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Fans get chance to clap for handmade music

Convention center is the site for star-laden bluegrass festival

The old-fashioned, 'handmade' music that will fill the Oregon Convention Center this weekend keeps coming back into fashion because people long for its simplicity.

'There's something inside of people that reaches for something that isn't manufactured, like most of what you hear on the radio,' says 'Ranger Doug' Green of the Oscar-winning country swing band Riders in the Sky.

If Green and other performers are right, fans of all manner of organic, old-timey sounds will be looking for a fix at the first-ever River City Bluegrass Festival.

'People want things that are natural,' says Steve Waller, a founding member of the local Sawtooth Mountain Boys. 'It's not made by some corporation. It's made by real people. A lot of it boils down to the basic emotions that people have.

'Bill Monroe used to say onstage, 'If you listen closely to the music, it will go right from my heart to your heart.' It does.'

Monroe, who founded the legendary Blue Grass Boys in the 1930s, is widely considered the father of bluegrass music.

Waller's Sawtooth Mountain Boys, a traditional five-piece outfit, will share space at the festival with more than 20 acts. Headlining is the Del McCoury Band, winner of dozens of International Bluegrass Music Association awards including four album of the year prizes.

'That's just about the top traditional band going right now,' Waller says. 'They're top-notch pickers. Del himself was a former member of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys.'

A carpentry contractor who lives in the Willamette Valley town of Dallas, Waller has watched the popularity of bluegrass music surge periodically since he and bandmate Mike Eisler put the Sawtooth Mountain Boys together at Oregon State University in 1965.

'Our band has been together 40 years,' he says. 'We've seen it come in cycles. Sometimes it's in conjunction with a movie soundtrack that gets that sound heard. People go, 'What is that stuff? I like that.' '

Most recently, the 2000 film 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' ignited an interest in Americana music, making the movie's soundtrack a multimillion seller. But Waller says similar spikes accompanied 'Deliverance' (1973) and 'Bonnie and Clyde' (1967).

Green, whose Riders in the Sky introduced themselves to millions after contributing 'Woody's Roundup' to the soundtrack of the hugely successful 'Toy Story 2' in 1999, says the cinema is a crucial outlet for creators of a music that gets limited radio play.

'A way that masses and masses of people can see it is on the movie screen,' he says. 'People realize these are not museum pieces, these are living, breathing guys, and we can go out and see them. Mostly we're just entertainers. We're just having fun. But people see this as keeping something precious going, and they're right.'

Waller says younger musicians like Chris Thile of the band Nickel Creek have attracted new listeners to the bluegrass fold by incorporating elements of jazz, folk, Celtic and various ethnic strains into their music.

'There are a lot of youngsters taking up the music,' he says. 'You never know who's gonna get bit by the bluegrass bug. People get that it's handmade music and it's sincere.'

Established bluegrass players tend to be community-minded, making themselves available to aspiring musicians, Waller says.

'That's a big part of what bluegrass is,' he says. 'The bands, no matter how big they get, they're accessible.'

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