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Suburban country Bluegrass music is drawing crowds in unlikely spaces

You're forgiven if you find it hard to think of Amherst as a bluegrass hotbed. But bursting from the seams at the Main Street Stereo Advantage's new Smarthouse Cafe is a Monday night bluegrass shindig that has benefited from a glorious relocation.

Once a quaint gathering at the Coffee Bean in University Heights, the event has seen consistently packed houses since its move to Smarthouse in January 2005, amazing not only to those playing for the lively, passionate crowds, but even its organizer.

"This night is an incubator," said Diane McFarland, an East Tennessee native and longtime local resident who teaches marketing and advertising at Buffalo State College, yet has watched the night grow strictly by word of mouth. "Now it's hatching chickens."

Her incubator analogy has many meanings, from bands that have grown out of the gig to the passing down of an American-born form of music steeped in tradition, to the sprouting of similar nights on Wednesdays at Thaxton's in Lockport and Thursdays at Allen Street Hardware Cafe. For the seasoned, versatile Doug Yeomans, the Monday show is not only a great workout for his Mountain Run band, but also the breeding ground for his new trio.

"It's my favorite gig to play," said Yeomans, who gleams at the possibilities of his partnership with Joelle Labert. "I just love singing with her -- that shuffly, laid-back country rhythm with a Celtic and bluesy feel."

Yeomans cruises under Labert's natural swing with magnetic harmony, and uber-picker Jim Whitford finds all the right spaces in between.

"He's really the whole package," Yeomans said of Whitford.

True to form as Buffalo's best ringer, Whitford pounced on a passing invite from Yeomans to join the group.

"I called him and said, 'I'm gonna crash your gig,' " he recalled. "I'm just gonna show up with, I don't know, a dobro, or a pedal steel.

"What's great is that the audience is serious about it," he added. "They're interested in every note you play."

That's the calling card of the bluegrass crowd, and McFarland revels in its all-ages appeal.

"There was a dad and son shopping, and they came in and sat down, and the kid fell in love with the banjo," she said. "He wound up spending his 13th birthday there and got a banjo for his birthday, and now he's taking lessons. And there's a girl doing the same with the mandolin."

"I'm seeing some younger faces come in," said Yeomans, likely recalling the same birthday boy. "There was a kid there with his dad calling for 'Dueling Banjos' -- he was probably 12 years old!"

McFarland's passion for bluegrass is contagious -- "she's just kooky for this stuff," quips Whitford. But most intriguing is her stunning statement placing Buffalo's bluegrass scene in the same league as that in Nashville.

"There's so much great music here," she said. "Amazingly, when I lived in the Nashville area, I'd go to the Station Inn, but most of the time everyone was on the road. Here, there's music all the time. If we could get a radio station to support us like WDVX does in East Tennessee, it would just balloon."

So whether you're local legends like Creek Bend, a puerile picker, or a scenester with some free time, McFarland has built our own little Grand Ol' Opry just for you.

"It's a 'Y'all Come' kind of thing," she said.

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