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Music

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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.


Although the stalwarts of bluegrass music (and the Ocoee jam) are getting up there in age and taking their leave from this lonesome-sounding life, lots of newer musicians have embraced bluegrass. They've adopted and adapted the sound, introducing it to younger audiences. For instance, comedian Steve Martin is a banjo player and has put together a band called the Steep Canyon Rangers, who have several Grammy-nominated recordings. Martin also narrates the 2011 documentary Give Me the Banjo (streaming on Netflix). Contemporary rock and alt-country musicians, like the Avett Brothers and the Old Crow Medicine Show, have popularized the sound and brought it to an entirely new generation. Then there are modern bands, like Pokey LaFarge's, who dig deep into the rootsy sounds of hillbilly music to reproduce the traditional elements that define country and bluegrass – stuff you'd experience on The Grand Ole Opry in the days of Monroe.

Likewise, the Ocoee jam attracts both young and old pickers and fans. Each week brings new faces, new players, new songs and new reasons for it to keep going. When asked whether he thinks the jam will continue even when he's no longer able to make it out every Friday night, Lewis isn't exactly sure how to answer. What he can say is that nobody expected it to go on for this long. And yet, it does.

The bond between Jack and Judie Lewis is actually somewhat striking in the context of bluegrass music, since much of it hinges thematically on loneliness and sorrow. Monroe, who was a womanizer and an outcast for much of his life, defined the music in a unique way. He juxtaposed happy, busy melodies with dark lyrics that synthesized how difficult it can be for a troubled mind to mitigate feelings of depression and isolation in a chaotically upbeat world. That pain has driven many a crooner to bemoan in song, "No one knows me, no one seems to care."

In an early 1940 song, "Tennessee Blues," Monroe's only salvation was seclusion; "I'd find me a spot on some mountain top with no one around me," he sang. Most everyone is familiar with the bluegrass classic "Orange Blossom Special." Though the song is famously upbeat as performed by artists like Johnny Cash, it's actually about a man who expects to die before he ever returns to the home he loves. Even instrumental bluegrass songs, like Doc Watson's "Windy and Warm," evoke the wistful conclusion that this life we walk through is not a shared stroll.

But perhaps the painful place that bluegrass music constantly refers to is actually what draws people like Jack and Judie together. Nobody really wants to be alone. And that fear of loneliness and isolation may also be why the music keeps bringing people together from near and far to fests and jams, like the one that's been drawing people out to Ocoee for two full decades.

"See, when we started the jam, it wasn't just an open-to-the-public, anybody can come in and pick," Jack says. "What we were looking for was just about six or seven or eight people that we'd pick with all the time, and we just needed a place to get to, somewhere to gather up. And that's what it was intended to be, but then people would drive by, and they'd see us, and maybe they picked a little, so they stopped and said, 'Hey can I join in?' You know, yeah! We didn't mind."

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