Traynham family

The 20th annual Bluff Country Gathering



Rafe Stefanini and Clelia Stefanini
Rafe Stefanini and Clelia Stefanini

This marks the 20th year that the Bluff Country Gathering in Lanesboro, Minn., has presented some of the great masters of American traditional music. The festival was the brainchild of the late Gail Heil, who felt the Upper Midwest needed a camp, like ones being held in other parts of the country, where aspiring fiddlers, banjo players, etc. could come together with these masters to learn to play old-time music. Since that first gathering in 1999, hundreds of players have come from all across the U.S., and in turn carried the music on to play it and teach it to others. The great players who have come as teachers have included at least five National Heritage Award recipients — the highest honor awarded to folk artists in the country.

The dates this year are May 17-20 with a concert on Friday, May 18, and a barn dance on May 19, both of which are held in the Lanesboro Community Center and are open to the public. During the days on Friday and Saturday, workshops will be held on such topics as clawhammer and finger-style banjo; fiddle, including various regional styles; mandolin; guitar; harmonica; harmony singing; square-dance calling and more. Aimed primarily at enhancing the abilities and knowledge of those already playing traditional music, there are also workshops for beginners. These workshop sessions are open only to the registered students who pay for the whole weekend.

The definition of tradition is the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way. The 2018 Bluff Country Gathering’s theme this year is “Passing Down the Tradition” and this is meant to be taken in a couple ways. The registered participants are, of course, receiving instruction in traditional music, but the roster of masters this year also includes two generations of families where the music has been passed directly at home. 
Rafe Stefanini grew up in Italy and developed a love for American old-time and bluegrass music. After learning to play exceptional fiddle and banjo, he moved to the U.S. and has become one of the leaders in the revival of old-time string band music. Among the influential bands of which Stefanini has been a part are the Wildcats, the L-7s (with Dirk Powell and Bruce Molsky), Big Hoedown (with Molsky and Beverly Smith) and the Rockinghams. Rafe also makes and restores fiddles. His daughter, Clelia Stefanini, having been raised in a household filled with old-time music and musicians, became an outstanding fiddler, guitarist and singer. In 2013 Clelia won the open fiddle division at the prestigious Appalachian String Band Contest in Cliff Top, W.Va. Rafe lives in Pennsylvania; Clelia in Nashville.

The Brainstormers consist of Tom Sauber and his son Patrick, who live in southern California, and Mark Graham, who resides in Washington. Tom is a master musician in a variety of styles, a multi-instrumentalist (banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin) and singer, well grounded in tradition, with a comprehensive grasp of style and an exceptional ability to teach. Patrick’s fiery and inventive guitar, banjo, mandolin and accordion played along with his fine harmony singing have made him welcome on stage not only with old-time players, but also with premier bluegrass bands like Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands. The third member of the Brainstormers, Mark Graham, plays harmonica in a powerful but lyrical, blues-tinged style that recalls the feel of the finest banjo and fiddle playing. He’s also an amazing songsmith known for compositions that could be characterized as surreal mountain hilarity, but are also quite capable of producing works of great pathos.

Growing up in rural southwestern Virginia in a family steeped in old-time music, Hanna Traynham learned to play banjo from her father on a banjo he made when she was born. She loves to sing unrefined duets of old gospel music and lonesome traditional ballads along with her parents Mac and Jenny Traynham. She now lives in Portland, Ore. Mac is an accomplished fiddler, banjo and harmonica player as well as a fine guitarist and singer and is well-known for the hand-crafted banjos he builds. Jenny plays clawhammer banjo with a strong sense of rhythm, solid old-time back-up guitar and is a fine singer. In addition, Jenny is a fine artist — a painter of great skill. Mac and Jenny were previously at the Bluff Country Gathering and Mac has also appeared in Minnesota with the Sunny Mountain Serenaders. Influenced by well-known and obscure musicians of the past, they have played tunes and sung old songs together for over 30 years, and with Hanna joining them, have the quintessential old-time string band.

Somewhat a legend, particularly in the Midwest, Al Murphy has been collecting and playing fiddle tunes since the 1960s. He knew, learned from and played with such fiddlers as Lyman Enloe, Kenny Baker, Delbert Spray and Gene Goforth; banjoists Art Rosenbaum and Bob Black; and, along with his wife Aleta, has been a member of numerous old time and bluegrass bands. Murphy’s protégé Marc Janssen has been learning many of the obscure tunes from Murphy, another fine example of tradition at work. Janssen plays fiddle, mandolin and guitar, performing old-time music with his wife Brandi, in bluegrass and country bands and teaches music. Both Janssen and Murphy live in Iowa City, Iowa.

The Friday night concert will feature all these masters, plus some surprises. It will be full of wonderful old-time music and show how this music has been handed from one generation to the next. Most of the staff musicians will also be playing for the Saturday night barn dance with caller Sue Hulsether. Hulsether is an experienced and exciting square dance caller from southwestern Wisconsin. She’ll teach each dance beforehand, and, if you’re an inexperienced dancer, you’ll get the hang of it quick enough, so no experience is necessary. The concert tickets are $15 and the barn dance is $10; both are available at the door. For those who want to register for the whole weekend and attend the workshops, cost is $225.

For more information on the gathering or to register, check out the website at or call 507-498-5452.


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