Tuesday, March 28, 2023

A Local Ensemble Gives the Gift of Bluegrass

Tripp Johnson and some member of the Appalachian Music Ensemble with W&M President Katherine Rowe after a performance at the Earl Gregg Swem Library in 2019. (William & Mary Alumni Magazine/ Skipp Rowland)

WILLIAMSBURG — For more than a decade, groups of students from the College of William & Mary have been getting together on a weekly basis to learn, appreciate and play an old and often overlooked genre of music: bluegrass.

The group, known officially as the Appalachian Music Ensemble, is led by director and career musician, Tripp Johnson. Tripp says that the group of undergrads which comes to his class every semester is varied in their musical backgrounds.

The range of students are from classically trained violinists who have taken lessons since they were children to people with acoustic guitars who have learned to play through YouTube videos. Regardless of their backgrounds, Tripp is eager to share his knowledge of and love for bluegrass.

“Some of them already have a background in this music, they know what’s up,” Tripp said about his students. “They are there to learn more and and build upon that. Some folks come in with no clue. I love both. It is exciting to turn someone on to this music.”

For Tripp, the ensemble combines his two passions: bluegrass and teaching.

Starting out as a guitarist in garage bands during his youth, Tripp decided to get serious about music and studied jazz guitar at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).

“I went down the rabbit hole with it,” he says of his formal musical education. “I got into it very deeply and took it very seriously. Then I got out of school and realized the old joke that there are literally tens of dollars to be made playing jazz.”

With that realization, Tripp began giving lessons and working as a “hired gun” guitarist for a slew of different kinds of bands. During that time, he found himself drawn more and more to that old style of music.

“I was drawn to Appalachian music, bluegrass music, that kind of thing. But I was not playing it,” he said. “My family was always telling me that that’s the music I should have been playing. But I was young and dumb and thought I was way too cool for all of that.”

Eventually, Tripp came to accept his calling to the genre. He married his wife, Jenny, and, together, they started a weekly jam session near their home in Richmond at the Cary St. Café, which lasted for more than a decade and half.

During that time, Tripp started picking up other instruments, like the mandolin, which complimented the bevy of guitars that would frequent the local jam sessions.

Another byproduct of the weekly jam sessions was the formation of Tripp and Jenny’s band, The Cary Street Ramblers, which plays shows in and around the Richmond area.

By 2009, Tripp became so accomplished as a mandolin player that W&M offered him a job as an ensemble director and its mandolin instructor.

Since then, he took a program that originally had nine musicians in its ensemble to one that boasted around fifty members just before the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, Tripp says that the pandemic initially set back the program a little. Thanks to some creative pivoting, the ensemble is beginning to find its rhythm again.

Meeting in small groups over Zoom and rehearsing in the Muscarelle Museum of Art. By rehearsing in this museum space, the musicians are able to socially distance while still playing together as a group.

Traditionally, the Appalachian Music Ensemble gives several performances a year as well as hosting a dance. The musicians also usually break out into smaller groups and perform around the community on a regular basis.

“I think the students are having a great time playing music that is a little more hands on,” Tripp says of the program’s success. “It is not sitting at a computer punching keys and making sounds. You are creating handmade music and that is an increasingly rare thing. I think everyone can benefit form that.”

If you are interested watching the ensemble perform, the Appalachian Music Ensemble’s 2021 spring semester performance is posted on the Muscarelle Museum of Art’s YouTube channel.

Anyone who would like more information on the program or is interested in lessons for the mandolin, guitar or banjo, contact Tripp Johnson at wrjohnson@wm.edu.

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