News & Politics

Is Bluegrass Dying in DC?

Or is it just in a temporary ebb?

Is Bluegrass Dying in DC?
Rhonda Vincent & The Rage perform at Bluegrass Country in June.

Washington public-radio station WAMU announced in July that it plans to sell its FM signal and internet stream, Bluegrass Country. If no buyer emerges by the end of December, the station will go dark. Sadly, the station’s waning interest in bluegrass mirrors the musical style’s fortunes in the nation’s capital.

In the genre’s DC heyday, “you could go somewhere and see live bluegrass every night of the week,” says former WAMU host Eddie Stubbs.

The station “played an exceptionally important role in not just broadcasting bluegrass in Washington, DC, but also documenting the importance of the music,” says George Washington University ethnomusicologist Kip Lornell, who devotes a chapter to WAMU in a new book, Capital Bluegrass.

But off the airwaves, the music “is actually doing pretty well in Washington,” says Randy Barrett, president of the DC Bluegrass Union. He cites newer additions to the local circuit such as Gypsy Sally’s, the Hamilton, and the annual Kingman Island Festival. He and other fans are looking for a way to save Bluegrass Country. Bluegrass in DC, says Barrett, “ebbs and flows, but it’s not dying.”

Interactive Map: Hover over to read important spots in Washington’s bluegrass history

Illustration by Phong Nguyen.

1. The Birchmere

Local bluegrass band the Seldom Scene had a two-decade residency at this Alexandria venue. “In all honesty, the Seldom Scene built the Birchmere,” owner Gary Oelze once said. “They made us famous.”

2. The Cellar Door

This tiny Georgetown club, which closed in 1981, featured blue-grass shows as well as Neil Young, Miles Davis, and others.

3. The Famous Restaurant

Scotty Stoneman’s Blue Grass Champs and Roy Clark—when he wasn’t playing with Jimmy Dean’s Texas Wildcats—played at this spot next to the old Trailways bus station in downtown DC.

4. Lyon Park Community Center

The Capital Area Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Association holds jams at this Arlington site the second and fourth Sundays of each month.

5. The Red Fox Inn

The Seldom Scene got its start at this Bethesda venue, now Positano restaurant. In addition to local talents, it booked names including Emmylou Harris, Del McCoury, and Ricky Skaggs.