Marvin Pine — bassist for the Bluestem Band, the headliners for the Bluegrass at the Lake concert June 16 — described what it was like when the band nails a song in front of an enthusiastic audience.
“If you’re an athlete and on a team, and you win,” he said. “It’s a great feeling.”
The fiddle, banjo, guitar, and bass collective have honed their sound over the past 20 years. In that time, Bluestem has played the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield 15 times. Jim Rood on fiddle, Keith Alberding on banjo, and Rick Marshall on guitar, and Pine have tightened their harmonies, arranged the music, created the right balance of slow and fast songs to create peaks and valleys in the show, and developed a playful rapport. If one member makes a mistake, a guitar player forgets to put on a capo for a certain song, they can either quickly cover it up or make a joke about it.
“We really count on and feed off each other,” Pine said.
As enthralling as it is to play in front of an engaged audience, it was equally nerve racking the first time Bluestem took the stage.
“We won’t do anything in public before it’s tight,” Pine said.
Every band member has 30 years or more of experience in traditional bluegrass bands. That is the foundation of Bluestem’s music, but the band was crafting something different, a combination of multiple styles of music.
They took the harmonies prevalent in Western classics like “Cool Water”, “Tumble Weed”, and “Ghost Rider in the Sky” and supported them with bluegrass arrangements — fiddle and banjo front and center.
Bluestem also planned on incorporating pop songs and humoristic cowboy poetry into their performances.
Pine said the Beattles were at their best when they incorporated vocal harmonies, making their songs “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Ticket to Ride” proper stylistic fits for the band. Pine said vocals are Bluestem’s strength; each singing in a different range, Alberding, Marshall, and Rood all take turns singing lead parts.
Despite the snug fit, it is another matter to perform those songs infront of people.
Pine, the band’s cowboy poet, said he knew spoken word pieces should be used sparingly.
“It gets old quick,” he said.
That first Bluestem audience responded favorably to the unique musical stew. It has inspired the band to refine their music with bimonthly practices in their home town of Lawrence. They have no tried to please crowds numbering in the thousands at festivals and a couple dozen music lovers at parties.
Pine never intended for Bluestem to become a full-time gig; Alberding who works as an EMT in Lawrence and Marshall who works as an emergency room nurse are unlikely to quit their day jobs. However, they are planning to continue to jam and play together for all types of crowds.
“The bottom line is, why we’re still together is that it is still fun,”
Miller’s Mule Band, the band that will play before Bluestem at 6 p.m. on June 16 at Marion County Lake has a similar musical philosophy.
“Our sound is reminiscent of the music that has been made for generation on the front porches of rural folks from the Kansas prairies,” mandolin player Harlen Depew said. “A Miller’s Mule performance will usually have a base of traditional bluegrass songs, a handful of folk tunes, a few gospel numbers, and a little bit of the unexpected, like something from Bob Dylan for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.”
Miller’s Mule Band employs six bluegrass instruments — guitar, fiddle, five-string banjo, mandolin, dobro, and bass fiddle.
“A really exciting aspect of playing live music is how each musician contributes their own unique blend of musical backgrounds and influences,” Depew said. “When all of these influences come together, something magical happens.”