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Hamptons Life

Jul 10, 2018 1:13 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Buddy Merriam To Bring Bluegrass To The Southampton Arts Center

Buddy Merriam
Jul 10, 2018 1:13 PM

From being struck by lightning at a bluegrass festival to learning mandolin directly from bluegrass icon Bill Monroe, Buddy Merriam has not had an average life.

Mr. Merriam first discovered his love of bluegrass in the early 1970s through his love of the Grateful Dead. He said that Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia was featured on a bluegrass album that he found and loved, especially the songs of first generation bluegrass bands that were covered. “The first time I heard it, it was what I’d been looking for my whole life,” he said.

After that, he bought a mandolin and slowly taught himself. That is, until Bill Monroe started teaching him after he was struck by lightning at the first Berkshire Mountains Bluegrass Festival in 1976 while watching a performance. Mr. Merriam said that he woke up in a hospital 10 hours later and Mr. Monroe took him under his wing from then on.

“I’m a liberal-minded northern gentleman and Bill Monroe was a southern conservative gentleman, but we just connected,” Mr. Merriam said of their relationship.

He said that every time Mr. Monroe played in the Northeast, he would expect him to come, eventually pulling him on stage to perform. “One time he was heading to the stage and he looked back at me and said, ‘Well you better bring that mandolin with you,’ and I looked at him like he had two heads, and then he said, ‘Well, you wanna play, don’t you?’”

“For me as a northern bluegrass musician, to be accepted by Bill Monroe and to share the stage with him was just amazing. I mean, it’s not like he needed another mandolin player on stage with him,” Mr. Merriam laughed. He said that for years he tried to play as close to the style of Mr. Monroe as he could until he started writing his own music.

Mr. Merriam actually doesn’t write his music down. “I’m just no good at it,” he said. He hires music teachers and composers to transcribe his music for him. “I’m the luckiest man in the world to do what I love, but now it’s most important to me to archive this material for another generation down the road.”

He has written more than 1,000 compositions for the mandolin, though he said he puts most of them on his recorder so he can listen and edit them that way. “Thankfully, my neighbors like the mandolin, because I can work on one piece for two hours and just keep playing it until I like it,” he said.

The first tune he ever wrote was called “Something Good” for his niece. From then on, he said every kid in the family had to get one.

It hasn’t all been easy for Mr. Merriam. He had a quadruple heart bypass in the fall of 2017, followed by surgery on his leg, but it didn’t stop him from playing. As soon as he could, he started playing mandolin again, and he said he even thought of some tunes while at Stony Brook University Hospital recovering.

Mr. Merriam said he is grateful for all the opportunities that bluegrass has given him, including foreign tours. He has traveled places he said he never could have without his music.

Aside from touring and playing gigs with his band Back Roads, Mr. Merriam hosts Long Island’s only bluegrass radio show, “Blue Grass Time,” weekly on WUSB 90.1 FM. “I want to turn new people on to the joys of bluegrass music. That’s why I’ve done it every Wednesday night for 27 years,” he said.

Back Roads has been Mr. Merriam’s band for 38 years, though he said band members change with time.

Mr. Merriam said he can’t wait to play on the East End again. There isn’t much of a bar scene for bluegrass, and he likes playing outdoor shows and festivals.

If Mr. Merriam is anything, he is passionate. He loves bluegrass and he said he hopes that one day there will be a golden age of mandolin and its popularity will increase. “I’m gonna try to keep doing this until I can no longer get up and play,” he said.

Buddy Merriam and Back Roads will play at the Southampton Arts Center on Saturday, July 14, from 7 to 9 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, visit southamptonartscenter.org.

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