Fiddlin’ in the Bluffs: Take in this weekend’s Bluff Country Gathering

Paul Tyler

The Orpheus Supertones band is made up of Clare Milliner and Walt Koken on fiddles; Peter Peterson on banjo; Kellie Allen on guitar; and Hilary Dirlam on bass

Mark Olitsky (Earl White Stringband member)

Joe DeJarnette (Earl White Stringband member)

Earl White (Earl White Stringband member)

Kate MacLeod and Skip Gorman
By : 
Bob Bovee
For the Bluff Country Reader

Spring has sprung,

Fall has fell,

Summer’s here,

And it’s hot as usual.

Well, at least the first line is true and with spring comes festival season. The Bluff Country Gathering is now in its 21st year with the May 16-19 event, taking place this weekend in historic and scenic Lanesboro.

A celebration of American traditional music and dance, the Bluff Country Gathering brings in master musicians from around the country each year to teach and demonstrate their musical styles to the registered participants who come to partake of this tremendous opportunity, unlike any other in the Midwest.

On Thursday, May 16, staff and registered students show up for a get-acquainted potluck supper and a short concert to familiarize those taking the workshops with what’s to come. On both Friday and Saturday, workshops are held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. focusing on fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, bass, singing and square dance calling. The participants are also given the chance to jam with the master musicians during the day, as well as at late night sessions.

Friday evening, May 17, is the big concert, open to the public with tickets available at the door, at 8 p.m. in the Lanesboro Community Center. All the master musicians on staff, as well as a couple surprise guests, are featured in this performance.

The barn dance is on Saturday night, May 18, also at 8 p.m. at the community center, with old-fashioned square dances and probably a few couples dances. Three different bands from among the master musicians on staff will play over the course of the evening and Paul Tyler from Chicago, a perennial favorite at the Gathering, will teach and call the dances. Participants do not need to have any experience or know how to dance or even bring a partner to enjoy kicking up their heels at this frolic. Admission to the concert is $15 and to the dance is $10.

Earl White Stringband

The Earl White Stringband includes Earl White on fiddle, Mark Olitsky on banjo and Joe DeJarnette on guitar, a powerhouse trio. White and DeJarnette both live in rural Virginia; and Olitsky lives in the Cleveland area. A founding member of the famous Green Grass Cloggers, White has performed all over the country, took up the fiddle in 1975, and in 2018 was honored by the Appalachian Stringband Festival at Clifftop, W.V., as a master of traditional music. He is one of the few African-American old time musicians playing and perpetuating music that was once an important part of black culture and black communities in the U.S.

Known as the “Banjo Wizard of Cleveland,” Olitsky set out to learn bluegrass style, but switched direction when he found old time music. He developed his own distinctive, rhythmic approach to clawhammer banjo, which he has taught for 25 years in Cleveland and at festivals and workshops far and wide. He is also an exceptional artist, casting bronze statues with the “lost wax” process.

DeJarnette runs a recording studio in rural Virginia, a state-of-the-art facility with the purpose of recording traditional music. He is also a sound man for festival and plays bass (hence his nickname “Joe Bass”) and guitar. He has performed with such groups as the Bucking Mules, the Wiyos and with the 2009 Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson tour.

The Orpheus Supertones

The Orpheus Supertones are Clare Milliner and Walt Koken on fiddles; Pete Peterson on banjo; Kellie Allen on guitar; and Hilary Dirlam on bass. All except Dirlam live in Pennsylvania and she lives in North Carolina.

In the 1970s, Koken played with the Highwoods Stringband, a highly successful and influential group that helped spur interest in old time music. They toured coast to coast, as well as around the world on tours sponsored by the U. S. State Department. He is known for both his superb fiddling and exceptional banjo playing.

Milliner played for years with the Cackling Hens and Rooster Too before she eventually teamed up with Koken and they formed the “O’Tones,” as the band is affectionately known. In 2011, the two produced “The Milliner-Koken Collection of American Fiddle Tunes,” a prodigious volume of more than 1,400 tune transcriptions. This book is a monumental project and has received much well-deserved praise. Milliner and Koken performed and taught at the Bluff Country Gathering back in 2005.

Banjo-picker Pete Peterson, besides being a world-class old time finger-style player, is a fine singer with a vast repertoire of vintage songs, both the familiar and obscure, and a guitar player in the thumb-style of Maybelle Carter and Riley Puckett. His banjo playing echoes that of the legendary Charlie Poole, a three-finger method that pre-dates Earl Scruggs and other bluegrass banjoists.

Originally from Kansas, Kellie Allen began playing old time music in her teens with her brother, Greg Allen, a fiddler and banjo player. When Kellie Allen got together with Pete Peterson one of the best duos in old time music was formed. Her exciting guitar backup helps set off their lovely harmony duets of early country songs.

The fifth member of the O’Tones, and the most recent addition to the band, is Hilary Dirlam. She’s a multi-instrumentalist, featured mainly on bass at the Gathering, but equally proficient on guitar, banjo and piano. As all members of the band, Dirlam is an inspired singer who has performed with numerous other groups and has also been the director of the Mars Hill Old Time Music Week in North Carolina for the past 25 years.

Other musicians

Returning to Lanesboro for his second Bluff Country Gathering visit, Skip Gorman is a renowned cowboy singer, fiddler and guitar and mandolin player. He is known for his solo performing and work with the Waddie Pals and the Deseret Stringband, and is now often seen in combination with Kate MacLeod. Traditional songs of the west are the staples of Gorman’s repertoire, but he’s equally adept at southern old time music on any of his three instruments. He lives in New Hampshire and tours widely.

Kate MacLeod, musical partner of Skip Gorman and also a well-respected solo artist, provides sweet fiddle and vocals. Originally from the Washington, D.C., area, MacLeod has been living in Utah for decades. Many will know her primarily as a songwriter and singer, but she has repeatedly been voted “Best Fiddler” in her region by the Intermountain Acoustic Music Association.

Dance caller

The Saturday night barn dance has been a favorite part of the Bluff Country Gathering since the beginning. This year Paul Tyler from Chicago returns to lead the dancers through the square dance figures. A member of the renowned Volo Bogtrotters string band and longtime instructor at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, Tyler is a seasoned and fun square dance caller who will “walk the dancers” through the moves beforehand so that they need not be afraid to get out and shake a leg with the rest of the crowd. 


People interested in attending workshops need to register in advance. The cost is $225 for the whole weekend, including two days of workshops, the Thursday evening concert, Friday and Saturday lunches, Sunday brunch, and the two public events, the concert and barn dance.

For more information, one can check the website by going to and clicking on the button for Bluff Country Gathering or call 507-498-5452. There are no advance tickets sold for the concert or barn dance, only at the door, but there’s plenty of room!