Rocky Mountain Bluegrass
by Susan Marquez
Americana music, particularly bluegrass, has a long tradition of being passed down from generation to generation. Through jam sessions around campfires, picking in living rooms, listening to records, and through concerts and performances, the music has been learned by repeatedly listening to the same songs. While bluegrass is still immensely popular and relevant in these modern times, the method of learning is changing. Learning to play bluegrass music has become an academic endeavor, and the music department at Colorado College takes it very seriously.
Learning to play bluegrass music has become an academic endeavor, and the music department at Colorado College takes it very seriously.
Located in the majestic Rocky Mountains of Colorado Springs, Colorado College is a small liberal arts college.
“The students here are super impressive and very smart,” says Keith Reed, who started the bluegrass program at the college in 2004. “This is a high academic college where students are immersed in the subjects they study, including (before COVID) travel and hands-on experiences.”
Keith’s grandparents immigrated to the New York area from Ireland. After World War II, Keith’s uncle convinced his dad to move west, so in the 1960s, the family loaded up and moved to Utah. “My dad was blown away by the open spaces, which was so different from New York.” When Keith was four or five, the family moved to Oregon. “It was hard for my mom, who loved everything about New York. She was shocked when a woman asked her at church if the dress she was wearing was store-bought!” When he was in high school, the family moved to Boise, Idaho, which Keith says was, surprisingly, a hotbed of bluegrass music.
“I played banjo with two friends there,” explains Keith. “One was from West Virginia and the other was from Tennessee. They had lots of bluegrass records that we listened to all the time. I learned to play from listening to the records.”
Keith picked with his friends and his brother. About that time, Dueling Banjos came out and the popularity of artists like Flatt and Scruggs was rising. “Back then, we had albums that were played at 33 rpm, but there was a setting on the stereo that could play a record more slowly. We would do that and try to play what we were hearing.” A big influence on Keith was Jeremy Garrett. “He was from Boise, and was in a band with his dad, Glen, called the Grasshoppers.” Garrett is best known for his GRAMMY-award winning band, the Infamous Stringdusters.” Keith says he got his first experience playing to an audience at a local venue called the Lock, Stock, and Barrel.
One night while watching The Grand Ole Opry on television, Keith saw a commercial for the music program at South Plains College in Texas.
“At the time, it was the only school I knew of offering a bluegrass program.” He enrolled in the school, where he had some exceptionally talented classmates, including Mike Bub, who went on to play with the Del McCoury Band. “Stuart Duncan lived across the hall from me in the dorm, so I heard him play the fiddle, banjo, and guitar all the time.” Duncan went on to play in the Nashville Bluegrass Band, and with Marty Stuart.
After earning his associate degree, Keith returned to Boise where his parents had opened a coffee shop and specialty gourmet store. “It was more like something that you’d see in New York, which was my mother’s influence. I roasted coffee there and decided to go to Boise State and get a bachelor’s degree in classical guitar.” That education helped Keith develop more with melody and tone.
Keith toured for a while with a bluegrass band called Open Road, who was signed with Rounder Records. In 2004, he had an opportunity to start the bluegrass program within the music department at Colorado College. “It’s been a wonderful experience, and the program is growing each year.” He teaches a bluegrass class each spring and works with ensembles throughout the year. He also teaches private lessons in guitar, banjo, and mandolin. “I teach all instruments by ear, which is how I learned. That’s the beauty of bluegrass. It has been passed down and learned by watching and playing.”
While Keith rarely plays in public anymore, he enjoys getting gigs at local venues for his students.
“Before COVID, I would take my bluegrass students to the Durango Meltdown bluegrass festival so they could get a real feel for what that’s like. I work with them on ensemble, then performance. We work on set lists and stage banter. It is a learning environment that gets students used to being on stage. Even if they never pursue a career in bluegrass, they will be able to use the skills they have learned to make a presentation in a business meeting or a speech in front of an audience. This program gives students the confidence needed in all sorts of situations they may encounter in business.”