Back in 1998, after a tree fell onto her Kidwell farmhouse office, Frying Pan Farm Park Historian Yvonne Johnson (now the park’s manager) was working in a temporary office in a construction trailer. A knock on that trailer door introduced her to a woman with a Louisiana accent and a little dog named Missy. Debbie Billodeaux had an idea to encourage musicians to gather and play on the front porch of Frying Pan’s new Country Store. Johnson loved the Acoustic Jam idea and thought the sessions might draw a handful of people. In less than a year, 20 to 40 people were showing up to play at each jam. “That kind of gathering was traditional in the time period the park preserves,” Johnson said.
Since then, visitors have enjoyed regular Acoustic Jams as musicians come together in a warm, friendly setting to play harmonies on guitars, banjos, mandolins, dobros, fiddles and bass. According to Johnson, a couple hundred park patrons might see the musicians play on a nice day. “It was so gratifying to see the response from the visitors,” Johnson said.
Billodeaux’s dream of having a place for musicians to play and introduce their music to new audiences is still going strong. They still gather, pick and strum at different locations around the park depending on what space is available.
The park will mark the 20th anniversary of the Acoustic Jam on Sunday, October 21, 2018. Looking back, Johnson said, “Debbie came up with a great idea that improves visitors’ experiences and doesn’t cost the park anything. Over the years, the jams have touched the lives of thousands of people.”
Estimating an average of 20 musicians per session over about 50 Jams a year for 20 years, a conservative estimate of attendance at the gatherings is just over 20,000 musician visits. That doesn’t count the visitors who sit a spell and listen.
Here is the history of the Acoustic Jam, in Debbie Billodeaux’s own words.
“The Acoustic Jam started out as a once-a-month jam on the third Sunday of each month. I was inspired to start the jam when I saw the Country Store being opened up at the park in the spring/summer of that year. I thought this would be a perfect place to jam and, I must say, very convenient for me as I live close by. I liked jams because I could play with others, learn new songs, and the flexibility of a jam worked well with my busy schedule. At the time, I was going to the CABOMA jam (Capitol Area Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Association) in Arlington. Yvonne and I talked about how a jam would work and be reflective of how people historically enjoyed music in a rural farming community. We intentionally set the Frying Pan jam up on the third Sunday so it would not interfere with the CABOMA jam in Arlington (second and fourth Sundays).
“The first jam was attended by less than 10 people, but it grew steadily. It was usually bigger in the summer when people can be outside. The early jams were at the Country Store, which is near the playground, and it has always been interesting to see how kids react to live music and seeing a variety of instruments close-up. In the early years, my guitar teacher at Chantilly Music, Bill Suter, would often suggest that his students get out and play with other people. He would tell them about the jam, and a dozen or more people came from his referral. I often send out an email reminder to those at the jam reminding them of the jam date and telling them about other events and jams in the area. Jim Norman is a local resident and dobro and bass player who attends the jam, and he pushed for us to increase it to twice a month. In March 2002, we began holding jams twice a month.
“The park staff typically will ask if there are a couple of people that can play music at the Farm Harvest Day or an event for the Friends group, and so we typically do that once or twice a year. Several years the jam has been the closing act on the performance stage at the 4-H Fair. Sometimes a picture of those performances showed up in a newspaper. The Frying Pan Jam was featured once as the cover story on the Herndon Connection. Through the years, we have had a couple of people that show up to listen on a regular basis.
“There was a lady who came regularly often requesting certain songs. She grew up in West Virginia and had heard many early country legends sing as a child. She was a music fan, and she would have her husband drive her over. When he was too old to drive, they would have friends bring them. I do not know her name, but I took a picture of her and a friend and gave her a copy.
“We have had a couple of professional musicians stop by. It is a real treat for us. We have quite a few people that are in now or have been in regional bands. We have had a number of people that have met others at the jam and then formed small bands. We also have a lot of beginners, so there is usually a big mix of experience at the jam.”
The Acoustic Jam musicians have been the closing act for the annual 4-H Fair at Frying Pan for the last five years, Johnson said. “Debbie Billodeaux’s wonderful idea, hard work and decades of dedication have been an amazing gift to the thousands of musicians and audience members that have enjoyed the Frying Pan Jam.”