Burnt Orange Bluegrass plays live music, keeps bluegrass tradition alive

Dina Barrish

From the foot of the Martin Luther King Jr. statue, eight student musicians holding their respective instruments spotted another student holding a viola case. They didn’t know who she was, but that didn’t stop them from inviting her to play songs with them. 

“She was like, ‘Oh, I guess,’” said biology junior Andrew Wagner. “We (all) just started laughing, … it’s literally that informal. I love how inclusive we are, how accepting to anybody (we are).” 

Wagner is a guitarist for Burnt Orange Bluegrass, the only student bluegrass band at UT. Along with other students, he performs at various gigs and fills campus with the sounds of guitars, fiddles and banjos. Founded as an official UT organization in 2015, Burnt Orange Bluegrass plays a range of live music — anything from modern covers to classic bluegrass hits.

“Bluegrass music is country or folk music on steroids,” Wagner said. “Getting up and playing in front of a crowd is not the easiest thing to do. … It gives us this sense of community and friendship. Music is the one thing that ties us all together. … It’s a way for us to express ourselves.” 

On April 17, Burnt Orange Bluegrass competed in UT’s annual campuswide talent show, Texas Revue. The audience voted the band “crowd favorite.” 

“Practicing enough makes perfect, but it’s not about that,” said Chris Cheek, a vocalist, guitarist and radio-television-film sophomore. “This group’s not about that either. It’s just about having fun, kicking back, letting loose.” 

Cheek said no one in Burnt Orange Bluegrass had ever played bluegrass music before joining. They each learned through participating in the band’s “jams,” which are live concerts every Friday from 4-6 p.m on the East Mall. 

“It’s all about listening to everyone, watching what everyone’s doing, and then it becomes just crazy natural,” Creek said. “It’s just that type of music where anything goes. … It’s welcoming, it’s familiar.” 

By the end of his first jam, Wagner said he didn’t want to stop.

“I do so many extracurriculars, … but playing music is an escape from all that,” Wagner said. “When everything’s been on Zoom for the past year, going to campus and being able to play music in person with other people, it’s just awesome.” 

Radio-television-film freshman Travis Flippo said he started in Burnt Orange Bluegrass as a guitarist, but the other band members encouraged him to pick up the mandolin. Now, Flippo said he plays mandolin solos and also sings lead or harmony parts. 

“I was overwhelmed by (the band’s) positive energy,” Flippo said. “All the guys are really excited to be there, and that kind of attitude is really, really welcome in a musician’s environment because a lot of people can be very negative. Music is the beginning and the end for us.” 

Because bluegrass’ roots date back to the 1600’s, Flippo said he loves being able to play bluegrass with peers his own age and keep the tradition alive. 

“The titans of bluegrass are either old, dead or both,” Flippo said. “Bluegrass is something that will make you smile and make you toe tap, something that can bring people joy and contribute a lot to their lives.”

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the April 27 issue of The Daily Texan. This article has been corrected to spell Chris Cheek’s name correctly. The Texan regrets this error.