Kentucky bluegrass music stalwart Reel World String Band turns 35 this year, so its five members are throwing a party to benefit others.
The band will appear in concert Saturday with Lexington poet Nikky Finney to raise money for the New Opportunity School for Women in Berea. The school offers career and educational counseling, coordinates internships, and puts on workshops in job-search skills and computer basics for Appalachian women.
It's a curriculum about empowerment. And that's the glue that Reel World's members — Bev Futrell on guitar, Karen Jones on fiddle, Sue Massek on banjo, Sharon Ruble on bass, and Elise Melrood on keyboards — cite as the reason they continue to play music steeped in Appalachia.
"I think the thing that has kept us together is that we have a purpose in addition to the music," Massek said. "And this social-justice purpose has brought us together again and again and again, and it keeps us together now."
The band has taken criticism at times for its stance against mountaintop-removal coal mining, Jones said.
"But I've often found that whenever we play, people really appreciate that you're actually speaking to some issues and that you really are taking a stand related to renewable energy or sustainable energy," Jones said. "It's actually been good, like a group hug."
Young people seem interested in activism these days, Melrood said.
"The time is ripe for us just to keep on playing as long as we can play and as long as we have an audience," Melrood said. "I don't think our message is in the past tense."
The band has played on picket lines; in a Unitarian Universalist church; and in the A.P. Carter Store in Hiltons, Va., which is now a museum that tells the story of the Carter Family, the American folk music group that had a profound influence on country, gospel and rock musicians. Reel World even played on a sidewalk on Fifth Avenue in New York.
"We just opened the fiddle case and people were rushing by, and they'd stop and listen a little bit, and put a few coins in," Futrell said. "I think we made about $200, and that was like 15 or 20 years ago."
Futrell had wanted to do a benefit concert for the New Opportunity School since arson destroyed its headquarters in December. The program now operates in the basement of First Christian Church in Berea.
"Traditionally for our anniversary concerts, we have always tried to give back to the community," said Ruble, a former Herald-Leader employee. She and Jones both attended Berea College.
Finney, who won a National Book Award last year for her poetry collection Head Off and Split, also has ties to Berea College. She was a visiting professor there in 1999.
The band members say they might coax Finney to sing a few lines of Ella's Song with them. A portion of the song performed by the black vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock goes: "Struggling myself don't mean a whole lot, I've come to realize/ That teaching others to stand up and fight is the only way my struggle survives."
Those lines alone might explain why Reel World String Band is going strong after 35 years.