We heard the music wafting through the screened windows of the clubhouse before we even shut off our ignition, harmonizing with the mandolins and gee’-tars. In the parking lot, these bluegrass vocalists are competing with the spring peepers singing their hearts out in the nearby pond, echoing through the Kempton Valley. The band performing tonight, the Travis Wetzel Trio, hails all the way from Nashville and although they might perform to packed crowds at other venues, here in the secluded Kempton Rod &Gun Club, the monthly bluegrass shows are a secret. We can be sure to find a good seat inside.
After handing over the low fee of $15 (or $25 discounted for a couple), at the front table of friendly gun club wives, we pick out our seats. Scott Eager, who has his own bluegrass band, High Lonesome Sound, orchestrates these events that range from September through April.
The gun club is probably typical of thousands of little community gun clubs around rural America. I wouldn’t know. It is the only one I have been to. The decor reminds me of my father’s hunting camp in the northern tier of PA- ”- Potter Count, “God’s Country.” I haven’t been there since he died, over thirty years ago. This place brings back fond memories. The members of the Kempton Gun Club appear to be a talented group as there is art work on the dark “pine” paneled walls- framed paint-by-number creations of flushing pheasants and bucks with big racks in winter scenes. Trophies line a shelf- sharp shooter winners from the turkey shoots. Buck heads are mounted on homemade leaf shaped wooden mounts, (evidently made by a club member who is good with wood) and their antlers nearly scrape the old drop ceiling. The windows are adorned with fiberglass drapes decorated with big bursts of pink roses. Moths flit around the lights, brought in through the screened door by the audience.
All these decorations compete with my attention as I listen to the band. Not a single smart phone is being looked at. Occasionally two geezers with hearing aids talk loudly to one another, so they can communicate over the music. On the backs of the folding chairs are names, Elmer Fenstemacher, Russell Greenawalt, stenciled in black paint. These doners offered money for the brown metal folding chairs many moons ago. Their names are typical German names whose ancestors settled this fertile valley hundreds of years ago. Perhaps their offspring are in the audience tonight.
Not a full head of male hair is present in the audience, and the majority are white. Suspenders hold up their pants. It is not a young crowd but they know all the words to the bluegrass songs and don’t hesitate to sing along, tapping their feet and patting the formica tables with their hands. A few carry along their own embroidered cloth pillows from home, stolen off their sofas, to soften the hard metal chairs. It is a long night. Music begins at 6 pm with the first bluegrass band, usually local, (tonight it is Sacony Grass) followed by a second well-known famous band from afar. You get your money’s worth at the Kempton Bluegrass Night.
Travis Wetzel’s fingers fly on his fiddle faster than what looks humanly possible. His playing is unbelievable and everyone in the audience is captivated by his talent. His Trio plays a very nice mix of traditional bluegrass as well as some really beautiful folksongs to mix it up.
After a set, Todd and I walk outside while the band takes a break. Turkey vultures make quite a commotion overheard as they land in the huge spruce trees lining the parking lot, rearranging themselves, flying off and returning to another branch until they settle in for the night. They return to the area like robins in the early spring and are sought after by the locals as a prominent sign of approaching spring. A pair of Canada geese honk overhead and come in for a landing on the pond. The setting sun lights the water and the sky a beautiful rosy pink. The spring peepers are still going to town.
The Pinnacle looms directly above the Kempton Gun Club, a dark towering form in the evening sky. In fact, access through their property enables a hiker to climb straight up the fall line and get to this best view on the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania rapidly. Albeit it is quite a climb and a boulder scramble, but worth the inexpensive membership fee that enables hikers to park in the lot, display their membership card on the dashboard and access their trail. Of course, you don’t need to be a member to attend monthly Bluegrass Night!
It is not worth coming to Kempton Bluegrass Night with a full belly from your own dinner, or you would miss out on the delicious food that the gun club ladies have prepared for the night. Everything is homemade- soups and chicken pot pies, cakes and fruit pies. And the prices are ridiculously low. Edith and Edna and names like these -old German farmers’ wives, are behind the counter, ready to dish you up a treat. You can eat for two- including dessert and a drink and get change for a $10.
At 10 pm the music ends and the cars head on down the gun club’s long drive, turning onto the very rural winding blacktop roads. The audience drives very slowly and cautiously, watching for darting deer in their headlights. They creep over Hawk Mountain, the adventurous ones who cross the mountain from the Schuylkill County side. Two white heads in the car ahead reflect off my headlights. Oh, it normally hurts my motor to go so slow but even the drive home from the Kempton Bluegrass Night is part of the experience. It is a great thing that they get out, enjoy bluegrass music, have this wonderful local venue to support. Who would think a small rural gun club would have such amazing music and hardly anyone knows? Come on out. Let’s fill this house. Make those gun club ladies crank their ovens up longer and support music and community and celebrate life in Rural America.