Sunday, April 11, 2021

Remembering Bluegrass for Next Generation

by Edward Rock

The Bluegrass for the Next Generation (BGNG) project was a unique program at SUNY Plattsburgh that many colleges do not have the opportunity to offer to their students. Being a fiddler and a music major, I was surprised and extremely happy to join such a program when I came to SUNY Plattsburgh. Unfortunately, the Spring 2020 semester was the program’s last, as it ran out of funding and is not being offered anymore. I sat down with the Coordinator of the BGNG program, the accomplished bluegrass banjo player Stephen Light of the Sociology Department, to talk about the program.

“Way back in 2012, the man who was the donor for the program was retired and lived in Florida,” Light said. “But he really was a fan of the Gibson Brothers, who are alums of SUNY Plattsburgh, and so he chose SUNY Plattsburgh as a place to donate some money with the idea of getting students more aware of Bluegrass. He donated a considerable amount of money.”

The program was originally established to support music student scholarships, introduce a Bluegrass course on campus, provide funding for instruments and lessons for students as well as guest presenters and artists-in-residence, and create a student Bluegrass band which became the Cardinal Pickers.

“The project went on from 2012 to now, which is almost 10 years,” Light said. “We were able to do all those things. So it was a great success.”

Other faculty and staff played a major role in the BGNG program during its lifetime. Tim Hartnett was a librarian at Feinberg Library, but he was also a very important member of the

BGNG Executive Committee. Tim died in April 2020, much to the dismay of those that knew him.

“Tim was well loved,” Light said. “There were several key people involved with this and I would have to say that Tim and Stuart Voss were probably the two key people in the project from the start to the finish.”

Stuart Voss is an emeritus faculty member of the History and Latin American Studies Departments. Voss was very involved in the project and was on its board of directors for many years.

“The BGNG Project was quite visionary, premised on the idea that Bluegrass music could reach a wider audience among younger listeners,” Voss said. “Over the near decade of its existence, it succeeded in building a small group of musicians on campus—through academic instruction and club activities—who steadily improved to the point of becoming an accomplished ensemble.” However, the project never acquired a significant number of student listeners —ie., the ‘New Generation’. In addition, the original group of faculty/staff who formed the organizing committee dwindled in interest and numbers.”

Another issue for the program was the initial donation was the only major funding the program received. “Sadly, the initial vision—at least on the Plattsburgh State campus—proved unsustainable.” Voss said.

Tom Venne is a guitarist and singer in the bluegrass band Beartracks, and he was affiliated with the BGNG program for several years as an instructor for guitar, vocals and the Bluegrass Ensemble.

“I thoroughly enjoyed working with the students and with the music department faculty. Becker, the department chair, was especially welcoming, inclusive and supportive of the BGNG program,” Venne said. “I am grateful that I was able to be a part of the BGNG experience. It was exciting to see the progress made by  students involved, both as musicians and as entertainers. Their enthusiasm for Bluegrass music and performing made it a pleasure to be involved with the program.”

Despite the program seeming to end with a fizzle due to the coronavirus pandemic (several concerts in the Spring 2020 semester were cancelled), it will forever remain an important part of the lives of those that participated in it.

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