UT bluegrass musicians bring rhythm and sound to Speedway

Alessandra Jara

On any given Friday afternoon, Erica McCormick can be found outside the SAC with a guitar in her hand and a tambourine on her foot, surrounded by other musicians filling the area with their fast-paced bluegrass music. 

“Bluegrass is like country music without the drums and hyped up on caffeine,” said biology junior Matthew Lyons. “We play a lot of favorites and new people come every week. Sometimes we get jazzy, sometimes we get blues-y, so it’s different every [time].”

Lyons is one of the founding members of Burnt Orange Bluegrass, a UT student organization that comes together every Friday from 4 to 6 p.m. to play music outside the SAC. They have no fees or sign up sheets, instead attracting new members with the sound of their music and the promise that anyone, no matter their major or skill level, is welcome to join.  

“It’s a nice little community,” Lyons said. “You get so caught up playing with the people around you that you don’t even notice the people walking by.” 

Finance sophomore Max Malone was classically trained in the violin, but didn’t expect to take it up again in college. After attending a Burnt Orange Bluegrass jam session last year, Malone joined the group despite not knowing anything about the genre.

“Bluegrass, in the jam session context especially, is very improv-centric and very open ended,” Malone said. “There’s a much more fluid structure to it. It’s very different [from] the incredibly precise environment that I was used to. It [took] a lot of growth as a person and as a musician.”  

After being asked to play at UT’s Tour Across Texas meal on campus last semester, the informal group pulled a few of its members to form a new, smaller band consisting of Lyons, Malone and three others called the Engimatic Strangers. They stuck together following their performance and went on to play gigs at Hole in the Wall, Cherrywood Coffee House and Spider House.

Though the Enigmatic Strangers have disbanded, some of its members continue their pursuits in show business. McCormick, a Plan II and environmental science freshman, and radio-television-film sophomore Sol Chase perform as Three Quarter Moon, a band they hope to develop into a professional act, and former Enigmatic Strangers member James Smith recently released demos under the moniker Not Jim. Despite heading in different directions individually, the three musicians return to their community roots every week to jam on campus with Burnt Orange Bluegrass.

Chase said most bluegrass musicians share a common vocabulary of 50-100 traditional songs, so meeting someone with the same repertoire forms an instant connection. 

“A jam group is like the casual version of a band,” Chase said. “You share an interest and you bond over that. Bluegrass is not mainstream music, so it’s a lot about the community aspect and about inviting people to jam sessions, especially those who don’t play bluegrass.” 

Mechanical engineering sophomore Uriel Buitrago often stops to watch Burnt Orange Bluegrass on his way back to Jester. He said the improvisational aspect of the jams is very entertaining.

“It’s a really chill environment,” Buitrago said. “You don’t have to go far off campus to enjoy some  good music.”