The Beachcomber Fall Festival Guide

If You Want Real Country Music, Visit Pine Barrens Jamboree

Authentic In an Era of Commercialization
By RICK MELLERUP | Sep 27, 2019

Waretown — If you want to hear some authentic country and bluegrass music, you should circle Oct. 12 on your calendar and plan on attending the Pine Barrens Jamboree at Wells Mills County Park in Waretown, two miles west of the Garden State Parkway interchange with Wells Mills Road (County Route 532).

The Jamboree, which will run from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., is a celebration of the people, traditions and rich history of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. You’ll be able to take a scenic paddle around Wells Mills Lake, go on a nature walk, or check out the goods and displays of over 40 exhibitors, both commercial and non-profit. But the centerpiece of the free admission Jamboree is, appropriately enough, its music.

Anyone who has been watching Ken Burns’ excellent documentary series “Country Music” on PBS is aware that what was once called “hillbilly music” has changed over and over again through the decades.

Country became recognized as a musical genre in the 1920s, thanks to the Carter Family – A.P, Maybelle and Sara, from the hills of southwest Virginia – and Jimmie Rodgers of Meridian, Mississippi, often called “The Father of Country Music.”

Both the Carters and Rodgers had hardscrabble beginnings. A.P. Carter was born in a rustic log cabin; Rodgers was working as a railroad water boy as a young teen. Their songs reflected their humble beginnings.

The Carters recorded songs with titles such as “Wandering Boy” and “Poor Orphan Child” as well as one that exemplifies their roots in mountain gospel music: “Can the Circle Be Unbroken.”

Meanwhile, Rodgers was recording songs such as “The Brakeman’s Blues,” “In the Jailhouse Now” and a string of a dozen “Blue Yodel” songs. Rodgers had learned to yodel after seeing a troupe of Swiss emissaries doing a demonstration in a church. He made it a centerpiece of his singing. By the way, although Rodgers was a Southern boy, many of his early songs were recorded in, of all places, Camden. Yes, Camden, New Jersey!

So many country stars in the following decades grew up in poverty. Johnny Cash was picking cotton with his family at the age of 5. Hank Williams’ mother ran a boarding house and worked in a cannery in the day and as a night-shift nurse in a local hospital to support her family. Loretta Lynn was famously a coal miner’s daughter who got married at 15. The list could go on and on. Country musicians had the ability to sing sad, rough-hewn songs because they’d known sad, rough-hewn times.

Flash forward to today. One of country’s biggest stars is undoubtedly Taylor Swift, who has already sold over 50 million albums even though she’s only 29 years old. Swift was raised in Pennsylvania where her father was a Merrill Lynch stockbroker and her mother was a mutual fund marketing executive. When a 14-year-old Taylor expressed an interest in country music, her father transferred to Merrill Lynch’s Nashville office to accommodate her. Let’s call her childhood “softscrabble.”

Swift’s first single on the Hot Country Charts was 2007’s “Our Song,” which went on to be certified quadruple platinum. Its accompanying video was nominated for “Video of the Year” and “Female Video of the Year” at the 2008 CMT Music Awards.

Although “Our Song” featured a banjo, and Swift had somehow acquired a country accent, the song was more pop than country. Now it is difficult to find any country sounds or influences at all in Swift’s music – go online to check out songs from her 2018 “Lover” and you’ll find it is as pop as soda.

Yes, some of today’s country stars are authentic. But only some. Country has become commercial in a big way.

The folks that will be playing at the Pine Barrens Jamboree are authentic. Oh, they may not have been born in poverty, but they remain musically loyal to the old days of country. If you want to hear pop at Wells Mills County Park on Oct. 12, you’re probably going to have to open a can of Coke.

The performers that will be onstage that day are Saturday night regulars at Waretown’s Albert Music Hall, perhaps the finest venue for country, bluegrass, and old-timey music in the entire state of New Jersey. I visited Albert Hall last Saturday to see some of the bands that will be playing at the Jamboree.

Prograsstination, which is scheduled to play from 2:15 through 2:45, p.m., is a seven-member bluegrass group (it was joined by an eighth musician on Saturday). It has a classic bluegrass instrumental lineup: an acoustic bass, a banjo, a couple of mandolins, a couple of acoustic guitars, and a fiddle played by a teen named Liam.

Bluegrass was developed in the 1930s through the 1960s by Bill Monroe, “The Father of Bluegrass Music” (his band, the Bluegrass Boys, was named after the state Monroe was raised in: Kentucky, the Bluegrass State); Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt, best-known for the TV theme song of “The Beverly Hillbillies” and the instrumental “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” featured in the film “Bonnie & Clyde”; the Stanley Brothers; and the Osborne Brothers, who recorded “Rocky Top.”

As the Burns’ documentary shows, by the 1960s bluegrass had pretty much divorced from country, which even at that time was becoming commercialized. Radio stations stopped playing bluegrass records because they were, well, too country. But the sub-genre survived, thanks to the festival circuit and a long-haired revival in the early 1970s, led by the likes of John Hartford – a singer, songwriter, fiddler and banjo player who was a regular on the TV shows of Glen Campbell and the Smothers Brothers, and who wrote Campbell’s hit “Gentle on My Mind” – and bands such as New Grass Revival and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Today bluegrass thrives in certain pockets of the country as well as in central Europe and, of all places, Japan.

Liam’s presence in Prograsstination shows young people can still be attracted to bluegrass music.

Southern Specific will perform from 1:05 to 1:35 p.m. The band was without its drummer when it played at Albert Hall on Saturday, but still put on a show with just a bass and two guitars – plugged-in guitars, electric guitars at that.

Now, through much of the 1950s electric guitars were considered a no-no in country music. The folks who ran the Grand Ole Opry, for example, wouldn’t stand for them. But faced with the rise of rockabilly and performers such as Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly, country music finally gave in.

So Southern Specific, which has been a fixture of the Ocean County country scene for decades, could play songs by Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakum and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Other acts scheduled to perform at the Jamboree include Custom Blend, Gotham City Pickers, Grassland, Cedar Creek, Redbird, George Zeo & Family and Timber Creek.

If people who love bluegrass, old-timey music and country can’t get enough at the Jamboree, they can drive a four miles east on Wells Mills Road to Albert Hall (alongside the Priff Elementary School), which will have its regular Saturday night concert featuring five acts (for a mere $5) starting at 7:30 pm. All the bands will be different from the ones performing at the Jamboree, because Albert Hall can call on a database with about 1,000 amateur and semi-pro acts.

Yep, authentic country and bluegrass lives on in the era of Taylor Swift.

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