DECATUR — They don’t play ‘em like they used to, except on the second Sunday of every month, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. out at Decatur’s Rock Springs Nature Center.
The Bluegrass Music Jam has a tradition that plucks the mystic chords of memory back some 40 years and ranges beyond bluegrass to include a rich sampling of American country roots music.
The number and variety of musicians playing any monthly gig is kind of just down to who shows up clutching what instrument, with Sunday’s ensemble featuring seven or eight players at any one time and an age range of 14 into the 70s. The players work together to bend the music around widely varying skill levels and Stephen Willoughby, a Decatur lawyer by day, did a brave job trying to keep up with seasoned guitarist John Stevens in an impromptu stab at “Dueling Banjos” as made famous in the “Deliverance” movie.
Willoughby’s flashing fingers did their best but he had to admit later, “there times there when I got lost.” The 71-year-old who started playing at his grandfather’s knee said he knows he needs to practice more than just the law. “And if I do practice it (“Dueling Banjos”) for a while, I’ll know I’ll be able to play it,” he added, making a strong case for himself.
Willoughby is a great advocate for the joys of music made locally and said the crowd listening Sunday — for free — could be served a feast of bluegrass without the musicians having to kill themselves to play it.
“Well, like one guy said about it, with four chords you can play 3,000 or 4,000 bluegrass songs,” said Willoughby with a smile. “The songs are usually fairly simple with a a little gospel influence in them."
John Stevens, who heads his own band, Cactus Ranch, never gets tired of performing at Rock Springs. “It’s pure, it’s natural, pure and natural, and you don’t need any big amplifiers and you don’t need electricity, you just need a guitar, a fiddle and some feeling, and that‘s all you need,” said Stevens, 56.
There was an audience of more than 60 for Sunday’s jam and they included several members of the Funk family who came to see 14-year-old Christian Funk from Decatur play guitar and sing.
“He’s my grandson, so I enjoy a chance to see him but I also like this kind of music — it’s relaxing and its fun,” said Jeanna Funk, in town from her home in Oregon (the Illinois city).
Christian’s Mom, Sarah Funk, said her son is probably more comfortable with the Pearl Jam songbook but she says he has a fine ear for all good music and she thinks it’s important to learn to be versatile. “Bluegrass isn’t necessarily his first love, but I want him to be able to adapt to any situation,” she said.
“And it’s nice to get him out of his comfort zone; as for me, bluegrass is one of my favorites.”