Big Horn and Bluegrass

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Big Horn and Bluegrass

by Susan Marquez

The Big Horn Mountains and Big Horn National Forest in Wyoming are big draws for tourists each summer for their recreational offerings. Fishing, camping, hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, picnicking, sightseeing, and photography are just a few of the activities people enjoy doing in the scenic area. And for a week every summer, the sound of bluegrass music fills the air when students at the BigHorn Bluegrass Camp start pickin’ and singin’.

Once an ancillary event to an annual bluegrass festival held in Buffalo, Wyoming, the bluegrass camp came into its own in 2017 under the leadership of Karen Blaney. “The festival was the main attraction, and a company was hired to do the children’s music camp,” she says. “Five years ago, we decided it would suit our community better to do the camp ourselves.”

The festival has been on hiatus for three years, but the camp continues to go strong. Karen is the director of the camp which drew 60 students, ages seven to 18 (and up), this year. “That’s our largest number of campers so far,” she says. Held each July at the Johnson County Fairgrounds, the camp draws campers from around the county and neighboring counties, as well as students from other parts of the state and as far away as Nebraska.

For years, Karen has taught high school and she is the high school drama director. She got into directing the festival by accident, she says, but now she can’t imagine not being involved.

“I have three children, and my middle child, Morgan, was a very shy and anxious child. I sent her to the bluegrass camp, and she fell in love with the upright bass. She came home after the first day and told me she had found her ‘thing.’”

Morgan played piano a bit before the camp, but she had never played a stringed instrument. She is now in college at the University of Northern Colorado at Greenlee majoring in jazz studies, and she is the bass player for a bluegrass band named Prairie Wildfire. The band is on teaching staff at the camp.

“In the past, we’ve had a professional band come to the camp each year,” says Karen. Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, a progressive bluegrass band from Wisconsin, once played regularly at the festival, and they have been regular special guests of the camp.

“They did demonstrations for the campers, and they taught classes. They would also do a show for the kids, and another show for the community. They were unable to come this year due to COVID-19, so Prairie Wildfire took over their duties.”

The interesting thing about Karen being the director of the camp is that she doesn’t play a stringed instrument, and until her daughter started playing bluegrass, she was not particularly a fan of the genre. “I didn’t know I would like it so much,” she says. “I think bluegrass music was just waiting to be discovered by me!” Karen also works throughout the year as the manager of Prairie Wildfire, as well as booking shows for the Occidental Hotel, owned by David Stewart.

“David is a singer and a songwriter, and he is a mentor for my daughter and her band,” says Karen. “He has written many top songs, and he’s always hosted the concert for the camp in the Occidental’s beer garden. He and his wife, Jackie, are big supporters of the camp.” Karen hosts concerts at the Occidental throughout the year. “We have a January Jam there, as well as the Spring Jam, both of which raise money for the camp.”

The community supports the camp in many ways, including financially. “We received $2000 in scholarships raised by members of the community that ensure that every kid, regardless of their family’s financial situation, is able to attend the camp.”

The Wyoming Arts Council and the Johnson County Recreational District support the camp as well.

“I’m involved with the camp because I see how it can literally change a child’s life,” says Karen. “I saw it happen with my own child and I’ve seen it happen with other children. It’s unusual to see kids show up early for anything, especially in the summer, but here they show up an hour before camp some mornings, for a private lesson, or just hoping to get a little extra help.” Campers do not need to own instruments to attend the camp. “We rent instruments. Kids sometimes have to try a few different instruments until they find the one they like the best.”

Camp is concluded with a concert on the last day. It’s fun to see the parents watch their children on stage, explained Karen.

“The community is invited as well, and they love it. Many of the kids continue playing all year at the weekly jam held at the Occidental. It’s heartwarming to see the young kids playing with the old-timers. We have started seeing some of the same kids come back to camp summer after summer, and many of them have come back to be on staff. Music has a way of opening children up to bigger things, and we are proud to be a part of that.”