BERNE — In the waning days of summer’s blaze, the town park was filled with acoustic music flowing out from the pavilion to more than 500 Hilltowners on Saturday, Aug. 24.
The day was first planned as a concert celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Hilltown Ramblers, a bluegrass band heard in nearby churches, parks, bars, and nursing homes since 1993, and benefiting the Berne library that is moving into the former St. Bernadette’s Catholic Church.
The current and original lineup of the Ramblers was scheduled to play, as well as other musicians, with a final jam session to end the night. As ambitions grew, a committee was formed to organize the Berne Summerfest, with vendors and various community groups, a paired event with the Empire Orienteering Club, and contests.
Dick Stock, an original Hilltown Rambler and mandolin player, said he hopes to hold an event like Summerfest every year. Now that more of its members are retiring from work, he said, the band will be performing more, but will “keep it community-based.”
Dick Stock was a University at Albany student in the early 1970s. The unemployment rate was climbing, oil prices had risen, and a horrible recession was about to greet the graduating Class of 1974. In his teens, Stock had fallen for The Beatles and picked up the guitar, which he played in bands throughout college.
Stock remembers his political science professor gave a lecture on his students’ opportunity, offering advice: “He told people that, if they had any entertaining skills, that they could get you by,” Stock said. The thought encouraged him and he played in a folk and rock duo with Paul Strausman.
“Performing allowed me to do my current job a little better because sometimes I speak to groups,” said Stock, who works as a building construction program manager for the state’s Office of General Services.
The mandolin holds the rhythm in a standard group of bluegrass players, Stock said. He started playing the small, four-stringed instrument with Strausman.
“It plays on the offbeat with the bass, so they’re really working together,” said Stock. “The mandolin takes the part of the snare drum.”
Stock moved to East Berne in 1991 and formed the Hilltown Ramblers with banjo player Moe Safford after the two met at a local jam session and found they were neighbors. Safford’s son, Morrie, played guitar and Chuck Batcher played upright bass.
They have performed with different members, but the elder Safford and Stock remain and played both sets on Saturday with the original and current members — Ed Kryzkowski on bass and Jim Selkrik on guitar.
Stock said their next goal is to record a new CD. Their 2003 recording, It’s About Time, has originals by the group members and their friends, as well as arrangements of folk songs, with guitarist George Geel.
Acoustic bands Shine Hill Road, The Bluestones, and Flood Road played on Saturday as well, with some members joining in a jam session following the fireworks display.
“We do a lot of improvisation for a bluegrass band,” Stock said. “Some people call bluegrass ‘hillbilly jazz.’”
“This is a blast,” said guitarist Frederick Swedberg, who was visiting a friend in Berne from Orange, Mass. when he heard of an acoustic jam session in the town park.
“A big part of it is just people getting together and playing ad-hoc,” Stock said Wednesday of bluegrass concerts and jams. “It might not be perfect, but that’s just part of the whole scene; enjoy each other and the social nature of it.”