Missoula is the Place for Bluegrass Music


Wanna Jam?   Missoulians, You are SO in luck.

It’s a bit ironic that in the digital age you can learn old time bluegrass over the Internet. YouTube videos and Internet mandolin instruction kept me busy for the first year or so with my new instrument.

I practiced in my living room, learning chords and a batch of fiddle tunes.  After that year,  I started yearning to make live music with others. Trouble was, I didn’t have a clue how to go about it, and the Internet was no help.

Missoula’s the Place for Bluegrass. 

Missoula has a great bluegrass scene.  I can easily count 15 area bands playing bluegrass, and we have a ton of great musicians.  The Montana Rockies Bluegrass Association (MRBA)   is the hub for area bluegrass festivals, camp-outs and jams.

Everyone doesn’t have it so good. “Here in Idaho Falls there is no bluegrass scene. I usually tell people that there are only five people in our area who play bluegrass, and they are all in our band!” says Fred Frank of New South Fork.  Fred, his wife Emily and fellow band-mates routinely make the long drive to Montana to jam with area bluegrass musicians.

Jamming is the Key to Bluegrass. (But those first few jams can be intimidating!)

Montana Rockies Bluegrass Association Winter Jam SeriesEven in a town with a great bluegrass scene, learning to jam isn’t all that easy.   When I mustered the courage to join my first jam I was totally psyched out.  People seemed to be following unspoken rules and communicate in a language that I didn’t understand.

Things were happening faster than I expected. Bad habits I’d developed practicing alone were exposed. After all my effort, my first jam was a big let down.

Montana Rockies Bluegrass Association President Phyllis Erck recounts her initial jamming challenges.  “I’ll never forget the frustration and humiliation I felt when first learning to jam with others.  One time I remember watching the tears dropping onto the cover plate of my dobro as I attempted to take a break (solo) but was paralyzed with fear the instant it came around to my turn.”

Slow Pitch Jam to the Rescue!

I had my first great jam experience at the Sorrento Bluegrass Workshop in British Columbia.   Workshop organizer Sue Malcolm years ago recognized that there are lots of people like me who really want to play bluegrass, but don’t have enough experience to jump into a hot jam.   Her solution was to create the Slow Pitch Jam.  From Sue’s website: “Slow Pitch Jam is a unique opportunity for beginners to learn the basics of jamming. A structured setting, patient and knowledgeable leaders and safety in numbers is a perfect way for beginners to experience the sheer joy of making music in a group.”

After a few hours of slow pitch jamming, I learned that a bluegrass jam does indeed have a language and rules!

Montana Rockies Bluegrass Association Winter Jam SeriesWhile they can seem rigid at first glance, this common bluegrass language and  “jam etiquette” allows bluegrass musicians to jam with folks from all over the world, even if they’ve never met before.  That night I made connections with friendly musicians, and off we went to start our own little jam. I had a blast.

Since then I’ve returned to Sorrento several times. This summer I took a class with Jeremy Freeman from Surrey BC.  He plays killer Bill Monroe style mandolin and says.  “It would’ve taken me years to learn what a few slow pitch jam sessions taught me. The slow pitch jams started me playing bluegrass and showed me a whole world of music being played.”

My Sorrento campground neighbor, bass player and vocalist Kathy Ferguson from Parsons, BC says “Slow pitch jams are so good for learning repertoire and etiquette and get you well prepared for jumping into those late night cross-border encounters of the good kind.”

Slow Pitch Comes to Missoula.

Starting this January,  MRBA is adding a slow pitch jam to it’s Ruby’s Inn winter jam series.   We want to make this a fun, supportive and positive experience for everyone, even total beginners!  Our goal is to get you started on the right foot and save you lots of trial and error learning.  To get a sense of what we are hoping to create watch Sue’s Video below. (Thank you Sue!)

When:  Saturdays  Jan 14, Feb 11,  Mar 10  Jamming starts at 2pm, Slow Pitch Jam at 3:00-4:30pm, Potluck at 5:30 then more jamming into the wee hours.

Where:  Ruby’s  Inn and Convention Center on North Reserve.

Cost:  Check it out for FREE.  If you have fun and want come back,  we ask you to join the Montana Rockies Bluegrass Association. $10 individual $15 family per year. You can sign up at Ruby’s the day of the jam or mail in the form from our website.

Members get our newsletter and discounts to association events.

New South Fork Bluegrass Band and Montana Friends on stage at a local Bluegrass FestivalWhat do I bring?  Your accoustic guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, Dobro and/or bass.  A capo for playing in multiple keys is recommended.  You are welcome to join our potluck dinner (bring main dish/salad/or dessert).

What if I’m an intermediate or advance player?  Please come!  We need you to share your knowledge with new folks, plus this is a great place to warm up, meet some new musicians, and help fill out the “ensemble”.

Or consider bringing your “second” or “third” instrument and take advantage of playing at our slower pace, then stick around for more jamming after dinner.

What if I want to just come and listen?  Yep!  We have both “Pickers” and “Grinners” in MRBA.  Please come, join our potluck, stay as long as you like and enjoy some great bluegrass music!

The Internet is awesome for it’s ability to connect us with great music, but when you are ready start connecting your bluegrass music with other live musicians, take advantage of Missoula’s hot bluegrass scene and join us.

Photos:   Indoors, Montana Rockies Bluegrass Association Winter Jam Series at Ruby’s Inn and Convention Center.

Outdoors.    Bluegrass Jam at a MRBA sponsored campout.

New South Fork Bluegrass Band and Montana Friends on Stage at a local Bluegrass Festival.


Get another dose of the Missoula music scene in these posts: Bluegrass Music Growing in the Garden City, A Marriage of Music, and Missoula’s Own David Boone.


Mark Vosburgh is a fourth-generation Montanan who has lived in Missoula for 26 years. He’s worked as chemical engineer, backcountry ski guide, and wildfire scientist. He started playing mandolin and attending bluegrass jams a few years and has just started performing with local bands: The Black Mountain Boys, Alleycats Bluegrass Band, and The Flaming Wheelbarrows.