Berks Country Fest will make music at Meadowood
Thursday June 2, 2016 12:01 AM
By Susan L. Pena - Reading Eagle correspondent
Americana music can mean various things, because many genres have arisen from American soil.
But the iconic image of roots music-making - whether it's Appalachian mountain music or blues from the Deep South - is that of folks sitting on the front porch, strumming banjos and guitars, bowing fiddles, singing. Sharing in the creating and enjoying of the music. From this the art form passes on and evolves.
Meadowood Music, a string specialty shop in Maidencreek Township, near Blandon, has a mission not only to sell and repair instruments and offer lessons, but to re-create that front-porch experience. In that way, as older musicians help newcomers, the tradition continues.
MAIDENCREEK TOWNSHIP, PA
Owners: Paula Taylor and Mike Andrews
Location: 8521 Allentown Pike, Maidencreek Township
BCF Connection: Bluegrass Jams 6 p.m. Tuesdays; Classical Jam, June 9 at 6:30 p.m.; Slow Bluegrass Jam, June 16 at 7 p.m.; Acoustic Open Mic, June 18 at 6 p.m.
Matt Wlasniewski, Steven Simpson, Jay Lehrbach - photo by Ben Hasty
So it's appropriate that Meadowood Music will be participating in Berks Country Fest: An Americana Music Jamboree, presented by Pretzel City Productions. The festival opens Monday and runs through June 19.
During that time, Meadowood will be holding two of its regular Tuesday-night bluegrass jams, from 6 to 9 p.m. on Tuesday and June 14, and one of its regular slow bluegrass jams (for beginners) on June 16 at 7 p.m. It also will offer a regular classical string jam on June 9 at 6:30 p.m.
And on June 18 at 6 p.m., it will hold an Acoustic Open Mic on the stage in the store's backyard.
At last year's Berks Country Fest, said Meadowood's co-owner Paula Taylor, "We didn't include the open mic; it was just the jam sessions. People came to listen, but jam sessions are more fun for people to play than for listeners. We want people to come and play at the jams." People who want to listen and at most clap or sing along can attend the open mic, which is open to people who play acoustic music like bluegrass, folk, Celtic or blues. (No heavy-metal bands need apply.)
Performers are asked to sign up in advance (five had done so by May 23, and there's room for 12 or 13). They are allotted 15 minutes or three songs maximum, whichever comes first. Taylor and her husband and co-owner Mike Andrews supply the sound system, serve as emcees and do sound checks.
"We have had people who have never played in front of anyone, and we've had some seasoned professionals perform," Taylor said. "It's very supportive of people performing." Singers can accompany themselves, bring a recording as their backup or invite other musicians to play for them. Taylor said the event is "family-friendly," so no X-rated lyrics are allowed.
"People park in the parking lot and come through a hedge, and it's like walking into a Shakespearean green space," she said.
Andrews, who speaks less but has a dry wit, had a different description: "Everyone gets 15 minutes on the public humilitron."
Taylor, an engineer by profession, and Andrews, a master electrician, both have had parallel lives as musicians for years. Andrews plays guitar, mandolin and clawhammer banjo; Taylor sings and plays upright bass, guitar, fiddle and a little mandolin. The two met at a jam session in Baltimore when both were living in Maryland. They shared not only a passion for music but the ambition to open a music store.
Steven Simpson, Paula Taylor, Bob Entler - photo by Ben Hasty
"Our agenda was to create a store that provided high-quality stuff in a variety of price ranges," Taylor said. "People should be able to afford a real instrument that encourages them to play music. We want to get people playing music."
Andrews makes and restores violins, and he is a Martin Guitar technician; their store would naturally specialize in stringed instruments (although they now sell some accessories for wind instruments).
But beyond providing the instruments and their maintenance, they wanted to build a community of musicians, and give them a venue in which they could share their music - a front porch, if you will - and find other avenues for performance.
They did a market study to find where there might be a need for such a place, and two candidates emerged: Berks County and North Carolina. Since Taylor had roots in Berks, they chose to relocate here.
Before they opened the store, they began hosting open mics in the Kutztown Bandshell. Three months after opening in 2000, they began hosting the bluegrass jams. The way they work, Andrews said, is that one person starts playing a tune while the others, seated in a circle, play harmony.
The lead goes around the circle until the original person declares the song done, and then the next person thinks up a tune and the process repeats.
The jams are free of charge; people simply bring their instruments and begin improvising by ear. No sheet music is used, and the more experienced people - like Bob Entler, the mandolinist for the Mountain Folk Band, and Larry Swanson, who hosts the slow blues jam for beginners - help the newcomers understand the process. Classical jams, for string players, involve sheet music provided by Meadowood, and center on light classical and pops, with fiddler/violinist Judy Terwilliger leading the group.
"One of the things that's crucially important to us is that it's conducted in a respectful and mutually supportive way," Taylor said.
Andrews added, "The ego stays in the car."
Mike Andrews - photo by Ben Hasty
Bonnie Wren, Larry Swanson, Judy Terwilliger, Matt Wlasniewski, Steven Simpson, Jay Lehrbach - photo by Ben Hasty
Meadowood also has 11 teachers on staff, who teach about 200 students a week. Aspiring musicians ages 4 to 88 learn to play all kinds of music on strings, piano, guitars, harmonicas, dulcimers, banjos, clarinets and saxes. Students are welcome to use the open mics as recital opportunities.
In addition to its own activities, Meadowood also sponsors open mics hosted by other businesses, and festivals such as the Early Bird and Lyons fiddle festivals and the Maidencreek Old Time Music Festival, Taylor said.
Email Susan L. Pena: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Two local bluegrass bands got their start at the Meadowood blues jams, Andrews said: Cat Elwell and Saucony Grass, based in Kutztown, and Crow Hill, based in Hamburg.