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The Ocoee Parking Lot Bluegrass Jam

For the past 22 years, some of the best bluegrass music in Central Florida has come from this strip-mall parking lot

Photo: Photos by Rob Bartlett, License: N/A

Photos by Rob Bartlett

Every Friday night, a crowd of musicians gathers in this nondescript parking lot for an informal bluegrass jam.

Photo: N/A, License: N/A

Photos by Rob Bartlett

Orange Blossom Special: Jack Lewis and his wife, Judie, started the Ocoee bluegrass jam 22 years ago.

Florida is also home to a wealth of annual bluegrass fests, many of which occur along the Suwannee River, one of the first places where the music, which originated in the late '30s, breached Florida's borders in the late 1950s. Radio shows like the Suwannee River Jamboree drew major bluegrass acts, like the Stanley Brothers, to Live Oak in Suwannee County, and later launched American bluegrass duo Jim & Jesse to commercial success. The momentum the music developed here was so great that even Bill Monroe, often called the father of bluegrass music, was drawn to visit our state. It actually was while visiting Live Oak that Monroe spied an unusual mandolin for sale in a barbershop window, according to Bill Monroe biography Can't You Hear Me Callin'. Monroe bought it – a 1923 Gibson F-5 Master model mandolin built by Lloyd Loar, now known as country music's most famous instrument – and adapted it to his own musical style. It was on this mandolin that Monroe hit his most inventive streak and forever changed the audible impact of acoustic string bands. Before Monroe, mandolins of this high quality were used only in the context of orchestras. But when classical music fell out of favor with audiences who had fallen hard for Elvis Presley's brand of rock & roll, the sophisticated instruments were discarded by many musicians. They were eagerly purchased by bluegrass pickers who previously couldn't afford them.

Monroe is long dead, but his legacy and his influence on bluegrass music persists. Lewis' informal group follows his lead – all acoustic, no electric.

"Bill Monroe refused to go electric," Lewis says. "Like him, we play all acoustic instruments. To amplify, we play into a microphone – not plugged into your instrument, now, but played into."

Lewis was a latecomer to bluegrass music – he first encountered it at 35, when his musically minded mother played an Earl Scruggs record for him one day. Up until that point, Lewis says he was an Elvis fan, but when the record finished, he immediately asked her to play it again. Scruggs, who's known for perfecting the three-finger banjo-picking technique, won him over, and Judie set to work putting a banjo into her husband's hands – an old cheapie, she says. Then Jack got to work learning to play it, a mission that led to obsession.

"When I was learning, I didn't have anybody to show me anything," he says. "I'd listen to those old LP albums, you know, back when they had long-play albums, and I would listen to those and try to copy what I heard. That's the way I taught myself, so I missed out on a lot, not knowing how to do the proper way, but then everybody says you don't want to do it exactly like Earl Scruggs because then there'd be two Earl Scruggs in the world."

Scruggs passed away almost a year ago, robbing the bluegrass world of its most innovative and influential banjo player. But for all those who admired and learned from him, the best way to preserve his memory was to simply keep on picking and honoring the music. Which is what Lewis and his fellow bluegrass lovers do every week in Ocoee.

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