Bluegrass Ambassadors

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Bluegrass Ambassadors

Some play bluegrass music, and some are ambassadors for the genre. The members of Henhouse Prowlers are both seasoned bluegrass musicians while also serving as serious ambassadors for bluegrass music.

Chicago, Chicago!

by Susan Marquez

 

The band started in Chicago. “I met Jon (Goldfine) in 2004 when we were asked to play in the same pickup band,” says Ben Wright, who plays banjo in Henhouse Prowlers. “We got along well, and we started to play Tuesday nights at a dive bar in Rogers Park. I think we only missed two Tuesdays in ten years.” They honed their craft at those Tuesday night sessions and built an audience. “We turned it into a business and started touring the regional Midwest.”

A Natural Progression

Ben says it was a natural progression from playing in a band to becoming bluegrass ambassadors. “We had an opportunity to tour Europe, which was exciting for us. It was challenging to make money, but we started building a following.” They applied for a tour with American Music Abroad, a program administered by The Association of American Voices on behalf of the United States Department of State.

“We were selected,” says Ben. “We went to places like Congo Brazzaville, Liberia, Niger, and Mauritania, right on the Sahara Desert. While traveling, we had an opportunity to collaborate with local musicians. We would lay down a bluegrass beat, and they would rap to it. It was unlike anything I had ever heard.”

The Henhouse Prowlers took the tours seriously, so the State Department continued to send them overseas.

“What we learned is that if we took the time to learn music from the places we were going and played something they knew, the crowds would be more receptive to the music played.”

The band developed a skill set that became the core of Bluegrass Ambassadors, a not-for-profit mission launched in 2013. Inspired by a unique vision of music education, the organization is dissolving boundaries of culture, country, and communication globally by teaching the universal language of music.

“It has been a learning process,” says Ben. “We are leaning on our love of bluegrass as a teaching genre. We work to meet all state education standards. Our best programs are where teachers or directors of museums are just as involved in the development of the curriculum as we are.” Ben says that teaching programs to kids gives the band members a chance to connect with their inner child. “We recently presented a program at the Earl Scruggs Center in Cleveland County, North Carolina, where we worked with a group of fourth-graders on knowing the importance of where they are from. We learned the history of Shelby Mills, which was a lot of fun.”

Most programs are designed for students in kindergarten through sixth grade. “We are fortunate to have great folks we can bounce things off of. For example, one of our board members is a former principal of a school where we did a program.”

Comprising the band is Ben Wright on banjo, Jon Goldfine on bass, Chris Dollar on guitar, and Jake Howard (a Berklee College of Music graduate) on mandolin. In addition to the U.S. State Department, the band worked with the African Studies Association, Fifth House Ensemble, and the Evanston School Music Association. This organization started the Ambassadors’ first full-district teaching program across all schools in Evanston, Illinois. The Bluegrass Ambassador program holds workshops and produces the Official Bluegrass Ambassadors podcast heard on platforms including Google Play, iTunes, Soundcloud, Stitcher, and TuneIn.

One new program is the Bluegrass Ambassadors Academy

With so many musicians stuck at home without reliable income due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the academy became a way to pick the brains of musicians worldwide while inspiring students with their music. “It was yet another way to illustrate that we are all part of a global community,” Ben says. The academy is offered free to students but fairly compensates all musicians for their time.

Bluegrass Ambassadors’ goal is never to turn down a request for a workshop or program. To make that happen, the organization depends heavily on donations. 

Donors can conveniently contribute through the Bluegrass Ambassadors website.