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Bluegrass music makes its mark on DeSoto County residents

Fiddlers exchange thoughts about technique in DeSoto County jam sessions. Chelsey Handley/The Daily Mississippian

Music lovers and musicians sit nestled in a tiny, rustic cabin, located in the historic town of Hernando, Miss.  Sounds of fiddles and banjos being plucked fill the cool night air.  Slowly the little cabin is bursting with bluegrass music. 

On any given Thursday night, you will find a group of musicians strumming and sharing laughs as they play a medley of bluegrass favorites in Hernando’s historic downtown area.

  “We hardly ever miss a week that we don’t play,” said Ed Tillman, or “Pretty Eddie” as his band mates call him.  Tillman plays the acoustic guitar, an instrument he says he first learned to play when he was a teenager, after growing up with the sounds of bluegrass filling his childhood home.

“I just love playing bluegrass; it’s in my blood.  My daddy played it to me, and now I get to play it for my children and grandchildren,” said Tillman.

Tillman’s band is made up of a schoolteacher, two veterans of the Vietnam War, a retired lawyer and banker, a parent of two and an electrician. For this group of musicians, bluegrass is more than just a form of music; it is a way of life.

“I first picked up the guitar when I was in college, and that’s been some years now.  But I wouldn’t know what to do with myself, or more importantly, my wife wouldn’t know what to do with me, if I couldn’t come here and play my music,” said Harvey Lee.

Lee also plays the acoustic guitar and says he recently started learning to play the mandolin.

“I tell you, these people have become some of my closest friends, and being able to see them every week is truly a blessing from God,” said Lee.

But while this weekly get-to-together is fun, it also serves a greater purpose.  It is helping expose the town of Hernando to the bluegrass culture, says Kevin Hicks, director and curator of the DeSoto County Museum.  The bluegrass jam sessions are  free and open to the public.

“We’ll play to whoever, whether it’s one person or we fill the place up.  It doesn’t matter we just love to play,” said Andy Williamson, another member of the band.

“A program like this, as impromptu as it is, really allows our town to be exposed to such a classic, American music form,” said Hicks.  “Bluegrass is so deeply rooted in American culture, and specifically to the South.”

Hick said that he hopes bluegrass will grow in importance to the area.

“We believe strongly in passing down a love for bluegrass music onto the next generations. One of our goals here in the near future is to do a school tour and play to many of the elementary and intermediate schools in the DeSoto County area,” said Hicks.

Like jazz and blues, bluegrass can help teach improvisational skills. Hicks. Tillman and Lee also think that students may learn to appreciate the genre more, once they see some connections between today’s country music and bluegrass.  For example, stars like Alison Krauss and Union Station, as well as the fairly new band, Mumford and Sons, have at least a trace of bluegrass in their music.

“Bluegrass runs deep in the hearts of all of us; some of us just don’t know we love it yet,” said Tillman with a smile.

Hernando recently held its annual Water Tower Festival in which Tillman and his group of friends played to a packed lawn outside of the historic courthouse.

“It was a lot of fun, seeing everyone come out and support us,” said Tillman.   “We’ve been doing this for a couple of years now, and it’s exciting to see more and more people come out to see you play.”

The group travels up to Memphis most weekends to play with other bluegrass musicians from the area.  Tillman says it is important that they surround themselves as much as possible with other musicians.  This allows them to learn new songs and techniques that they can bring back home to teach others.

With the support of the community and the persistence of Hicks, this group of musicians, hopes to grow a strong community-based culture of bluegrass fans, educating them on the history of the music.

“If you’ve never been to see a bluegrass musician play, then you’re missing out,” said Lee.  “To watch someone pour their heart and soul into the music that they are making is a quite remarkable.  Everyone should witness that.”