There’s a new slow jam for slow Sunday nights.
Erin Anais Heist is creating a space for musicians, who are new to bluegrass, and that she wishes had been there when she was just getting started.
“Most bluegrass bands they’re not rehearsing things,” Heist said. “That’s part of the fun of bluegrass you don’t know what’s going to happen in the moment. [The musicians are] improvising everything, including the structure of the song. You rehearse how you’re going to start and how you’re going to end and everything in the middle is a free for all.”
She was explaining Sunday night some hand signals bluegrass musicians might use to a group of three women during a new monthly bluegrass slow jam upstairs at the Alaskan Bar and Hotel. March was the third time she’s hosted a jam like this, which is aimed at people learning how to be able to participate in more fast-paced experienced jams.
“Beginner isn’t even the right word,” Heist said. “It’s people who aren’t as familiar with bluegrass or haven’t played with a lot of other people or in a live situation.”
Bluegrass is structured like jazz with standards, she said. So the idea of the slow jam is to introduce people to the concept that they can travel all over the country and be able to jump into a jam session and play the same songs with people they’ve never met before.
“It’s pretty scary to jump into a jam for the first time if you’ve never really done it before,” Heist said.
Alaska Folk Festival is happening next month, and Heist said the slow jam helps train people to be able to jump into some of the jam sessions that happen during the annual festival.
On the list of guidelines for the jam online, the website states: “Generally in a bluegrass jam, a smaller jam is preferred to a larger one. So when joining a jam, try to make sure that you are adding something, such as: an instrument that isn’t already there, a vocalist when no one seems to want to sing, a tenor harmony if there’s no tenor, a six-pack of beer, a cool dog or some great jokes.”
The March jam was only the fourth jam of the series, and Heist said it usually goes from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., with generally about seven to eight people showing up so far. It’s different from the old time jam at the Alaskan Hotel and Bar on Wednesday nights.
As their first song rolled to an end, Heist kicked out her foot, signaling the group to stop.
“There’s a whole language happening here. I just thought bluegrass people do this for no reason,” said Rashah McChesney, who made a head motion to illustrate her point about nonverbal communication.
McChesney said that at the first jam she ever played in Juneau during Folk Fest, she had a duet going with someone and she missed something during a verse and he made a weird face at her.
“Well, some people can’t control their face,” said Heist.
Musicians have to learn their people, Heist said, because different musicians have different cues.
“Normally we would not be looking at the words, we would be looking at each other,” Heist said.
The jam had a low-key vibe, and only four other people were downstairs in the bar. Some participants shared sheet music, kicked off their Xtratufs and sang chords instead of lyrics to cue the others. Heist said there are usually two to three singers in bluegrass.
“If you sing the melody, I’m happy to sing the harmony,” McChesney said to Heist. “What would you rather do? All I ever want to do is be discordant with someone, so I will never be upset about not singing the melody.”
For a list of cues, guidelines, song repertoire and more information about the Juneau Bluegrass Slow Jam, visit their website or attend a jam on the first Sunday of each month at the Alaskan Hotel and Bar at 7 p.m.
• Mollie Barnes is a freelance reporter in Juneau.