SELMA -- The room is packed, the amps are plugged in and the musicians are ready to go. It’s not a night club or rock concert that’s brought the audience out, but the local senior centers.
The Kingsburg and Selma senior centers hold music jams once or twice per month featuring music from different local artists. The events give seniors the chance to come together and socialize, enjoy some good music and dance.
Bassist Ken Trew of Selma and guitarist Jim Winder have been leading the ever-evolving group of musicians during the music jams for about a decade now.
“If we were home, we’d just be in my garage playing music,” Trew said. “The City of Selma gave us an opportunity to do something for these seniors."
The effort was jump-started by then-Nick Medina Senior Center activities director Lauri Linder, Recreation and Community Services Director Mikal Kirchner and Trew’s late wife, Betty Trew. Since then, the audience has grown but the tradition of playing family-friendly gospel, country and even rock music has continued.
“It started out with just a few people, but we’ve had 80 people in here,” Trew said.
Visitors have come from throughout the Valley for the music jams, including Oakhurst, Madera, Lemoore and Fresno. Some have come from as far as the Bay Area or Kettleman City to perform, he said.
The musicians are a combination of former professionals and hobbyists who say playing for a live audience keeps their talent honed and listeners coming back for more. They'll perform next on July 23 at the Kingsburg Senior Center, where organizer June Carendar says even she likes to join in the line dancing.
"It's a good place to come since a lot of the seniors are otherwise home alone. The people come from all over and it's a fun thing to do on a Saturday night," she said.
The music jams are especially fun for widows and widowers to have a safe environment in which to socialize, Carendar says. "[My husband and I] didn't really dance much, but when I was by myself, I said 'I'm going to give it a try,' so you don't have to worry about bringing a partner to dance."
For the musicians, the events give them a chance to hone their skills. Fiddler Carl Parnell, of Fresno, has been playing for 80 years. While he said he could stay home and enjoy retirement, he’d rather come to the senior center jams to keep his love of western swing and bluegrass music alive.
“It used to be my job, but it’s a hobby now. Oh, I love it! It’s a way of life for us,” he said.
Hanford resident Wendell Miller adds his decades of fiddling experience to the lineup and said playing keeps him young.
"I’ve been fiddling a long time. I started when I was 10 years old, so it’s been about 20 years now,” he jokes.
Miller is now in his eighties and says that even though he’s opened for well-known country stars, there’s nothing like playing for hometown audiences.
“I learned a long time ago, even very famous performers love to hear you tell them that you enjoyed their performance. That’s what they play for,” he said.
Trew said all levels of musicians are welcomed to join in the jams.
“We’ve had kids come in who are just learning how to play fiddle. They go up, sit next to Carl (Parnell) and he helps them through the songs,” he said.
All styles of music are played, including rock, country, even calypso.
Listeners in the audience say they enjoy more traditional songs and appreciate that the music is family friendly.
“Now this is country music,” said Betty Dodson of Fresno. She comes to Selma with her friend Bernice Bowman, since they say they just don’t find venues in Fresno that offer a safe atmosphere for seniors.
“And it’s just not the same as listening to the radio,” Bowman says of the camaraderie between the audience and performers. “We’re just country people. We like those happy, family songs,” she said.
Audience members can take a turn on the informal dance floor and often the group dines afterwards at a local restaurant. Snacks are offered at the Selma Senior Center gathering while the Kingsburg Senior Center’s event is a potluck.
Gil Suave of Hanford was among singers that night and said he uses music as a bridge between Mexican and traditional western music. He’ll translate a few verses between Spanish and English songs to show how music can be a universal way of communicating.
“It’s a big way to bridge the cultures. They’ll hear songs they’ve never heard like ‘Amor Eterno,’ or ‘Eternal Love,’ ” which has become a well-loved song for Mother’s Day in Mexico, he said.
The best part of the evening, he said, is seeing the smiles on the seniors’ faces in the audience.
“I like to connect with the audience where it takes them back to a happier, hopeful time. If you do that, they forget all their pains and challenges. Then, the music is a little bit of sunshine,” he said.