Bluegrass pickers converge on Butler for annual January Ice Jam festival
For the past 21 years, the second weekend of January has meant one thing to western Pennsylvania bluegrass fans.
It meant a pilgrimage to Butler for the annual January Ice Jam , where 25 bluegrass bands from the region will gather along with thousands of fans and fellow pickers at the Days Inn Conference Center on Route 8.
Each band will take the stage to perform an unpaid 25-minute set on Jan. 11 and 12, but that’s just the formal part.
The hotel is booked solid during the festival, and attendees can wander the halls for hours on end, since just about every room is filled to the brim with people picking strings and sawing fiddles deep into the wee hours of the morning.
“I really love getting to spend time with my friends in the bluegrass community,” said Amy George, one of the festival’s organizers and a member of the bluegrass band Bits’n Pieces, which has been around for about three decades. “There’s so many great things about the weekend: raising money for our charity, (the Bluegrass Relief Fund), helping people in need and having a good time.”
Donations are accepted throughout the weekend and go to the Bluegrass Relief Fund as well as to support bluegrass programming at radio station WYEP.
The festival has grown steadily in size over the years, said George, who remembers running around the hotel the first year or two asking guests to create bands on the fly.
“I remember begging people to put a band together,” she said. “Now we’re having to turn bands away because we don’t want to have bands performing all the way until midnight.”
The hotel provides several “jam rooms,” which fill up with anywhere from five to 35 musicians, calling out tunes and going around the room taking turns soloing.
Many of the Ice Jam performers are part-time musicians working day jobs. That can make scheduling time slots a challenge for George, who typically does not have the schedule finalized until the week of the festival.
“Trying to make sure I can give each band what they’re requesting is tough,” she said. “Putting that schedule together is one of the things I really work the hardest at, to make sure our band members are happy. Because without the music and the bands, there’s nothing.
“I really appreciate the time and talent,” she said. “I have a band myself, so I know the time it takes.”
Music (on the stage, that is) at the 22nd annual January Ice Jam will be from 7 to 10 p.m. on Jan. 11, and from 1 to 10:30 p.m. on Jan. 12.
The Days Inn Conference Center is at 139 Pittsburgh Road in Butler.
For more, see JanuaryIceJam.com .
Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Patrick at 724-850-2862, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @MurrysvilleStar.