Bluegrass music has been fostered in the D.C. area for decades and has a well-earned reputation for being a bluegrass hotbed. When people migrated from the Appalachian region to Washington, D.C., in search of work, they brought their instruments and musical heritage. "That is true especially of the 1970s and 1980s," says Matt Slocum. "And the same is true today. There are so many performance venues here that it would be easy for musicians to get every night of the week." Matt moved to D.C. in the early 1980s from New England and has always found the area supportive of bluegrass music.
Matt serves as the president of the D.C. Bluegrass Union, an all-volunteer 501(c)3 non-profit organization founded in 2002. The organization serves Washington, D.C., and surrounding areas in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. "Our mission is to help inform, educate, connect, and broaden our active community of not only bluegrass performers but the fans, the venues, and the promoters," says Matt. Organization founder Kip Martin focused on pushing bluegrass music by enhancing the local bluegrass community through free events. Randy Barrett continued the mission through contests and concerts.
Matt says the organization holds jams for area musicians and performing opportunities for local bands.
"There is never a lack of an audience," he says. "There is a military installation in Alexandria. There have always been roadhouses between the base and the City that supported live music. There's just something special about bluegrass music, and we want to help promote it all we can to bring smiles to faces, get toes tapping, and hopefully fill the pockets of the musicians with some jingle. We have been blessed with many phenomenal local musicians. Some are celebrated, some not so much, but we appreciate them all."
It's important to Matt and the other Board members of the D.C. Bluegrass Union to get out into the community and provide more value to their members. "We do all we can to help bands promote themselves. The calendar page on our website is available to all our members to post performances. The good thing about D.C. is that it is a year-round city." One thing the organization does is throw a monthly birthday party. "We pick a couple of musicians and honor them with a birthday celebration and jam."
The D.C. Bluegrass Union also presents a series of events and contests each year where they support original compositions and songs.
"We average around 125 entries a year," says Matt. "Many of those have gone on to have their work celebrated on a much larger stage."
The Mike Auldridge Instrumental Competition Contest honors the life of The Seldom Scene co-founder and legendary Dobro guitar player. The Hazel Dickens Songwriting Contest celebrates the West Virginia native who connected with local musicians when she moved to Baltimore as a young woman to find factory work. She performed throughout the region and was recognized for her unique mountain singing style and memorable lyrics. Cash awards totaling $1,700 are presented to the top three selections in the two contests.
Over the years, the D.C. Bluegrass Union has presented nine festivals on their own, but Matt says instead of putting on a festival now, they promote area festivals as much as possible. "There are so many good festivals around, and we are a small volunteer-based organization."
Matt says they all love to jam, and in 2022 they worked with local musicians to help coordinate more than fifty jams representing close to 1,500 hours of music opportunities in and around the D.C. area. They have two recurring events, one in D.C. and one in Maryland, providing fans and musicians a place to gather for an evening of good bluegrass music. "It's not unusual to see a member of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame at one of our jams," says Matt.
Like similar organizations, D.C. Bluegrass Union relies on members and donors to help with its mission. The membership isn't limited to musicians. Anyone who enjoys bluegrass music is welcome to join. "Bluegrass is a social phenomenon," says Matt. "It appeals to folks on all rungs of the economic ladder. It has a unifying effect which is a good thing, especially in Washington D.C."
Photos for D.C. Bluegrass Union courtesy of Steve Barrett.