First Posted: 1/15/2009
LUMBERTON -- Roger Sessoms' and Wilbur Britt's awakening to bluegrass music came long before “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” They were bluegrass when bluegrass wasn't anything close to mainstream cool.
Although the award-winning film and soundtrack has brought bluegrass into America's living rooms and automobiles, Sessoms and Britt would like to expand the genre's presence in Robeson County.
Six months ago, Sessoms and Britt decided to establish a bluegrass association in Robeson County, an effort they hope will lead to music festivals and events where professional and amateur musicians can play, and exchange ideas and concepts.
According to the visionary pair, nothing sells bluegrass like live performances.
“You've got to see and hear it to be fully exposed,” said Britt, who recently retired from the insurance and financial services business after 40 years.
He remembers the day he was flattened by a mix of guitar, banjo, mandolin, upright bass and fiddle. The traditional form does not use electric instruments or drums.
“It was Thanksgiving 1972 at the South Carolina Bluegrass Festival in Myrtle Beach,” Britt said. “That was when I got a first introduction and also became hooked. Well, maybe I got totally hooked the next year at a fiddlers convention in Union Grove.”
Sessoms, a retired state revenue officer, began tapping his toes to the bluegrass groove a little earlier. Growing up in the cotton mill town of Erwin, Sessoms' father, Raymond, could play any instrument with strings and was kind enough to show his tricks to anyone in the neighborhood.
“He taught Butterball Page, who became the lead guitarist for Ernest Tubb,” Sessoms said. “Dad probably taught everyone I knew except me. But you couldn't help but becoming hooked on music around him. After the War (WW II), we started going to shows again.”
The 15-member board of the Southeastern Bluegrass Association hopes to begin its showtime in Lumberton by Jan. 2003, if not sooner. They are attempting to raise $10,000 by securing charter members for $10O pledges. After two organizational meetings and some pavement pounding, 30 members have signed on to the program.
Britt is the president, Harold Jackson is vice president, Claude Barnette is the treasurer and Bruce Skinner is secretary. Charlie Caulder, who is connected with the Florence Bluegrass Association, has joined Sessoms on the steering committee.
They will try to establish bylaws for the non-profit organization during a June 22 meeting at the Chamber of Commerce. A membership drive will begin in July. Family rates are $25. Individuals can join for $15. Discounts and other perks will be provided to all contributors. The group is also seeking corporate sponsors.
So far, few have said no, perhaps because of the red-hot nature of bluegrass.
“We'd like to see it kick off sometime in the fall, but we've got a commitment at Southeastern Agriculture center for the fourth Saturday every month starting in 2003,” Sessoms said. “But we'd really like to have some concerts before then. We're trying to find places where they may donate space or provide it at a reasonable rate. But yes, we're ready to move on this.”
Sessoms and Britt, who worked together for years in the Jay Cees, have attended bluegrass gatherings regionally nearly as long. They're now ready for the traveling to stop and the music to be played in their backyards.
“It's good, clean family entertainment you can't beat,” Britt said. “Once we have our operating capital we'll be ready to roll and that's coming along real well.
Britt grew up in Long Branch and learned to play despite being told on more than one occasion that his fingers were too short. He goes to many other places for music, including trips to Pate's Place in Fayetteville, a covered shed where down-home bluegrass jams saturate the Carolina air like thick barbecue sauce.
Legend has it that bluegrass originated in the hills of the Carolinas, Virginia and Tennessee. Many believe it was the late Bill Monroe, known to many as “The Father of Bluegrass,” who was most instrumental in its creation. Fifty years ago, Monroe brought the form to the Grand Ole Opry. In the 1940s, he added words to the music to produce such classics as “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Uncle Pen.”
He spurred the coming of artists like Stringbean, Earl Scruggs, Earl Flatt, Mack Wiseman, Sonny Osborn, Jimmy Martin and countless others. Monroe was inducted into the country music Hall of Fame in 1970.
Ralph Stanley, who made his first recording in Raleigh in 1947, is the current king of bluegrass. But big-time commercial success has been tough to come by for most bluegrass musicians. Stanley's only huge hit was the novelty number, “How Far to Little Rock,” which made it into the top-20 in 1960.
But bluegrass isn't about stars and hits, it's about the music and fellowship of the common man, an atmosphere Southeast Bluegrass Association wants to foster.
“Doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs are beginning to appreciate and enjoy the tradition of the music,” Sessoms said. “Fans are coming out of the woodwork.”
Britt thinks that is a trend that will continue.
“It's got something for everyone, and at our jam sessions you'll find something for everyone in the family,” he said. “To me, the music is about the harmony and instruments. The movement, as such, is for everyone.”