Arts for Youth Spotlight: Slim Pickins
Band celebrates 20 years
By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | February 23, 2016Twenty years ago, a train, an idea and a high school teacher merged, and Slim Pickins (bluegrass group) emerged.
"In 1996, the Freedom Train passed through Bristol," Bandy Brownlee, music teacher at Tennessee High School and director of Slim Pickins, says. "The idea behind this venture was to celebrate local culture (food, music, dance, etc.). So when the Freedom Train journey began, students would perform for the local crowd who would show up at the train stops. I was asked by the Bristol Freedom Train committee to form a student bluegrass group. The very first band that year was named Awesome Possum by its members. Doyle Lawson, Bristol's bluegrass legend, had two daughters in this group – Suzi and Kristi Lawson. Later the group members renamed the band Slim Pickins."
The group originally planned to perform only for the Freedom Train event. "But by the end of the school year we had been asked to play for several other events," Brownlee says. "It was the students themselves who suggested that the band continue. But because this group was extracurricular (practice outside of the school day), I assumed that Slim Pickins would be short lived." Brownlee's students proved him wrong.
"In the early years, Slim Pickins probably averaged four or five rehearsals a month. The group would play at our choral concerts and two or three other events during the year. Over time, the band began to be noticed by the general public, and invitations to perform began to pour in. Eventually, Slim Pickins became a group that often rehearses five days a week at 6:15 a.m. We have more invitations than we can accommodate which is a nice problem to have," Brownlee says.
In addition to getting up extremely early to work with the group, Brownlee has to create a new band every year. "Folks don't realize that Slim Pickins is a brand new band at the beginning of each school year. Most of the current band members have been together for two or three years, which is unusual. Luckily, there is amazing student talent in the South. It seems that when band members graduate, there are always students ready to step up and fill in. Typically, Slim Pickins members hustle in August to mesh and learn to play as a group," he says.
As Slim Pickins changes personnel, the music they play evolves to meet the talents of the group. "One year we had a group of four men and just one lady. One year we had an all-boy band. This year is a typical mix of genders with three ladies and two fellows. Our choice of musical selections is democratic. I work up arrangements of songs that are appropriate for the current group. And members themselves suggest titles for us. Our band puts the unique Slim Pickins spin on every tune we perform: thick vocal harmonies on the choruses, singing that is intense and in tune, straight-ahead song structure that is both simple and sincere. But depending on the group members, our song selection will lean toward modern or toward traditional acoustic music," Brownlee says.
This year, Slim Pickins is performing a song written by Brownlee's daughter, Addie, an Americana singer/songwriter living in New York City. The song is called "Addie Pray," written about a character of the same name in the movie "Paper Moon."
Brownlee has many precious memories of the past 20 years with Slim Pickins, from the first bluegrass band performance for the Freedom Train to Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion.
"I treasure the memory of that first bluegrass band performance in '96. And there is a special kind of excitement when we perform for elementary schools. That age group is spontaneous. They don't hesitate to clap to the beat and sometimes sing along if they know the tune we're performing. Traditionally, bluegrass is infused with gospel music. I can't begin to count how many congregations we've entertained. That brings its own kind of excitement. In 2011 we performed for the Tennessee State School Board conference at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville. By statewide video audition, we won the right to entertain that unusual crowd. It was pretty intense for Slim Pickins to play for 1,200 principals, school district directors and school board members. Last April, Slim Pickins performed on the PBS "Songs of the Mountain' show. We expect that performance to be aired in March or April. We all love our performances for local bluegrass lovers such as the Monday night Pickin' Porch at 620 State in Bristol, the Crooked Road General Store near Gate City, Virginia, opening for Doyle Lawson before a packed house at the Paramount in 2002, and the Rhythm & Roots Reunion performances. Best memories of all? This is easy — I'll always cherish those memories of early morning rehearsals — silent nods of appreciation for a "phat' break played by one of the band members, peals of laughter when a singer accidentally sings the wrong lyrics with unintended hilarious meaning and the intent look on everyone's faces as they break in a new tune.
"We love outdoor concerts. It's fun to crank up the sound system and rock that particular part of town. Last semester Slim Pickins enjoyed playing outside for the anniversary of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. We play for clubs, churches, schools and any organization that wants to hear our brand of bluegrass. And Slim Pickins always appears at our choral concerts. Where can you hear music from the Renaissance period as well as songs written by Doc Watson and the Stanley brothers in the same concert? Only at Tennessee High School," Brownlee says.
This year's group is composed of returning seniors Caleb Hardin (banjo, guitar and foot percussion) and Ashley Tragler (lead guitar and washboard); third year veterans are Bella Bane (guitar) and Annie Osborne (mandolin). The fifth member is Annie's brother, freshman Daniel Osborne (doghouse bass).
Slim Pickins continues to entertain. Upcoming concerts include Elizabeth Chapel, Avoca Christian Church and the Virginia Duff Arts Festival at the Paramount on March 6. They will be the house band at the THS Talent Show in April and appear in a special role at the THS Spring Show on May 19.
Brownlee has high hopes for the future. "It was a pleasant surprise when my family moved to Bristol, and I encountered the warmth, generosity and talent that is the South. With a combination like this, surely our fine arts programs, including mine, will prosper."
NOTE: Slim Pickins performs at the Paramount Center for the Arts, Bristol, Virginia for the Virginia Duff Arts Festival at 3 p.m. on March 6. March 13 at 10:40 a.m., they perform at Avoca Christian Church in Bristol and at Elizabeth Chapel near Bristol at 10 a.m., April 10.
>> Slim Pickens alumni find success