Charlie Holbrook’s first instrument wasn’t the upright bass. It wasn’t the trumpet, the harmonica or even the piano. Although he’s proficient in each of these, the first instrument he remembers playing is the garden hose.
“My dad said I used to run around in the backyard with an old broken garden hose making music,” says Holbrook. “I guess I’ve been playing all my life. I was always making music with something — pots and pans, sticks. I just loved music.”
Now 71, the Kentucky native sticks to a more traditional instrument of choice: his upright bass, which he has loaded into his pickup truck and hauled to Bee Ridge Park almost every Thursday night for the last 20 years. At the park, he and an ever-evolving group of fellow musicians get together under the pavilion to socialize, joke and more importantly — play bluegrass.
It started when Holbrook and two friends, Buck Tolbert and the late Floyd Knight, grew tired of making the drive to Indian Mounds Park in Englewood, where musicians gathered for a previously established bluegrass jam session. So, the men decided to host their own session in Bee Ridge Park.
“It started with just the three of us,” remembers Holbrook. “We had a real small group, but through friends of ours and word of mouth, it just kept growing.”
The group would get together each week under the pavilion to play old country and bluegrass standards.
Unhappy with the exclusive atmosphere of other jams they’d attended, the men made an effort to welcome anyone who’d like to play. They built a following and, eventually, the county gave them a permanent reserved time slot every Thursday night.
The lineup and audience members vary from week to week, especially during high season, when as many as 15 guitarists can show up to join the band. Knight died three years ago, and Tolbert no longer attends, but Holbrook and a regular group of five or six musicians show up every week to keep the jam going year-round.
Over time, the regulars have become close friends, who have even bought campers and traveled to bluegrass festivals and campouts together around the state.
“When you play like that together, you just become friends,” says Don Campbell, a Sarasota native, who has been a regular for eight years. “It’s gotten to the point where if they’re not going to one of the festivals, I’m not going to go. We enjoy playing together that much.”
In fact, Holbrook met his wife of 10 years, Ginger, at one of the weekly jams. A fellow upright bassist, she would attend the sessions, although she admits, at first, she was too nervous to stand near the front.
“I liked the way he played bass,” says Ginger Holbrook. “And he was such a nice and friendly person; he was always smiling and joking. I used to joke that I was going to the jams to see my boyfriend.”
As Charlie Holbrook puts it, “It was just one of those meant-to-be things.”
The relationships formed through the jam sessions go beyond just the core group of regular musicians. The group’s emphasis on maintaining a welcoming atmosphere is a big reason it’s enjoyed such longstanding success. The musicians also say they make an effort to perform for the audience — not just for themselves.
“I think it’s our attitude toward people,” says Charlie Holbrook of the jam’s longevity. “It’s more like a family gathering than anything.”
Charles in charge
At an event that draws dozens of musicians each week, from all experience levels, logistics can get tricky. When it becomes difficult to hear one another, or when someone loses place in the chord progression, Charlie Holbrook acts as the group’s rock, keeping perfect time throughout any situation.
“If people start losing time, Charlie will just start plucking those strings a little harder,” says Campbell. “That gets their attention.”
Just as the musicians look to Charlie Holbrook to keep rhythm, Campbell says it’s clear who runs the show. With an ever-growing membership, someone has to make sure things run smoothly and that everyone follows the rules to make newcomers feel welcome.
“We don’t allow drums, electric guitars or anything like that, because they tend to overpower other people,” says Charlie Holbrook. “And it’s important that anybody who wants to play gets a chance. You have to be firm, but nice.”
Campbell remembers receiving this same courtesy as a learning guitarist.
“When I was growing up and learning to play, the guys I played with never put me down,” he says. “I feel like this is my chance to give back.”
As participation continues to increase and audiences grow, Charlie Holbrook says he’s always glad to see new faces, especially young people who get an opportunity to play in a group setting.
“It’s just a good feeling to know that people enjoy what you’re doing,” he says. “When we can come home and feel like we put a smile on someone’s faces, or our own, it’s a great situation.”