It's not that traditional acoustic music was at risk of extinction when the Black Rose Acoustic Society formed in spring of 1994. But according to Ron Thomas, who was elected president of the board this past February, places to jam were scarce.
"There wasn't really a place to go to sit down and play with other folks, a place to perform. It was either a big concert gig with a very big name, or playing in your basement with your buddies," Thomas says. "So, it just started out as an impromptu jam session. And we just rented the hall, the log cabin out at Black Forest, as the place to go.
"We had a coffee can, and people would throw a buck or two in there to help us pay for the hall rental."
Players still set out a jar for donations during jams, but Black Rose has grown substantially. The nonprofit's stated aim is to preserve "all types of traditional acoustic music." But rather than treating the music as an artifact, placing it safely under glass away from the grubby hands of children, Black Rose does a lot to keep it alive and abundant in the Pikes Peak area.
The society hosts shows with professional musicians, and allows its open-stage performers to gain experience and exposure by opening for the artist. These musicians are usually graduates of the more relaxed, beginner-oriented open stages held every month. Black Rose also hosts teen, Celtic and bluegrass jams.
It still rents the Black Forest cabin, but the society now also rents space at the Benet Hill Center, on North Chelton Road. And it operates on an annual budget that couldn't fit in a coffee can roughly $25,000.
According to Thomas, membership dues account for most of this money. That can cause concern when membership drops.
"We have 573 [members], at the last count," he says. "We're trying to boost that number, because it's fallen off some. We're not sure why that is. Early '05, we were right around 650, 660 or so."
Thomas speculates that Black Rose seedlings could be partially to blame for falling membership numbers. The society's model has been replicated by the Buffalo Grass Acoustic Society in Peyton, the Cañon Rose Acoustic Society in Cañon City, and the Mountain Acoustic Music Association (MAMA) in Woodland Park.
"We ask ourselves now: Is that maybe why we're losing members?" he says. "That's a good thing. None of us are trying to become independently wealthy with this whole thing."
Black Rose hosts group and individual lessons on most acoustic instruments, and even offers $2,500 in scholarships annually. But if you want to plug in your Les Paul, they'll send you packing.
"We try to limit it to traditional acoustic, no head-banger music or anything amplified. We have a longstanding aversion to drum sets and that sort of thing," Thomas says.
He adds that when thinking of "traditional" music, it's important to think of how it first was played. "If you wanted to hear music, you had to make it yourself."
Music to chew on
As president, Thomas sees himself as a "den mother" to the 150 or so volunteers. Unlike Swallow Hill, the acoustic society in Denver that Thomas says operates on an annual budget closer to $25 million "They're kinda like us on steroids," he says Black Rose has no paid staff. All work, from setting up shows to running the kitchen to publishing a bi-monthly newsletter, is done by volunteers.
"You can not be dictatorial and go, "Guess what, I'm unhappy with your performance. You better kick it up a notch.' Because they'll go, "OK, see ya.' It's a kinder, gentler form of management. And sometimes things take longer because you want to make sure people's viewpoints and ideas are discussed," he says.
But Thomas also says action remains of the essence. "There's not much tolerance for people that just want to suggest stuff for other people to do."
With Black Rose Acoustic Society in the region, traditional acoustic music stands a chance of surviving in a world increasingly dominated by overproduced music that, in Thomas' words, "you don't need teeth to chew." Thomas says the society will continue on as it has for over a decade now, even as the idea of "traditional" music evolves.
"I was talking to someone the other day about old-time music, and he was like, "Oh, old-time. That's like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, right?'
"No, no. That's a long time ago, but that ain't it."