Bluegrass isn't just for Festivals
Updated: Aug 24, 2021
Bring some tried-and-true Americana to your reception
By Alexandria Saurman
Imagine standing at the table of a wedding reception for the cocktail hour, the room tastefully adorned in decorations matching the newlyweds’ palette. As friends and family mingle about, sipping cocktails and munching on small appetizers, the music comes on. It’s not the DJ. It’s not a jazz band. It’s bluegrass.
“A lot of people, really, I don’t think they associate bluegrass music with weddings in this area,” says Woody Norris, a member of bluegrass-trio 15 Strings, “but I know far down South it’s really popular and, believe it or not, up around D.C.”
Bluegrass might not be the most common type of repertoire requested for weddings, but “it’s a type of music that works well with anything, [as] long as it’s presented correctly,” Norris adds.
The Southern Maryland-based 15 Strings is comprised of three members — Norris, Dale Ferguson and Tom Cratty — who have been playing together for five years.
Ferguson, the band’s founder, had grown tired of playing the same, traditional music, Norris says, and wanted to begin playing contemporary bluegrass.
Since then, the trio has covered more than just weddings, rehearsal dinners and engagement parties. They’ve showcased their talents at bluegrass festivals, band competitions and private parties.
According to their website, Ferguson plays the banjo, mandolin and guitar and has an “extensive musical history” in a variety of other groups; Norris, a St. Mary’s County native, started playing guitar and banjo when he was 9 and 12, respectively; and Cratty of Hyattsville picked up dobro, guitar and singing at 42 and bass at 51.
Along with the band’s experience, 15 Strings is also special because they don’t just play contemporary bluegrass wherever they go, Norris says. They’ll incorporate some pop, rock or traditional music into their sets, too. “We kind of like to play to our crowd. If they want to hear traditional stuff, we play traditional stuff,” he says. “The crowd really likes the diversity.
Southern Maryland also boasts home to longtime bluegrass band Jay Armsworthy and Eastern Tradition. Strumming since 1995, the band consists of four musicians: Jay Armsworthy, Leon Morris, Scott Walker and Lewis Layton. According to their website, Armsworthy plays guitar and leads the group in vocals alongside Morris, who also plays the mandolin, Layton sings tenor and baritone vocals and doubles as the band’s upright bass player, while Walker plays the banjo.
Armsworthy, the leader of the band, says they’ve gotten multiple requests to play at wedding cocktail hours or before the ceremony. “It’s a good music for people to mingle and socialize, you know, while the guests are arriving.”
Although they primarily play traditional bluegrass, Armsworthy says, the band does incorporate country into its sets and tries to “accompany whatever requests … that the party has. We try to make their event go as smooth as possible for them.”
From the 10 weddings they’ve played and countless other parties, carnivals and fairs, Armsworthy said bluegrass music “gets people excited” and “loosened up.”
“Bluegrass is happy music,” he adds. “It seems to put smiles on people’s faces.” And for those guests who may not be familiar with the music genre, bringing in a bluegrass band “gives them an opportunity to see and hear what bluegrass really is.”
To find out pricing for 15 Strings or Jay Armsworthy and Eastern Tradition, either band can be contacted directly. Additionally, both Armsworthy and Norris say their bands do travel for events.