Excerpts from a nice story on Newwest.netÂ read the entire story at Wyofiles Wyoming Series
By Brodie Farquhar, WyoFile, 10-19-10
Reborn Occidental Plays Hostess to the Beating Heart of Buffalo, Wyoming
Four years into the jam sessions at the “new” hotel that defines this part of the world, it’s a standing-room-only crowd. But you can still get a dance with Whitey.
Merlin â€œWhiteyâ€ White is 93 years old and never sits down during the weekly four-hour jam sessions. Photo by Dewey Vanderhoff
The beating heart of Buffalo, Wyoming, and arguably of Johnson County, isnâ€™t only found in a school, church, town hall, museum or courthouse.
Youâ€™ll also find it in an 1880-vintage hotel and 1908-era saloon, in downtown Buffalo.
Every Thursday night in the Occidental Hotel bar, musicians young and old, local and from far afield, jam together playing bluegrass, folk and country music.
â€œMost jams among musicians last a month or two, and then they fizzle,â€ said David Stewart, a professional songwriter and co-founder of the Bluegrass Jam, which celebrated its fourth anniversary on Oct. 15, 2010.
â€œThe first time we got together in a corner of the Occidental Hotel bar, there were maybe five people in the audience,â€ Stewart said. Now on many Thursdays, the bar is standing-room-only, with people spilling out onto the sidewalk of the historic hotel.
The musicians are loyal. Charlie Firnekas, 75, a Kaycee-area rancher, is the oldest of the original founders of the jam. Every Thursday, he drives 73 miles one way (25 miles on a gravel road) to get to the jam and play guitar. Winter blizzards have never held him back, and heâ€™s missed only a few sessions.
The audience gives back. There are tips, used to help needy families with rent or send an aspiring high school student to college for a music education. There are things people bring from home, like baked goods, fresh country eggs or handmade birdhouses. Everyone in the audience is given a numbered ticket and drawings are held during the jam. Even if a winning ticket isnâ€™t drawn, first-time visitors usually win fresh-baked cookies or other prizes.
ABOUT THAT JAM SESSION
But to get a feel for the town, go to the Thursday night Bluegrass Jam at the Occidental.
What goes on is less of a formal performance and more like a group of musicians playing for and with each other â€“ the entertainment is free, notwithstanding brisk sales at the bar. â€œThe model is the Grand Olâ€™ Opry, where the musicians would play in a circle backstage,â€ said David Stewart, the songwriter and co-founder of the jam. â€œOften, thatâ€™s where the best music happens.â€
Each Thursday, the jam opens at 7 p.m. with â€œWill the Circle be Unbroken,â€ and closes at 11 p.m. with â€œAmazing Grace.â€ In between, almost anything can and does happen. Tourists wander in, figure out whatâ€™s going on, and dash out to retrieve a guitar, banjo or fiddle from their car and jump right into the jam.
A few weeks ago, a young couple from Ireland asked shyly if they could join in. â€œThey sang an Irish ballad a cappella,â€ said Occidental owner Dawn Wexo. â€œYou could have heard a pin drop.â€
Musicians from Denver, Billings, Rapid City and beyond will drive to northern Wyoming to play in the jam. About the only rule is no instruments that would overwhelm the others, said Lynn Young, another co-founder of the jam. â€œNo drums or electric guitars,â€ he said. About every kind of stringed instrument is brought to the jam â€“ bass, guitar, dobro, autoharp, mandolin, banjo and fiddle. Oh yeah, and smokinâ€™-hot harmonicas.
Stewart said he hoped no one ever shows up with a Hawaiian ukulele â€“ doesnâ€™t quite fit the whole bluegrass, folk and country thing.
â€œOne of the town ministers likes to come hear us play,â€ said Young. â€œHe said the Bluegrass Jam was a church, more than most churches.â€’