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Bow down to bluegrass at annual Great 48 jam

Larry Kuhn wears his greatest secret on his sleeve.

The Prescott native carries a guitar on his back and a mandolin in hand. He wanders from jam session to jam session. He doesn't hide his secret well and yet he doesn't want the word to get out that his passion is easier than it looks.

"Bluegrass is the best-kept secret in the world," Kuhn said. "It's not that hard to play. You have to have the soul to play it — you just have to have the style."

Kuhn is just one of the many musicians who traveled to Bakersfield to be a part of the Great 48 jam, which has been in full swing since Thursday.

The annual bluegrass showcase, now in its 10th year, is an opportunity for musicians of all skill levels and backgrounds to bond over their love of music. The artists take over the Bakersfield Marriott at the Convention Center and turn designated suites into miniature concert halls or practice sessions reminiscent of friendly band practice. The gathering is as much about learning as it is about showing off. The free event is open to anyone who wants to participate or to just come and listen, said organizer Jack Pierce.

"It's good music that offers a good system of values," Pierce said. "It's challenging, it's fast."

The Great 48 jam is organized by the California Bluegrass Association, the largest volunteer-run bluegrass affiliation in the world, said organization president Theresa Gooding. More than 2,800 musicians from around the country are attending the festival this year, Gooding said. While the musical event draws talent from across the nation, the biggest effort is to bridge the gap between bluegrass artists from Northern California and Southern California, and Bakersfield became the perfect location for everyone to unite, she said.

"This is our one event we try to bring everyone together," Gooding said.

The inception of the Great 48 formed after the failure of the Supergrass festival, said Rick Cornish. After the California Bluegrass Association lost $7,100 with Supergrass, the large bluegrass event was canceled but musicians were still clamoring for more chances to come together and play, so the organization gave it another shot and created the Great 48, a revenue-neutral event that was only about bringing artists together. 

"Can you think of any other music where five absolute strangers can get in a circle and play together?" Cornish said. "The genre's form and structure is such that people from different backgrounds can play together. It's like a game and everyone knows the rules but very good musicians can make some amazing spontaneous music."

When exploring the Bakersfield Marriott, listeners will be hard-pressed to find an area devoid of tunes. Music, with sounds straight from the bayou, fills the main floor. Every suite has a different atmosphere, upbeat to somber, that just shows the wide range that bluegrass is capable of.

"The music is universal," jammer Lucy Smith said. "There is a common repertoire. Bluegrass heroes are accessible."

Between playing music together, musicians will gather and trade tips and tricks for the different instruments. The history of each instrument is explored by the artists looking to find the perfect sound.

"All the instruments have legends around them," said musician Sean Barry. "There is a history behind every model of instrument."

For musicians who travel from all over, the Great 48 jam serves as a chance to challenge themselves and, most importantly, bond through their love of bluegrass.

"I go to join sessions and there aren't always good players but they are great folks," Kuhn said. "That makes for great music."

Bowen West can be reached at 661-395-7660.