Bluff Country Gathering celebrates 20 years

Tom Sauber and his son, Patrick, are joined by Mark Graham to create the musical group The Brainstormers.

Sue Hulsether will be the caller at the barn dance on Saturday evening.

iddle masters Marc Janssen and his mentor, Al Murphy, will be featured performers at the classes offered this weekend as well as the public events on Friday evening and Saturday evening.

Rafe Stefanini will be joined by his daughter, Clelia, at the Bluff Country Gathering this year.

The Traynham family will be one of the featured musical groups performing this weekend in Lanesboro. The band includes Hanna Traynham on banjo, playing with her parents, Jenny and Mac Traynham.

This year, 2018, marks the 20th year the Bluff Country Gathering in Lanesboro. Through the years, the festival has featured some of the great masters of American traditional music.

This weekend, May 17-20, the festival returns and will once again provide many opportunities to celebrate great American music performed by some of the countries most masterful performers.

The festival was the brainchild of the late Gail Heil, who felt the upper Midwest needed a camp, like ones being held in other parts of the country, where aspiring fiddlers, banjo players, and other musicians could come together with these masters to learn to play old time music.

Since that first Gathering in 1999, hundreds of players have come from all across the U.S. and in turn carried the music on to play it and teach it to others. The great players who have come as teachers have included at least five National Heritage Award recipients, this being the highest honor awarded to folk artists in this country.

The dates this year are May 17-20 with a concert on Friday, May 18, and a barn dance on Saturday, May 19, both of which are held in the Lanesboro Community Center and are open to the public. During the days on Friday and Saturday, workshops will be held on such topics as clawhammer and finger-style banjo, fiddle including various regional styles, mandolin, guitar, harmonica, harmony singing, square dance calling and more.

Aimed primarily at enhancing the abilities and knowledge of those already playing traditional music, there are also workshops for beginners. These workshop sessions are open only to the registered students who pay for the whole weekend.

The definition of “tradition” is the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way. The 2018 Bluff Country Gathering’s theme this year is “Passing Down the Tradition” and this is meant to be taken in a couple ways, noted organizer Bob Bovee.

The registered participants are, of course, receiving instruction in traditional music, but the roster of masters this year also includes two generations of families where the music has been passed directly at home. 

Rafe Stefanini grew up in Italy and developed a love for American old time and bluegrass music. After learning to play exceptional fiddle and banjo, he moved to the U.S. and has become one of the leaders in the revival of old time string band music. Among the influential bands that Rafe has been a part of are the Wildcats, the L-7s (with Dirk Powell and Bruce Molsky), Big Hoedown (with Molsky and Beverly Smith) and the Rockinghams. Rafe also makes and restores fiddles. His daughter, Clelia Stefanini, was raised in a household filled with old time music and musicians and has become an outstanding fiddler, guitarist and singer. In 2013 Clelia won the open fiddle division at the prestigious Appalachian String Band Contest in Cliff Top, W.V. Rafe lives in Pennsylvania; Clelia in Nashville.

The Brainstormers are Tom Sauber and his son, Patrick, who live in southern California and Mark Graham who resides in Washington state. Tom is a master musician in a variety of styles, a multi-instrumentalist (banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin) and singer, well grounded in tradition, with a comprehensive grasp of style and an exceptional ability to teach.

Patrick’s fiery and inventive guitar, banjo, mandolin and accordion playing, along with his fine harmony singing, have made him welcome on stage not only with old time players, but also with premier bluegrass bands like Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands.

The third member of the Brainstormers, Mark Graham, plays harmonica in a powerful but lyrical, blues-tinged style that recalls the feel of the finest banjo and fiddle playing. He’s also an amazing songsmith known for compositions that could be characterized as “surreal mountain hilarity,” but also quite capable of producing works of great pathos.

Growing up in rural Southwestern Virginia in a family steeped in old time music, Hanna Traynham learned to play banjo from her father on a banjo he made when she was born. She loves to sing unrefined duets of old gospel music and lonesome traditional ballads along with her parents, Mac and Jenny Traynham. She now lives in Portland, Ore.

Mac is an accomplished fiddler, banjo and harmonica player as well as a fine guitarist and singer and is well-known for the hand-crafted banjos he builds. Jenny plays clawhammer banjo with a strong sense of rhythm, solid old time back-up guitar and is a fine singer. In addition, Jenny is a fine artist, a painter of great skill. Mac and Jenny were previously at the Bluff Country Gathering and Mac has also appeared in Minnesota with the Sunny Mountain Serenaders. Influenced by well-known and obscure musicians of the past, they have played tunes and sung old songs together for over 30 years and, with Hanna joining them, the form the quintessential old time string band.

Somewhat a legend, particularly in the Midwest, Al Murphy has been collecting and playing fiddle tunes since the 1960s. He knew, learned from and played with such fiddlers as Lyman Enloe, Kenny Baker, Delbert Spray and Gene Goforth, banjoists Art Rosenbaum and Bob Black. He, along with his wife, Aleta, has been a member of numerous old time and bluegrass bands. Al’s protégé, Marc Janssen, has been learning many of the obscure tunes from Al, another fine example of tradition at work. Marc plays fiddle, mandolin, guitar, performing old time music with his wife, Brandi, in bluegrass and country bands and teaching music. Both Marc and Al live in Iowa City, Iowa. 

The Friday night concert will feature all these masters, plus some surprises, all wonderful old time music and showing how this music has been handed from one generation to the next.

Most of the staff musicians will also be playing for the Saturday night barn Dance with caller Sue Hulsether. Sue is an experienced and exciting square dance caller from southwestern Wisconsin. She’ll teach each dance beforehand, and, if one is an inexperienced dancer, each will get the hang of it quick enough, so no experience is necessary.

The concert tickets are $15 and the barn dance is $10, both available at the door. For those who want to register for the whole weekend and attend the workshops, cost is $225.

“The Bluff Country Gathering is an event not to be missed. The town of Lanesboro is a perfect place for a festival like this, said Bovee. “It’s a town that makes you feel like you have stepped back in time. Just walking around town, enjoying the jamming that goes on everywhere, makes the trip worthwhile!”

For more information on the Bluff Country Gathering or to register, check out the website at or call 507-498-5452.