Ryan Wilson and Mark Hosler

Student Ryan Wilson (left) and Dr. Mark Hosler look forward to hosting a brand-new bluegrass ensemble at Clemson.
Image Credit: Thomas Hudgins / Clemson University

Clemson student Ryan Wilson’s love for music goes way back. “I’ve always wanted to be a musician and singer,” he said. “I grew up listening to all types of music, but the biggest part of my musical influence came from a very small country church where my grandfather was the lead pastor, my parents both sang in the choir, and my dad sang bass in a quartet.”

At age 16, his parents gave him his first guitar. Wilson attempted to teach himself the instrument, but found little success. But, while training to become a land surveyor a few years later, he discovered that he and his boss shared an affinity for the music that he grew up with in his church. His boss, enthusiastic at learning of Wilson’s interest in the genre, let him borrow a stack of bluegrass CDs. Wilson was hooked.

“I searched out bluegrass radio stations, DJs, artists that I particularly enjoyed, and then discovered ‘bluegrass jams,’” Wilson said. These jams allow musicians, whether beginners or professionals, to play together in a casual, but structured atmosphere. “This was absolutely magical to me. To watch people playing the music live, that I’d been sitting at my desk and listening to for months, with no sheet music, no band leader, and not a microphone or electric amplification device of any kind, blew my mind. I wanted in, and I wanted in quickly.”

His love for the art form, and commitment to performing, grew exponentially. Through his relationship with his boss, he acquired more bluegrass instruments and grew his skillset. As he attended jams, he was hired to perform at gigs throughout the area. In the fall of 2015, Expression highlighted his work as an instructor with the Pickens-based YAMs (Young Appalachian Musicians) program, and band director of the Sweet Potato Pie Kids, the program’s ensemble for children in grades four through eight.

Now, Wilson takes yet another step in his musical journey. The multi-instrumentalist is teaming up with professor Mark Hosler to launch a new bluegrass ensemble through the Department of Performing Arts.

“The goal is for this group to perform just like the department’s jazz combo and steel drum band,” Wilson said, referring to student ensembles that are often hired for performance gigs. “It sort of came about through several conversations I had with Dr. Hosler. I liked Eastern Tennessee State University’s program, and I know Dr. Hosler teaches some bluegrass in his “History of Country Music” course, so I knew I had an ally.”

The two presented the idea to department chair, David Hartmann, who approved the idea: Music 3300 (Section 15, Bluegrass Ensemble) was added to the course catalog for Fall 2017. Dr. Hosler will serve as instructor of record, while Wilson will lead the ensemble.

The pair was initially concerned about recruiting musicians, but those fears were quickly extinguished. Within days of the story being reported in Bluegrass Today, Wilson received a deluge of texts and e-mails expressing support, congratulations, and requests to be part of the ensemble. “I was concerned going into it, that I wouldn’t have the right instrumentalists,” Wilson said. “The banjo is one of the most important instruments in bluegrass, so you need to have a good banjo player. I’m not sure I’m going to have that problem. It’s been such a great response.”

Dr. Hosler attributes such positive energy to the culture of the bluegrass music community. “I’ve been to bluegrass festivals,” he said. “You sense it going into the venue that this is different. It’s not like a lot of other mainstream popular music. This is a communal thing.”

Entry into the ensemble will require an audition, just like many other music ensembles in the department. “We’ll have a core set of material that members need to learn,” Wilson said, “and then we’ll try to find performance opportunities for the group with that set of materials.”

The course will also feature a number of special guest speakers, with Dr. Hosler’s expertise on the history of the art form woven throughout. Both Hosler and Wilson see this as an exciting opportunity. Dr. Hosler sees this as yet another new frontier for the multi-faceted Production Studies in Performing Arts major. “It’s kind of exciting right now, because one thing about our major is that you can make your own path,” he said. “Ryan is a good example of a student who has come into our program with an emphasis in audio engineering, but who has a real passion for bluegrass. Why not allow a student the chance to grow in an area for which they have a passion?”

For his part, Wilson looks forward to providing students with another professional outlet. “An avenue for pursuing commercial music is appealing to a lot of people, and this could be the first step,” Wilson said. “For me, I’d love to see it turn into a respected performing band. My first goal is for people to want to hire the Clemson bluegrass band.”