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Country Scene | Meet the teens keeping bluegrass music alive in Southern Illinois
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Country Scene

Country Scene | Meet the teens keeping bluegrass music alive in Southern Illinois

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Kaye Watson is not a demanding parent intent of strictly imposing her will on her children. Instead, she tries to gently nudge them in the right direction.

Watson comes from a family of music lovers. Not professional musicians, these are folks that just love listening to all kinds of music (though predominately traditional country) and singing along, sometimes to the top of their lungs.

As she was home-schooling her two youngest boys a few years ago while living in Marissa, she wondered if the siblings would be interested in taking their musical intrigue to the next level, causing her to post a simple question on social media, “Does anyone know who gives music lessons?”

Little did she know, the answer was right under her own nose.

The immediate and overwhelming response was Chris Talley, owner/operator of The Bluegrass Shack, a popular business located in the same little community in southern St. Clair County where Watson was living.

The Bluegrass Shack has been an iconic location for Metro East bluegrass fans for two decades. Talley has won statewide fiddle and banjo championships in Missouri and Illinois. She gives lessons and can repair anything with strings. The site is legendary for pop-up jam sessions.

On their initial visit to the store in 2017, 8-year-old Rivers said he wanted to learn to play guitar and 10-year-old brother Ryder was attracted more by banjo. Little did they know at the time, but they would become import parts of Southern Illinois youth bands that are preserving the heritage of bluegrass music for future generations.

A single mother of four, Watson has moved to Benton and is completing an online nursing program through Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, 13-year-old Ryder and 12-year-old Rivers both attend Benton Middle School, where football practice just started. Social media, video games and homework gobble up much of their free time, but time is carved out each night for music practice.

“It’s so hard to keep them motivated because they are so many other things competing for their time,” Watson says. “All I can do is encourage them and try to point them in the right direction.”

After nearly a year of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, the isolation has been stifling on passion and creativity for the youngsters, but that all changes every Monday when they pile into the car and make one-hour drive to The Bluegrass Shack for lessons, practice and marathon jam sessions.

“They have so much fun up there,” Watson says. “Chris is an amazing person and incredible teacher. She is just a wealth of knowledge and can play 26 instruments.”

Under Talley’s supervision, Watson says there is always noticeable improvement, purpose and direction.

“They play so many songs, it’s always something new that pushes them to a new level. It’s a constant learning process,” Watson says. “She just shows them if they are willing to put in all the hard work, it is possible that they can earn a living with their music and maybe turn it into a career. Getting paid to play music would be a dream job.”

Rivers is a member of The Half Notes. The five-piece group includes banjo, mandolin, fiddle and twin guitar. They can be seen flawless picking classic “Soldier’s Joy” on a high-definition video posted by Talley on YouTube. Their classic repertoire includes: “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” “Rocky Top” and “Old Joe Clark.”

With members between the ages of 12 and 14, the band was hired locally to play festivals, churches and in nursing homes. For their efforts, they earned a little pocket change and invaluable musical experience.

“Chris is always there playing stand-up bass for the band and coaching the kids on stage etiquette and stage presence,” Watson says.

Ryder is in Hand Picked, the older band under the tutelage of Talley ranging in ages 13 to 18. Their sound is more sophisticated and polished. A typical set list would include: “Steel Rails,” “Power in the Blood, “Ashokan Farewell,” ”I’ll Fly Away” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” plus a version of “Kentucky Borderline” that would make Rhonda Vincent smile with approval.

In October, they were featured at the Arcadia Valley Music Festival in Ironton, Missouri.

“The band had them dancing in the street!” Talley exclaimed on Facebook.

Watson said the foundation of Ryder’s style was formed through endless hours of listening to records by Flatt & Sruggs, Bill Monroe and The Stanley Brothers.

“We learned from scratch the Scruggs method,” she says.

Hand Picked is normally invited each year to compete in the Youth in Bluegrass competition at Silver Dollar City in Branson, but the event was postponed in 2020 due to virus concerns and will be held May 28-29 this year.

Vince Hoffard can be reached at vincehoffard@gmail.com or 618-658-9095.

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