Mary Burdette’s personal history of bluegrass

Nice posts about your bluegrass “inductions” everyone. Here’s mine.

Mary BurdetteFor me it all happened in the summer of 1977. Pretty much all I was listening to was jazz and blues: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Billie Holliday, Cedar Walton, Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Stan Getz, etc. and all the blues greats (B.B. King and all them).

Then a friend asked me to go to a bluegrass festival. Not really knowing what that was, I said, “Sure.” It turned out to be the Berkshire Mountain Bluegrass Festival on the Rothvoss Farm. We parked up behind where the teepee has been for the last several years. No problem finding a spot. I got out of the car and heard this amazing music coming from the stage. I hurried in that direction until I could see what was going on. Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys were performing and the sound was pure magic. I didn’t know what bluegrass was, but I knew that I loved what I was hearing. It was instant addiction. An epiphany.

I walked around that weekend about three feet off the ground, knowing that my life was different, but not knowing exactly how. I couldn’t wait for the next year’s festival, so I wrote a note to Nancy Talbot and offered to help spread the word.

A few years later I was walking along the street in Herkimer, NY and went past a barber shop. The door was open and live music was wafting out the door. I did a quick double-take and went in, introduced myself and listened for a while. They told me about the every-other-Wednesday night jams at the barber shop and invited me to come listen. I was teaching Special Education at the time and for weeks, I’d sit in the corner on Wednesday nights, correct papers and tap my foot to the music. I loved it. You never knew who’d show up.

Sometimes it was great and sometimes it was wasn’t so great, but nobody really cared. They had fun and so did I.

Then one night the usual stand-up bass player didn’t show up and there was no one to play bass. They looked around and pointed to me and said, “Mary, come up here. We’ll show you what to do and we’ll play in G all night.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, and I knew nothing about the bass, but they coached me and at the end of the night, they stuffed the bass into my car and said, “Take this home.

Play along to Del McCoury and Bob Paisley records and come back in two weeks. Ya got Del and Bob at home? If not, we’ll loan you some.”

I was thrilled!

Needless to say, every night and all weekend long I’d play along and try to figure out the keys and chord progressions. I must have done something right cuz after the next session they sent me home with the bass again and said I was doing fine.

The rest is history. Now I play in a couple of bands, have played bass on several CDs, and along with a huge bunch of wonderful folks, am happy to help make Grey Fox & Rhythm&Roots happen. And I have an enormous family that goes way beyond my own blood relatives. When I think of what might have happened if I hadn’t gone to “a bluegrass festival” with my friend back in the summer of 1977, it simply boggles my mind.

Who knew???

My taste in bluegrass today is all over the place – everything from old time to newgrass, but my favorite bluegrass singer is still Ralph.

That’s what happened to me. My life sure is different than when I first went to the Rothvoss Farm!

— Mary