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No Grass Like Bluegrass

When Mike Headrick was in the working world, bluegrass music was an escape.

"It takes your cares of the world away to just make some fine music," Headrick said. "It was a relief valve for all the pressure of the workaday world, and you never felt quite as happy and relaxed as after you played some music."

Tennessee-born Headrick plays the fiddle and the mandolin, and made his instruments himself.

"I heard someone once describe making a fiddle as you start with some wood and cut away everything that doesn't look like a fiddle," Headrick laughs. "Really it does not require a lot of equipment, it requires a lot of patience."

Now, Headrick is sharing that love of bluegrass as an organizer of the ninth annual Tucson Bluegrass Festival.

The festival is sponsored by the Desert Bluegrass Association and brings together local and out-of-town fans and bands for a weekend of sliding, picking and jamming.

Bands will play in the plaza at Desert Diamond Casino and part of the parking lot will be blocked off for camping.

Tucson's bluegrass festival usually brings in about a thousand people over the weekend, a typical size for festivals in the Southwest. In California and on the East Coast, festivals can pack in 20,000 to 30,000 fans, like a country Woodstock.

Headrick prefers the small festivals, which are more intimate gatherings.

This year's festival is starting off on Friday night with a battle of the bluegrass bands, pitting local talent and regional acts against each other for a shot at $1,000 in prize money, said Bonnie Lohman, a coordinator of the festival.

The battle was added so that people who arrive early to the festival have some entertainment on Friday night and so that locals could get a chance to strut their stuff.

"Fully half of the people who come to the festival are from out of town, and some of them actually started showing up out there about Wednesday," Headrick said. "We wanted to make an attraction for the local musicians to have a venue where they could get involved and play as well."

National acts are brought in for Saturday and Sunday.

Artists playing this year include Dale Ann Bradley, who was named best female vocalist in 2007 and 2008 by the International Bluegrass Music Association.

"She is very well known in the bluegrass community," said Bonnie Lohman, a coordinator of the festival. "She's got one song called 'Piney Rose' and every time I listen to it, it just sends chills down my spine."

Other acts, many of them family bands, hail from Kentucky, California and Flagstaff.

Chris Stuart and Backcountry is a California-based band that includes a university music professor, a father and his two stepsons. They played at the Tucson Bluegrass Festival three years ago and are excited to return.

"We travel around a lot and play a lot of these bluegrass festivals and some of them, to be honest with you, are kind of uncomfortable," Stuart said. "(The Tucson Bluegrass Festival) is good in a lot of ways from a band perspective."

A nice venue, good sound equipment and a lineup of renowned acts make this festival fun to come to for the band, Stuart added.

In addition to the talented performers on stage, the appeal in bluegrass festivals lies in the jam sessions, workshops and camaraderie in the camp.

"There's not music in the evenings so you go back to the campsite, pull out your instruments, and wander around and find a group playing and play," Headrick said. "Typically you play with them for a while and then you pick up stakes and go find someone else to play with."

Beginners are welcome as well, and workshops on songwriting, singing, harmony and other bluegrass elements will be held.

"If you come in and you can play three chords and that's all you can do that's fine, you can play with us," Lohman said. "Pretty soon people will take you out back and teach you a little bit more of something they know."

Bluegrass music has a lot of standard songs, Headrick explained. Common chord progressions and structures mean musicians who have never met before can play and improvise together.

Headrick looks forward to jamming with people.

"It's a little bit of a reunion of like-minded people: people from out of town, people from different places," Headrick said. "You make some very close friends and have a good time."

The Tucson Bluegrass Festival takes place from 7 to 9 p.m., Friday, Oct. 24; and from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 25 and Sunday, Oct. 26, at Desert Diamond Casino, 1100 W. Pima Mine Road. The Friday-night battle of the bands is free. Daily admission on Saturday and Sunday costs $20. A weekend pass is $30. Children younger than 16 are admitted free with a paying adult. Camping is included in the price of admission. Visit desertbluegrass.org for more information.

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