Digging the Roots

May 1, 2017

The American Roots Music Program at Berklee, established in 2009, recognizes the diversity of styles in America’s music. Included are blues, gospel, folk, Cajun, western swing, polka, bluegrass, country, and innovative blends by contemporary artists. Embracing them all, the Roots Music program aims to help players and listeners dig deeper into this musical genre.

Under the leadership of Matt Glaser and a team of accomplished faculty and visiting artists, the program has built on the curriculum and enthusiasm for roots music at Berklee.

Students now have the option to study American roots music as a minor, making Berklee a destination for young roots musicians. Some prominent graduates of this program include International Bluegrass Music Awards recipients Joe Walsh ’09 (formerly of the Gibson Brothers) and Courtney Hartman (of Della Mae), as well as Charlie Worsham ’06, Sierra Hull ’11, and others.

Financial support for the program comes almost entirely from our donors who are passionate about this effort. Matt Glaser, artistic director of the program, says, “The Roots program is incredibly grateful for the generosity of donors who support what we do, which includes focusing Berklee students’ attention on all rural music that has happened in the United States, as well as all music in the first half of the 20th century. Their gifts allow us to bring in incredible visiting artists to work with Berklee students and to bring students to perform at festivals.”

Supporters have funded lessons with renowned musicians such as blues guitarists Woody Mann and Paul Rishell, harmonica expert Annie Raines, banjoist and Grammy winning producer Tony Trischka. Additionally, they have provided funding for such visiting artists as Shawn Colvin, Béla Fleck, David Grisman, Steve Martin, Marty Stuart, Victor Krauss, Jeremy Kittel, Alison Krauss, and Chris Thile, to name a few.

Berklee Roots Music Program students onstage at the Berklee Performance Center

Scholarships have been provided by Roots patrons for students to attend the Five-Week Summer Performance Program, and more specifically for fiddlers, and for those in the Roots program needing financial help to complete their degrees.

Funds have been also provided for students to attend Bluegrass festivals across America and for special on-campus symposia.

At the program’s inaugural concert in 2009, president Roger Brown said, “Many of us feel passionately about connecting our students to the history and culture of American popular music that comes from the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, urban stoops, and rural back porches, and is expressed in gospel, country, folk, bluegrass, Cajun, polka, Tex-Mex, and a dozen other genres. These truly are the roots—some of the building blocks of today’s contemporary music. The American Roots Music Program will put them at the heart of the discussion, to ground and inform Berklee students and all whom they influence, and to make their musical understanding and appreciation far richer.”

We are deeply grateful for the enthusiasm of the American Roots supporters, and invite anyone wanting to join the effort to contact Virginia Fordham at vfordham@berklee.edu.

This article appeared in our alumni magazine, Berklee Today Summer 2017. Learn more about Berklee Today.
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