Valley Saltwire

Before Covid-19 clamped down on social events and gatherings, musical jams were big up and down the Valley. Most nights before Covid, in community halls, schoolhouses, clubrooms and Legions, you found seniors enjoying country music – and you were welcome to join in if you sang, played an instrument, or just liked to sit back and take it in.

Covid-19 firmly shut those jams down for a while, but the good news is that they’re back and the welcome mat is out. The focus again is on country music and as it was before Covid, everyone is welcome.

The format for the jams is simple: Wear a mask, show proof of vaccination, put your name on the list and wait your turn to perform. Most jams have sound systems, an MC who keeps everything in order and a few players that provide back up music.

For the most part, seniors make up the majority of participants at Valley jams. Some of those seniors sing at several jams and have a following. A typical example is laid-back guitarist/singer Johnny Graves, out of Aldershot, north of Kentville. Johnny, 60, sings at three and four different jams a week. At the jams he introduces himself as Johnny Trash just to provide a few laughs. “I go to the jams to have some fun,” he says. Graves, who favors the songs of Rita MacNeil, started singing and playing the guitar over a decade ago and is self-taught

Like Graves, Mark Clarke, of New Minas is a regular performer at the jams. Clarke MCs jams in Kentville and New Minas, which he organized originally. “Jams provide an atmosphere of music and fellowship,” Clarke says, explaining why he’s so involved with them. “People tell me that during the Covid crisis the only two places they’ve been going is out for groceries and to the jams.”

The main theme of the Valley jams is country music, says Clarke, who has been playing publicly for over 20 years and operates Mark Clarke Music. A strong American influence is evident. On any night you might hear of a mixture of country rock, Carter Family, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Jimmie Rogers and so on. Guitars are the dominant instrument but occasionally fiddlers, banjo and harmonica players drop in to give the jams variety.

While they’re enormously popular today – they put the ax to those long running variety concerts – there’s truly little that’s new in making music at get-togethers. The tradition for generations in the Valley was kitchen parties, community singsongs, variety concerts, barn raising soirees and shivarees. Most of this down-home music had old country origins, British, Irish, Scottish and European, but the format for all the meetings was the same – you dropped by to play or sing and inadvertently carry on a tradition that started in the early days of settlement.

As for the talent level at the Valley jams, it runs from “pretty good” to exceptional. Mark Clarke says that some of the best country music talent in the Valley performs at the jams. But how well you sing or play doesn’t matter; Entertaining and being entertained does. Most nights of the week there’s a jam going on somewhere in the Valley. Check out community Facebook sites and church halls, check with organizations such as Lions Clubs and the Royal Canadian Legion. You’ll be surprised by how many jams are happening near you, night after night. And most of them have seniors who are out there making music and making friends.

Johnny Graves and Mark Clarke are regular performers at several jams. Clarke MCs jams in Kentville and New Minas, jams he originally started and now supervises. (Michelle Coleman)
The popular Johnny Graves belts out a Rita MacNeil song at a Kentville jam. In the background are volunteer musicians backing seniors who turn up to sing. (Michelle Coleman)

Origin Of A Jam

Some of the jams running today began with informal get-togethers, a few friends sitting around in a kitchen. About two decades ago just such a jam started on a Saturday afternoon in the village of Centreville, Kings County. Soon no kitchen in the village was large enough to accommodate all the musicians showing up, and the jam moved to a small general store.

Word spread, the jam was moved to Friday night and the same problem occurred – as more and more musicians joined the ongoing jam, the store couldn’t accommodate everyone who wanted to sing and play.

Solution: Move the jam, lock, stock and guitars, to larger accommodations in Kentville, the Royal Canadian Legion Hall. As before, word spread and soon the popular Friday night jam spawned a similar edition in the nearby community of Meadowview. Today, both jams are accommodating seniors who want to make music and just listen to it.

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