easier to carry around than a doghouse bass."

I asked Seth Mulder, virtuoso banjo, guitar, fiddle and mandolin player, if there will be bluegrass music in heaven? "I hope so," the high school senior from Cummings, N.D., said. Seth wrote a song titled "Bluegrass in Heaven," which he said, "talks about how you'll hear a banjo and mandolin," in paradise.

Nov. 17, I stopped by the monthly bluegrass and country music acoustic jam session, mostly for the bluegrass gospel music I would hear. I was not disappointed.

Listeners can make requests, and I said, "play something gospel." I think it was Seth who called out to the others, "how about 'I Saw the Light.' It's in the key of D."

And they were off and strumming, and I was smiling.

December's acoustic jam is today from 1 to 4 p.m. in the Urban Stampede, 324 Kittson Ave., in downtown Grand Forks. I already can smell the coffee and hear the music. Think "I'll Fly Away" down there with my harmonica.

Last month, other musicians in the circle were Marc Serlin, Grand Forks, guitar; Ron Mulder, Cummings, N.D., standup bass; Michelle Else, Grand Forks, rhythm guitar and mandolin; Nayva Mulder, Cummings, mandolin; and Dewaine Wakeman, Grand Forks, banjo and guitar. Ward's wife, Joanne, was there leading the cheering section, grinning but not picking.


This jam circle can be made bigger, and other musicians always are welcome.

"The nice thing," Rick said, "is you don't have to be a professional musician or real serious. It's a relaxing way of playing music. Everybody gets a chance to play, and you meet different musicians every time. You make new friendships. It's fun to see what kind of instruments they bring. There are all different types of personalities and people of all ages and walks of life. It's not only a get-together to play music, it's a get-together to socialize."

Bruce was attending country/bluegrass jams in Hillsboro, N.D., when he started playing with Seth, he said. "I played some gigs with him, and he got this thing started here. It gives me a chance to keep my licks up. Anytime you attend a jam, you are playing something new, and it forces you to train your ear. Basically, playing new songs off the top of your head, you have to train your ability. It's just plain fun."

Seth started learning violin when he was 6, but back then, he wasn't fond of lessons.

"About three years ago, I started teaching myself to play guitar, and it went well," he said. "From there, I tried mandolin, banjo and bass. I just fell into it, and the first thing I knew, I was playing them all."

The acoustic jams usually are half-gospel music and half-bluegrass/country, Seth added.

"While some prefer gospel music more than others, everyone seems to enjoy just getting together and playing, whether it's bluegrass, gospel, country or any other genre of music."

When Marc was in the U.S. Air Force in 1973, he went home on leave to Southern California. "I went to the first annual bluegrass festival and heard, 'Fox on the Run,' and I'm in love with it," he said. "I like bluegrass. I wouldn't' mind being in a bluegrass band. Bluegrass songs are easy to learn, two or three chords, that's about it. This kind of music makes me feel good. I like entertaining people. I'll play for one or 100."


Dewaine said he likes acoustic music because, "you don't have to carry electricity with you, and you can hear all the other players. There's a little more picking involved with it, too."

Bruce's dad played a dobra guitar, "and in the 1920s and 1930s, he and my uncles and aunts played and sang, and their harmonies were based on the Carter family's bluegrass harmonies. I grew up listening to that and I fall right into it."

After three or four hours of jamming, "the fingers get a little sore," Bruce added, "but I keep going. It's worth it."

Seth agreed. "I like the feeling music gives me," he said, "and the pleasant society that accompanies it."

Dunavan is a Herald columnist. Reach her at (218) 773-9521 or naomiinthespirit@aol.com .

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