This Sunday, September 27th, in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, the 3rd Annual Dare to Be Different Showcase is slated to feature 9, count ’em, 9 hours of bluegrass music from bands near and far, including  29 Strings from the Slovak Republic.  The event is hosted by Bell Buckle-based Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike, who themselves tour internationally.

Admission is only $10. As a nerd and a disciple of Ms. Cheap, I have to point out that’s only $1.11 per hour,  quite the entertainment value. And, to add to the enticement, all proceeds benefit the Foundation for Bluegrass Music, which supports educational programs on this very unique American art form through both materials and scholarships.

Why the name “Dare to Be Different?” I queried Becky Buller, band leader and multi-instrumentalist for Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike. “Because our band dares to be different!” she exclaimed. “We’re not your granddad’s bluegrass band!”

I’ll attest to that. My family and I first heard Becky and Liberty Pike (minus Val, who was healing from throat surgery) in 2006 when we visited Branson, Missouri. We were trotting by an amphitheater in Silver Dollar City, bound for the tilt-a-whirl, when the words “Liberty Pike” caught our ears. The name caught our attention because there is a road called Liberty Pike which turns into Main Street in Bell Buckle, which is near Shelbyville, TN, where my husband grew up. Not that there aren’t multitudes of Liberty Pikes in the nation, but it was enough to bring us into the theater. We sat down on a bench toward the back and were treated to rousing classics like “Mule Skinner Blues” as well as the band’s own songs, like the jazzy “Buzzed Like a Honey Bee.” In the course of the show, we realized we’d traveled 491 miles to become fans of a band based just down the road from home.

After that, we were hooked – especially my daughter, Kelsey. That autumn,  she applied for – and was awarded – the Macon-Doubler Fellowship sponsored by Uncle Dave Macon Days for beginners studying old-time music.  Already a percussionist and classical violinist, Kelsey had the bug to fiddle. We started catching the band in every local performance we could. And then, by the same fortune that led us to “discover” the band far from home, we started running into Becky everywhere we went. She always had an encouraging word for Kelsey and a funny story to share. When Kelsey’s fellowship period ended, we ventured to ask Becky: “We know you’re on the road a lot, but would you consider teaching…?”

She said yes, and Kelsey, pulled ever more to the both the old tunes and the new groove of bands like The Greencards, made her own “dare to be different” choice: she decided to quit high school band in order to spend more time playing bluegrass.  She was an accomplished percussionist and many people assumed she’d go on to major in music. Quitting her award-winning, very competitive band meant that she had to give up opportunities like All State auditions and honor bands, like trips to D.C. to march in the Cherry Blossom parade. It meant she had to give up a piece of her identity.

As a mom, I was scared to see my daughter let go of something she was so good at to be a beginner all over again. To see her let go of what seemed to be sure success for the unknown. Although the decision wasn’t easy for her, I could see her resolve. She’s a quiet person, but as determined as anybody I’ve ever known.

kelseybeckybillSo she gave up auditions and marching competitions for fiddle contests and old-time jamborees. She gave up classical scores for the Nashville number system, her band uniform and formal symphony attire for jeans and a John Hartford t-shirt that says “A Banjo Will Get You Through Times Of No Money, But Money Won’t Get You Through Times Of No Banjo.” (Now she’s learning clawhammer banjo from Becky, too.) And, as we realized later, she also gave up an often competitive, nerve-wracking atmosphere for a laid-back, soulful experience. An atmosphere where mistakes are fatal to an atmostphere where mistakes are laughed off, compensated for with a little improvisation. It takes every bit, if not more, practice and talent, but it’s also a whole lot more fun. And sometimes I even get to sing along.

Come and get your own dose of fun and soul-filling music. “Dare to Be Different” runs from noon until 9 p.m. Sunday. Food will be available for sale from the world-famous Bell Buckle Café. For more information, call the Bell Buckle Banquet Hall and Theatre at (931) 389-0223 or visit and click on the Dare To Be Different icon.

P.S.  Kelsey will be accompanying me on fiddle and banjo as I read some of my poems at the Southern Festival of Books on Sunday, October 11th, at 2 p.m.  Brett Eugene Ralph, poet and musician with the Kentucky Chrome Revue, will be in the session, too. Come out and see us if you can!