Pickin’ and grinnin’ in New Athens

The Bluegrass Shack owner Chris Talley is the only employee at the New Athens store, selling and repairing instruments and teaching music lessons. (James “Tal” Moss photo)

The Bluegrass Shack opened in New Athens more than 15 years ago with mixed expectations.

“I never thought it would fail, and I don’t think anybody here ever thought it would succeed,” owner Chris Talley recalled with a laugh. 

But succeed it did, with the store offering a variety of services throughout its life.

Talley, who is the only employee at the store, got the building after bidding on it during an auction. 

She had been teaching music, which she does at The Bluegrass Shack, since she was 13. She was teaching out of her home at the time, so the building would serve as a new location for the lessons while also providing instrument repair and sales.  

Talley said she could not have opened the store without help from the community, which donated materials and labor to refurbish the building.

“We opened with the help of people from the community,” she said. “People from the community, even some I didn’t know, came and helped us with all of that.”

The store was a natural fit for Talley, who has been playing music since she was 5, when her father taught her to play mandolin and guitar. 

Talley became so proficient that she won statewide competitions in banjo and fiddle playing in Illinois and several others in Missouri. She also performed in a show band at the Lake of the Ozarks in high school.

She soon realized that teaching was her passion, however, so Talley began taking classes to get a degree in music education. 

That did not pan out due to conflicts with Talley’s work, so she obtained a degree in computer science and took a job in that industry.

But it was only a matter of time before Talley returned to her first passion and The Bluegrass Shack, located at 904 Old Baldwin Road, provided an outlet for that.

“As far as the store goes, it just kind of took off,” Talley said. “I love being in New Athens. I just think it’s fantastic.”

As part of her work in the store, Talley also learned a new skill from a violin maker in St. Louis: instrument repair.

That has served her well. Many of the fiddles the store receives are not ready to be sold immediately. 

“Generally, there’s not a single one I can just string up and play,” Talley explained. “So I really have no idea what they’re going to sound like and that’s actually one of the most fun parts of repairing: getting to pull the bow across them and hear what they sound like for the first time.”

Although she gets plenty of business from instrument repair, Talley said the lessons taught by her and people who work as subcontractors are the most popular. 

“We do a lot of other things, too,” Talley added. “The fiddle sales are our most popular thing we sell over the internet.”

Talley said she caters to those who want fiddles on the lower end of the spectrum, with her in-store sales usually under $5,000 and online sales mostly under $500.

Even for those relatively inexpensive instruments, Talley said customers appreciate the 100 percent trade-in guarantee on their next fiddle purchase.

Customers also appreciate other services The Bluegrass Shack provides, such as its jam sessions.

The sessions have been going on for years, with multiple jams taking place for people of different skill levels. 

That came about after the open jam sessions became too crowded. Talley said that had an upside, though. 

“This really became a fun place for everybody,” she said. 

The students Talley teaches also appreciate two other groups of musicians she has organized, The Half Notes and Hand Picked. 

These bands are made up of students ages 9-12 and  14-19, respectively.  

The students come from across the region, with Missouri, St. Clair County and Monroe County each having at least one member. 

Hand Picked has played its own gigs and competed in the KSMU Youth in Bluegrass Band Contest at Silver Dollar City twice. Only 20 bands from across the nation are selected to compete in that event.

The five members of the younger band have not yet played shows, as they are still learning the required skills. 

They are also still building their relationships. 

“To be in a band, they have to be friends,” Talley said. “They have to like each other. They have to get along. It’s important when they’re playing that they look at each other, smile at each other and joke with each other because that’s what makes the best band. When they’re truly having fun, the music is going to gel and they’re going to be relaxed enough to play well and read each other.”

Talley said that regardless of why people come to The Bluegrass Shack, they will get the expertise that makes the store special to customers.

“We offer personal help with everything we do,” she noted. “The people who work here all play music. Some know more than others, but they all have experience playing in a band. So we can talk to customers about anything and answer their questions. You’re getting specialized help for the kind of music you want to play.”

To learn more about The Bluegrass Shack, call 618-475-3678 or visit thebluegrassshack.com. Hand Picked can also be found on Facebook. 

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