The International Bluegrass Music Association will air a 25-minute video of BJUgrass performances today at 5 p.m. in a globally broadcasted online festival.
The IBMA is a non-profit organization that sponsors an annual festival drawing almost a quarter-million bluegrass musicians and fans together from across the world.
Each year IBMA invites 10 university bluegrass groups to perform, including East Tennessee State University and Berklee College of Music in Boston, both schools that produce some of the most successful musicians in the industry.
BJUgrass performed in the 2019 festival alongside the University of North Carolina and Clemson University. BJUgrass was asked to return this year, but when COVID-19 hit, the festival went virtual.
Instead of live in-person performances, the 10 universities were each asked to submit a 25-minute video, about eight songs, for a free online concert.
The members of BJUgrass individually follow recommended health guidelines so that they can play without masks as a close-knit group, a necessity for the quality of their performances.
BJUgrass started three years ago as a weekly music session in the office of Dr. Steve Pettit, BJU president. Madison Skillman, a senior visual studies major, said she knew Pettit loved bluegrass and told him at The Wilds how much she and her sister Mariah loved to play. The sisters sent him a video over Instagram the following semester in 2017, and Pettit invited them to come play in his office.
Skillman said, “[Dr. Pettit] said, ‘I don’t really know where this is going to go, but if you guys want to play, it’s fun for me.’”
“I called it my happy hour, my happy moment,” Pettit said. Pettit has loved playing the mandolin for 28 years and wishes he had started earlier. He played bluegrass music with his traveling evangelistic team and jumped at the chance to keep playing it at BJU.
“This is fun music,” Pettit said. “We call it ‘pickin’ and grinnin’,’ because every time you hear it, you start smiling.”
The mandolin drives the unique rhythm “chop” in a bluegrass band. “The bass and the mandolin have a conversation together, that’s really what the rhythm of bluegrass is,” said Caleb Rollins, junior biblical studies major. “Everything else just fills in around it. It’s the creative way to get from point A to point B.”
Rollins joined BJUgrass in 2018 soon after meeting Pettit at his first year of college. “We nerded out about mandolins the first day I met him,” Rollins said. Carson and Grace Aaron, brother and sister, joined the group when they enrolled in BJU fall 2019, bringing the instrument count to a banjo, bass, fiddle, two guitars and a dobro, a flat steel resonator guitar.
“We call it ‘five students and one college president’,” Pettit said. “We say, ‘We’re BJUgrass from Bob Jones University; we play bluegrass with class.’”
Both the Aaron siblings and the Skillman sisters grew up performing bluegrass with their families. “It’s a different style. There’s a feel to it that you don’t get if you don’t grow up playing it,” Pettit said. Rollins said he’s learned more about bluegrass by playing with old guys than he would have by researching it online.
“It was created in the mountains, and it’s passed on from generation to generation,” Rollins said. “There aren’t many selfish people in bluegrass. If they have something cool, they want you [to] make something cooler of it.”
A week after submitting the first bluegrass video for the IBMA festival, BJUgrass was one of two groups requested to submit a second video to help make up for colleges that weren’t able to submit one. Pettit asked the cinema department on Tuesday for a repeat collaboration, they shot the set Friday night and delivered the full package that Monday. “It was an incredible collaboration of some really professional people,” Pettit said.
Both videos were student-run and produced by Susannah Coleman, a senior cinema major and cinema department intern.
“It definitely took a lot of coordinating,” Coleman said. “That’s kind of always the trickiest part: communication and getting everyone together, getting crew in such a short amount of time and getting the lighting setup and the audio team together.”
Coleman, seven cinema students and Christopher Zydowicz, the cinematic arts faculty adviser for senior projects, each put in at least 20 hours for the videos, bringing the whole project to a collective 180 hours of investment.
“We train our students to be productive and to be ahead of the curve when it comes to production,” Zydowicz said. “They knew what they had to do, and they rose the occasion and got it done. If there were little things that fell through the cracks, someone else picked it up and went with it.”
Anyone can register to watch the free festival on worldofbluegrass.org, where the video will be streamed live tonight. BJUgrass will also perform for students Saturday in the Activity Center after the 7 p.m. BJU vs. PCC men’s soccer game.