Jam sessions keep ‘old South’ in Hixson

Each Thursday night, a little before 6:30, Ed and Wilma Slater arrive at Grace Church of the Nazarene to arrange 20 or so metal folding chairs in a wide circle. At the center, the Slaters place two amplifiers, connecting them to a couple of microphones cradled in their stands.

As the clock strikes the half hour, others trickle in, most with the straps of black instrument cases slung over their shoulders.

The cases are different shapes and sizes; one even sports a “Forever Bluegrass” sticker. Guitars, fiddles, auto harps, bass fiddles — each musician pulls his or her instrument of choice from its covering amidst good-natured chitchat and laughter.

Eventually, chairs are filled and the music begins, swelling until it fills the fellowship hall.

“It’s a bunch of old friends. It started with eight guys and it’s grown to over 30 people,” said Slater, explaining that the gatherings began as a part of a Red Bank senior citizens group. “There’s a lot of people our age that remember how we used to sit on the porch … and make music before there was radio and TV.”

The songs are from days gone by, the steady voices reminiscent of Loretta Lynn or Johnny Cash.

The group typically stays and plays until 9 p.m., said Jim Fussell, a member of the host church on Dayton Boulevard who brings his 92-year-old mother-in-law to each gathering. They pass the hours by continuously passing the microphone around the circle, taking requests for favorite songs, calling out key changes and tapping their feet to the beat.

“It’s very informal; sometimes they come in late and leave early,” said Fussell. “It’s just whoever shows up. We’ve had probably 22-23 musicians and we’ve had as many as 40-45 people here [at one time].”

The sessions aren’t entirely made up of seniors; a young musician also sat in the ring. And audience member Catherine Gilman said students of local schools sometimes come to improve their skill alongside the regulars.

“I’ve learned a lot from these people,” said 71-year-old Tom Leach, who’s been a part of the pickin’ circle for the past seven years. “Some can read music, but I’m not one of those. Anybody’s welcome — that’s how people learn, just sitting around and jamming. That’s what they call this ‘the Thursday night jam.’”

Gilman, a self-described “Yankee” from Pennsylvania who doesn’t play but loves to listen, began coming to the jam sessions seven years ago, after her husband died.

“It really filled a void. They are just a tremendous group,” she said. “It’s really a lovely thing. It’s great they keep the tradition of the South. There’s nothing wrong with being Southern. There’s a charm to it.”