Bluegrass Jam in Buffalo, WYO

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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.

Bluegrass jam in Buffalo

Merlin “Whitey” 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, isn’t only found in a school, church, town hall, museum or courthouse.

You’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.

“Most jams among musicians last a month or two, and then they fizzle,” said David Stewart, a professional songwriter and co-founder of the Bluegrass Jam, which celebrated its fourth anniversary on Oct. 15, 2010.

“The first time we got together in a corner of the Occidental Hotel bar, there were maybe five people in the audience,” 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 he’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 isn’t drawn, first-time visitors usually win fresh-baked cookies or other prizes.


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 – the entertainment is free, notwithstanding brisk sales at the bar. “The model is the Grand Ol’ Opry, where the musicians would play in a circle backstage,” said David Stewart, the songwriter and co-founder of the jam. “Often, that’s where the best music happens.”

Each Thursday, the jam opens at 7 p.m. with “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” and closes at 11 p.m. with “Amazing Grace.” In between, almost anything can and does happen. Tourists wander in, figure out what’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. “They sang an Irish ballad a cappella,” said Occidental owner Dawn Wexo. “You could have heard a pin drop.”

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. “No drums or electric guitars,” he said. About every kind of stringed instrument is brought to the jam – bass, guitar, dobro, autoharp, mandolin, banjo and fiddle. Oh yeah, and smokin’-hot harmonicas.

Stewart said he hoped no one ever shows up with a Hawaiian ukulele – doesn’t quite fit the whole bluegrass, folk and country thing.


“One of the town ministers likes to come hear us play,” said Young. “He said the Bluegrass Jam was a church, more than most churches.”’

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