It’s never too late to learn a new skill — which is why the 29th annual Western Swing Music Festival is hosting a new Western Swing Camp before the festival begins.
The whole event is organized by the Northwest Western Swing Music Society, which has been hootin’ and hollerin’ in Washington since it formed in 1983.
For those not in the know, Western Swing is a highly improvisational form of country jazz that was born in mid-western states in the early 1920s and ’30s. One of its key features is the use of rural string instruments, like steel guitars and twin fiddles, rather than the traditional big band instruments that were also popular during this time period.
But it’s not just the music that makes Western Swing so lively, said Jeanne Yearian, the Northwest Western Music Society president and Maple Valley/Renton resident.
“The dancers and the people listening help make the music,” she said in a previous interview. “Their interaction with the people on stage, with the musicians, their feedback, that give-and-take, helps make the music.”
The Western Swing Music Festival, from Thursday, Aug. 8 to Sunday, Aug. 11, is filled with dozens of live performances, jam session opportunities, and — of course — an open dance floor, all topped with a Western Swing Hall of Fame induction ceremony and a dance contest with cash prizes.
And this year, in honor of Mayme “Lou” Bischoff, a dedicated member of the Northwest Western Swing Music Society, first responders (active duty police, firefighters, and EMS) are being provided free admission to the festival, plus one complimentary meal and beverage every day.
“In her immediate family were several first responders and veterans,” Yearian said. “She took every opportunity to express her admiration and gratefulness for their contributions to our communities and country. Her expressions carried over into western swing functions, honoring their service during showcases and festivals.”
But to get chord fingers stretched and dance feet loose, Suze (pronounced Suzie) Spencer will be leading the Western Swing Camp from Aug. 7 to the 11 in order to teach folks how to jam, play with a western swing band, and move along to the music.
“Music is a wonderful thing,” Spencer said. “It gives you something positive to do. It’s very good for the brain and the neuron connectors. And it’s the same thing with dancing — we all have busy lives, and sometimes stressful lives, and there’s just nothing so stimulating in a relaxing way [than] playing music and dancing.”
Spencer hails from a family prominent in the Western Swing scene, with her grandfather having performed with several prominent leaders of the Western Swing movement in the 1930s. She also grew up watching Karl Farr, the original guitarist with the Sons of the Pioneers.
In the late ’80s, she managed a music store and for 15 years, taught immersive Western Swing music lessons; Spencer continues to teach individual and group music lessons around southern Washington at festivals, universities, and camps.
This particular camp won’t be for people completely unfamiliar with an instrument — you should already know the basics, she said.
“We’ll work with the people who are a little less accomplished because the whole idea is to get them more accomplished, but it isn’t [time to] borrow a guitar and take a class [you’ve] never done before,” Spencer continued. “They might have a hard time.”
Nearly any instrument can be incorporated into a Western Swing Band, so feel free to bring your accordion or harmonica. And if you can’t play any instrument, you’re certainly welcome to come sing.
“It’s fun to make music with your friends,” Spencer said. “Making music with your friends is emotionally, socially, and intellectually stimulating… [and] it’s much more fun to play music with others, because you have to learn to speak the language, and you’re speaking the musical language with other people.”
She hopes that younger musicians will come to learn the Western Swing style and play along with some of the old timers.
“It doesn’t matter what your age is — when you’re playing music together, it makes no different at all,” she said. “There’s not a lot of things multiple generations can participate in together on an equal level.”
The camp starts off at 1 p.m. Aug. 7 at the Expo Center Field House with attendee check-in, teacher introductions, and class descriptions.
For the next three days, classes are in the morning and workshops and band labs in the afternoon, followed by jam sessions or breakouts into the main festival.
But not only are students learning Western Swing and how to play with a band, but they’ll be gearing up for their own performances on Aug. 10, demonstrating what they’ve learned to festival attendees.
For those looking to learn how to dance to Western Swing, the dance class is slated for 11 to noon on Saturday, Aug. 10, right before the camp plays at the festival.
More information about the camp and festival schedules can be found at www.nwwsms.com/events.htm.
Festival tickets can be bought at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4191655: day passes vary between $15 on Friday and Saturday and $10 on Sunday; weekend passes for all three days are $35; and children under 10 can come free. Additionally, families and groups can reserve tables to rest their feet and enjoy their meals for between $150 and $300, depending on the day.
Music camp tickets can be bought at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4101389 for $130. As of Monday, July 22, only a few spots remained.
If you want to join the Northwest Western Swing Music Society and its mission in keeping Western Swing music thriving in the Pacific Northwest, the nonprofit holds monthly board meetings at the Lynnwood Eagles on the second Sunday of every month (except this August) at 10:30 a.m. These board meetings are accompanied by jam sessions from 1 to 5 p.m.