An article by Bluegrass disk jockey and reporter Aaron Harris
If you have an ear for music and happened to be strolling along the sidewalk in Wilmette on a humid night in June, you could have easily stumbled upon a nice surprise. Near the corner of Wilmette Avenue and Central Avenue stands C.J. Arthur’s, a nice little restaurant serving American fare. Had the door been open as you passed by, you would have caught a few bars of a distinctively American musical style, but one that might be thought out of place in a region better known for the blues.
Passing by the bar – actually a 1920’s drugstore marble soda fountain – and into the friendly dining room, you would have to walk directly in front of the four musicians entertaining a crowd of about 30. But you wouldn’t have to cover your ears since they are all playing acoustic instruments and are a modest sound system with just three microphones grouped on a single stand.
It’s bluegrass music Monday night at C.J. Arthur’s and the band is Whistle Pig. For those who don’t speak Southern, whistle pig is another name for a groundhog.
Upright bassist Dave Dillman, of Ingleside, and banjoist Mark Aymar, of Chicago, played together in another band and then founded Whistle Pig on September 11, 2001. Along with newer members and Chicago residents fiddler Martha Murphy and guitarist and mandolinist Dave Bagdade they perform at 8 p.m. the first, third and fifth Monday of each month at C.J. Arthur’s.
Some have called it “white blues” or “hillbilly jazz”. Musical folklorist Alan Lomax termed it “folk music in overdrive”. In a 1965 article in the Journal of American Folklore, Mayne Smith defined bluegrass music as “a style of concert hillbilly music performed by a highly integrated ensemble of voice and non-electrified stringed instruments, including a banjo played Scruggs-style.”
The genre got its name from its founder, Kentucky native Bill Monroe, and his band, the Blue Grass Boys, who recorded the first bluegrass sides in 1946. In addition to Monroe’s high lonesome singing and lightning-fast mandolin playing, early bluegrass fans were amazed by the innovative three-finger banjo roll of Blue Grass Boy Earl Scruggs.
But why is a quartet of Chicago-area professionals playing and singing in this old-fashioned sounding style with strong rural roots? And why has this crowd turned out on a Monday night just to hear them?
Language teacher Aymar, who also plays guitar and resonator guitar, moved to Chicago about eight years ago and was attracted to the music programs at the Old Town School of Folk Music. He said he decided to take Scruggs-style banjo lessons because he always liked the sound of Scruggs’s banjo on the Beverly Hillbillies theme. “I took lessons for about a year,” Aymar said. “I really wanted to [play like Scruggs].”
Dillman, who produces corporate videos and repairs and sells instruments, began playing folk-style banjo and guitar during “the great folk scare” of the 1960’s then switched to classical guitar. “I had always liked bluegrass,” Dillman said. “But I never tried to play it.” Not until Aymar invited him to join a bluegrass band as a bassist.
“Classical guitar, for the most part, is fairly simple harmonically. In that regard, bluegrass is fairly similar” said Dillman, explaining his transition to bluegrass.
“I’ve listened to [bluegrass] for years,” said Meg Ennis, a junior at the University of California, Santa Cruz who is home in Wilmette for the summer “Most of my friends like bluegrass,” said Ennis, who has been playing guitar since the age of 14 and is currently learning mandolin.
Northwestern University juniors Sarah Peters, a film major, and Andrea Baker, an art and psychology major, rode their bicycles from Evanston to catch the show. “A bunch of my friends are secretly into bluegrass,” Peters said. “I think it’s perceived as super cool.”
Baker has been a bluegrass fan since hearing bands like Nickel Creek and Alison Krauss + Union Station in high school. “I like the way it can be easily picked up,” said Baker, who is learning to play banjo.
Around 9:45 p.m. Whistle Pig starts their last number of the evening, an audience request for “Ashokan Farewell”, a somber fiddle tune used as theme music for the PBS film The Civil War. Just as Murphy reaches the haunting dénouement, a pile of glasses noisily hits the floor in the back of the restaurant. Unfazed, Whistle Pig completes the tune to the delight of the dozen or so who remain.
While Dillman and Aymar are packing up, Murphy and Bagdade tell me why Whistle Pig is especially important to them. “Today is our nine-month anniversary as a couple,” said Bagdade, a bluegrass player for 22 years. Bagdade and Murphy met after they separately joined Whistle Pig.
Murphy learned different fiddle styles growing up in Nova Scotia, but actively disliked bluegrass for years. “My friends dragged me kicking and screaming into it,” said Murphy, who, standing arm-in-arm with Bagdade, now seems very happy they did.