Where the (blue)grass grows
The Touchet Valley Acoustic Music Project has deep roots in Waitsburg, stretching into more than 20 years of inspiring musicians of all ages.
March 24, 2022
When Kate Hockersmith convinced me to join her music group after school in 2010, I never thought I'd be writing about it in The Times more than a decade later.
I spent much of my childhood inspired by the Blue Mountain Troublemakers, a bluegrass band led by Hockersmith, who traveled as far as Sasayama, Japan (Walla Walla's sister city), to perform. Walking into the Hockersmith home as a peewee 4-H'er, I was awestruck by the music flowing out of the basement.
The Troublemakers formed in 2003, after Hockersmith's son, John, watched 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' and talked his friends into watching the movie that started a bluegrass revival in the country.
The Troublemakers' success opened the door to Hockersmith working kids who would meet weekly in the music room at Waitsburg High School, pursuing a shared dream of having a bluegrass band.
"Chris Philbrook and Kavin Kuykendal showed up on my porch one day, one wanting to learn guitar and the other wanting a banjo teacher," Hockersmith said with a laugh. "So, I thought, 'well, I guess we are doing this again!"
Those guitar and banjo lessons led to the band The Rezonators, which became The Barnstormers, and ended as Switchgrass Delta.
"A lot of people think that the Troublemakers were part of TVAMP," Hockersmith said. "But that was just us being moms at that point."
The Touchet Valley Acoustic Music Project (TVAMP) didn't come to be until 2013 after it joined the Rural Youth Enrichment Services. A year after joining RYES, TVAMP formed Switchgrass Delta. The band followed very closely in the Troublemakers' footsteps, taking their music to an international level after traveling to the Westport Bluegrass Festival in Ireland.
Switchgrass Delta was the first official band under TVAMP's Youth Bluegrass Band program. This program offers bands instruction and coaching and helps them earn travel expenses by performing anywhere and everywhere.
TVAMP offers two free of charge, Bluegrass Kids youth programs, for ages 6-11 and 12-18. The youngest group spent most of the last two years learning via Zoom, which Hockersmith admitted was challenging. The next session for the younger Bluegrass Kids begins in June 2022.
The older students meet in person, once a week, for practice and instruction with local musicians. Accomplished students earn the opportunity to travel to the four-day Wintergrass Bluegrass Festival, held annually in Bellevue, Washington. The next session for the 12-18 age group starts in June 2022.
TVAMP offers two music libraries for budding musicians to utilize. There is a lending library for stringed instruments, including guitars, mandolins, fiddles, and others associated with bluegrass. Hockersmith said students were allowed to keep instruments with them to practice during their pandemic downtime. There are 36 instruments available, keeping music-making accessible in the community.
The second lending library offers sound equipment. Currently, it has a complete sound system with amps, mics, speakers, and a mixer. Music, mic, instrument, and speaker stands are available to be added to the system.
Since 2007, Hockersmith has hosted the Mythical, Moveable Blue Mountain Bluegrass Jam most Friday evenings. Jams have been held at the Delaney Building at the Dayton Library, Ten Ton Coffee, Walla Walla Public Library, galleries, and private homes, and most recently at the Big Red Barn on Lower Waitsburg Road.
Hockersmith said Kristin Darrow made the barn available for jams during the pandemic. The sprawling main floor gives plenty of space for people to sit far enough apart to play and sing safely. Darrow offered the space and TVAMP secured a grant to purchase patio heaters and an electric generator to bring the jam together this last winter.
A weekly newsletter is sent out to announce where the jam will be held for the week, said Hockersmith. You can sign up for the newsletter by emailing TVAMP1@charter.net.
Whether it's luck or just something in the water, the Touchet Valley is full of talented musicians. Hockersmith said that the program is made possible by a small village of those musicians. She would like to extend a big thank you to Joe Patrick, Becky Wilson, and former Waitsburg High School music teacher Brad Green for all their help and support over the last decade. Bluegrass aficionados, including Jimmye Turner and Glenn Morrison, have dedicated countless hours helping TVAMP and performing at concerts.
If you would like to see these musicians in their element, check out the calendar and come to a jam. Whether you're there to play, sing, or just listen, you're always welcome!
Both TVAMP and RYES are run by a volunteer staff. More information can be found by visiting http://www.ruralyes.org.