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Spring String Gathering

Paul Biere, of Dodgeville, plays with a group during the Spring String Gathering.

As they ascended the stairwells of the Clarion Hotel and Convention Center this weekend, guests could hear the sweet, twangy sounds of music becoming louder. But the tunes were not coming from a radio.

On the hotel’s fourth and fifth floors, bluegrass and old-time music aficionados gathered to jam. They found space in hallways, guest rooms and even in front of the vending machines on one floor.

The Spring String Gathering, a bluegrass and old-time jam event, is in its second year.

“The idea is to get people from all over Wisconsin and people in border states, or whatever, to get together and pick,” said organizer Brian Ray of Middleton.

The event’s three founders come from Middleton, Brodhead and Belleville. They felt Baraboo provided a central location for those traveling to the event and gave people a unique atmosphere in which to play.

Several hundred musicians descended upon the hotel over the weekend, some coming from as far away as Minnesota, Missouri and Michigan. The idea was to have an indoor event and break up some of the monotony of winter.

“In every nook and cranny, there’s going to be someone picking,” Ray said, looking up and down the hotel corridor.

He’s been interested in music his whole life and picked up the mandolin about 11 years ago.

“I bought one to see if I would like it, and I became obsessed with it,” he said.

He said he’s always been drawn to bluegrass and enjoys the chance to play in various configurations.

The Spring String Gathering event featured jam sessions with host bands Art Stevenson & High Water and White Mule, who also performed a concert Saturday evening at the Al. Ringling Theatre. And folks gathered for an old-time called dance on Friday night. In between the organized fun, they just jammed.

“We’ll have jams in the bar at the hotel to entertain folks that are just coming,” Ray said.

Maggie Magnuson of Rockford, Ill., and her husband Tim attended the weekend event. Some friends had participated last year, so the Magnusons decided it might be fun.

“My husband and I both play, and it’s a good opportunity to hang out with some friends and play music and meet people,” she said.

Magnuson has been playing the guitar for about 15 years, and her husband has been playing for 35.

She said she really enjoys the randomness of the jam environment.

“You just share the music,” she said. “ … What’s also nice about these events is they accept all levels. You don’t have to be an expert at anything. Jam circles are always very accepting.”

Magnuson said she enjoyed meeting new people and seeing some smiling faces she hadn’t seen in some time.

“It’s a great group of people,” she said, adjusting a brightly colored scarf around her neck. “No matter where you go, you always meet people you have something in common with.”

Logan Lang, 18, of Appleton, dropped by the gathering all by himself. He toted his banjo up and down the hotel hallways, listening and looking for his first spot to sit down and play a little.

Lang said he was in Madison for the weekend and had read about the event online on a forum for banjo players.

He has been into music since he was a little kid and first picked up the instrument about two years ago.

“It’s a really welcoming community,” Lang said.

He said listening to Punch Brothers, who he recently saw in concert, really got him into the banjo and related genres.

“It’s so much fun to play,” he said.

Ray said he was grateful for the support of sponsors Whole Foods, the Al. Ringling Theatre and Clarion Hotel and Convention Center, as well as Sugar Maple Traditional Music Festival, set for Aug. 1 and 2 in Madison, and the Southern Wisconsin Bluegrass Music Association.

But the people who gathered to jam provided much of their own fun, he said. “That’s also why we don’t really charge any money …You’re your own entertainment here.”

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