Howard & Susan Anderson Sit a Spell with James Reams

It has come to my attention that we have a number of genuine pioneers of bluegrass right here in Arizona, and many of them are members of the ABA. So I thought it might be nice to find out a little bit more about them, and then share what I learned with the readers of the Beacon.

I have had the distinct pleasure of getting to know Howard and Susan Anderson over the years since I moved to Arizona. As members of the Arizona Bluegrass Association, bloggers, performers and jam hosts, these two are probably one of the most influential couples in the AZ bluegrass scene. It was an honor to “sit a spell” with them, and now to share their fond memories, insights, and advice with you and future generations of bluegrassers.

Susan grew up near a small town in southern Missouri on the northern edge of the Ozarks. Families would gather on warm summer nights to listen to music, mostly from amateurs. She got to see June Carter and the Carter Family, Porter Wagoner, and Harold Morrison several times, as they toured through small towns as members of the Ozark Jubilee (this was before they joined the Grand Ole Opry). To this day, Susan is still a diehard fan of Johnny Cash.

After Susan and Howard were married and living near Washington DC (they both worked in the Pentagon), they enjoyed concerts over the years featuring Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, Roy Clark and Buck Trent, Ricky Skaggs, The Johnson Mountain Boys, and Seldom Scene. Susan almost dragged Howard to the First Annual Harpers Ferry Fiddle and Banjo Contest in 1975. They sat in the sun for 2 days listening to banjos playing. Howard got so badly sunburned that his eyes were almost closed shut, but he couldn’t get the sound of the banjo out of his mind. When a colleague offered to sell him a banjo for $15, Howard thought he would give it a try. It looked impossible to play, but at 30 years of age, he decided to see what he could do.

He had numerous opportunities to turn tail and run. His first instructor said, “If your banjo did not cost more than $250, you should give up already.” Fortunately though, his banjo was deemed “playable”. His 10 years of experience on the guitar didn’t come close to preparing him for the banjo. Learning tablature was the one thing that made it possible for him to play this confangled instrument. That and practice…lots of it.

After about 40 hours of practice a week for over a year, Howard says he still wasn’t as good as a lot of 12-year-old banjo players in Virginia! But he kept at it. Jamming sessions proved to be very important. Playing with others helped with timing and provided the essential incentive to improve.

When they moved to Arizona in 1983, they immediately joined the ABA as they wanted to do their part to support bluegrass in their new home state. I sure don’t know where we would be without their contributions. Susan saw a need to help get the word out about all things bluegrass going on in our area, so she started emailing a list of events to any and every one that would give her their email address. As a bluegrass musician, you know you’ve made it in Arizona if you’re mentioned in one of her emails! Howard and Susan also responded to another major bluegrass need by opening their home for jamming until health reasons forced them to stop at the end of 2012. They may have had to cut back on their activities recently, but that doesn’t mean that their passion for bluegrass has waned. Both Howard and Susan said that they feel happiest when they play or listen to bluegrass music. Susan finds it hard not to tap her feet to the music or sing along. For Howard, there’s just something extremely satisfying when singing with a group that can really do three-part harmonies well. The song “Amanda” contains a verse that kind of sums it up for both of them:

“It’s a measure of people who don’t understand,
the pleasures of life in a hillbilly band.”

When asked what advice they would give to an up-and-coming bluegrass musician, they both agreed that keeping close to the “traditional” style is critical. Listen to the founders of bluegrass and don’t try to reinvent the wheel. And, even though you’re working for perfection, it’s important to learn how to disagree with others without being disagreeable.

Howard had some additional words of wisdom to share with banjo pickers: “Play with people that are better than you IF they will let you. You can learn a lot from them.” Many new banjo pickers try to play with a speed that they just can’t handle. Howard’s advice, “If you are missing notes and sound sloppy … slow down! Speed will come automatically if you practice enough.” Which gets back to the adage—practice, practice, practice, and then practice some more. There’s just no substitute.

As far as the future of bluegrass, this couple comes down firmly on the side of keeping bluegrass true to its roots. Fads have a way of swinging in and out of favor, and the current tendency to popularize bluegrass music by incorporating “rock” and “pop” stylings just doesn’t sound like bluegrass to them. They made a valid point when they stated that classical music is still being played and enjoyed today using the same arrangements as when it was written hundreds of years ago; and bluegrass can, too.
Susan and Howard, your contributions to bluegrass music in Arizona are truly appreciated. If “Bluegrass Royalty” wasn’t an oxymoron, you would wear that title well. You’ve earned the admiration and respect of those who have had the pleasure of getting to know you and participate in your weekly jam sessions. Your dedication to promoting bluegrass music has resulted in the expansion of the “bluegrass belt” from DC to AZ. While filling your shoes just isn’t possible, it will be interesting to see who steps in to host jamming sessions or keep everyone in the “loop” of what’s happening out there in Arizona bluegrass country. I’m sure all Beacon readers will agree that you have our heartfelt thanks for all you’ve done and are doing for bluegrass in our great state.