Pickin' and clippin' in Westminster Bluegrass fanciers gather at barber's

December 28, 1992|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Staff Writer

Barbara McCourt was reluctant when the band's bass player wanted to take a break and chose her to take his place.

"You play bass?" asked Carroll Swam, of Lineboro.

Mrs. McCourt, from Eldersburg, demurred.

"Well, do you hold the bass?" he asked.

He handed the instrument to her and sank into one of the few chairs left in the anteroom of Charlie's Barber Shop at 18 Pennsylvania Ave. in Westminster.

In the space available at the barber shop, 15 people is a crowd. And it gets crowded when the pickers and grinners gather every Thursday night. The music is usually bluegrass, occasionally country or acoustic guitar.

Mrs. McCourt tentatively plucked the strings of Mr. Swam's bass.

"It's only been about eight years since I played bass," she said. But she was soon joining in.

Although the players may stop when their fingers get sore, the music goes continuously until the session is done, usually for two hours or more.

The shop's regular business doesn't stop, either. Customers can get a haircut to the strains of "The water rose high, on the river at midnight. I sit on the shore, too grievin' to cry" from "Lonesome River."

Shop owner and guitarist Charlie Kapraun says he never knows who's going to show up for the weekly pickin' parties. He started the gatherings simply by passing the word among friends when he opened the shop in May 1991.

"It's totally democratic," Mr. Kapraun says. "The only stipulation is, I don't allow any drinking."

Most of the sessions are open to anyone who wants to play, although Mr. Kapraun sometimes invites professional bands for what he calls "guest nights." On guest nights, the chance to pick is limited to band members or those who get special invitations.

Mrs. McCourt could handle a special invitation. She's been around the local music scene since she moved to Sykesville 19 years ago, walked downtown with her 3-year-old daughter and heard bluegrass coming from Jim's Barber Shop on Main Street.

The barber invited her to join, "since I did some pickin'," she recalls. She plays six- and 12-string guitar, bass, harmonica, autoharp "and keyboard if I have to."

She also sings with "New Country Revival," a country rock band.

In the 1970s, bluegrass boomed in Sykesville. Crowds of up t160 overflowed the barber shop and spilled into the street.

An offshoot of the group formed the Sykesville Bluegrass and Country Music Association, which still exists, but the bluegrass gatherings at the barber shop ended in 1982.

Mr. Kapraun is an alumnus both of Jim's Barber Shop, where he worked, and the pickin,' where he played guitar. He had a band for a time, called "Four Ounces of Grass," until his priorities became work and family, and playing in the band consumed more time than he was willing to devote.

But he always thought that when he got his own barber shop, he'd like to have people get together to play bluegrass every week.

Mrs. McCourt's 3-year-old is now 22 and plays bass with a group at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

"This music was infectious," Mrs. McCourt says. "It enveloped whole families."

It's infectious and fun, but a it's tough way to make a living. Most of the members of Jeff Presley and South Central Bluegrass, a band that played at one recent guest night, have full-time jobs. One is a teacher, one a plumber and one a heavy-equipment operator. One is laid off from a Gettysburg, Pa., elevator manufacturing company, and one is a college student.

Bluegrass and country share mountain music roots. But "country is where the money is," says Charlene Knode, co-owner of the Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe in Catonsville.

"There's no money in bluegrass. Any bluegrass player you talk to will tell you that," she said.

Mrs. Knode said bluegrass has been in a picker slump. Only two Baltimore area clubs regularly offer bluegrass now, she said.

Before Appalachian Bluegrass temporarily discontinued its Wednesday night jam sessions in June, attendance had shrunk from an average of 50 or 60 a decade ago to about five.

Tim Heflin used to play and sing at Appalachian Bluegrass. Two months ago, he ran into a friend who told him about the Westminster group, so he began driving from his job at Hunt Valley for the sessions, then back home to Woodlawn. He says it's worth the trip.

"I've been listening to this type of music since I was 7 years old," he explains. That was 28 years ago, but he never tired of it.

Neither did Jim Persinger, who lives around the corner from the barber shop.

L He plays rhythm guitar and comes to the sessions every week.

xTC "I'm not good enough to play professionally," says Mr. Persinger, technician for a Randallstown television service.

But he has deep bluegrass roots in West Virginia, where his father played guitar and sang on radio stations, and he grew up listening to the music.

Ken Taylor of Westminster shared a similar experience. He plays guitar and mandolin. He started playing when he was 6. Now he's 69.

Bluegrass is "something you've got to like," he said. "You grow up with it, I guess."

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