Folks, I recently participated in couple of picking sessions that showed something about what to do--and what not to do-- in a jam. Let's call them Jam Session #1 and Jam Session #2.
Jam Session #1 was the good old Thursday evening session at Linda's Mercantile fruit stand, run by David and Linda Lay on U.S. 522 a mile or so north of Winchester. Everybody's welcome, so we always have a mix of talent. There are folks who've only been playing a little while, and folks who've been playing all their (long) lives. There are folks who know just a few tunes, and folks who know lots. So when I go pick at Linda's, I know that I'll be fitting in with a dozen or fifteen other pickers of widely varying experience and musical skill.
Usually during the evening at Linda's, I'll sing two or three songs as well as backing up and taking breaks on everybody else's numbers. What's important when playing at Linda's? At least a few things, such as:
(a.) When it's your turn to sing, pick out a song that LOTS OF PEOPLE KNOW. They'll be playing along in back of you, so make sure that you sing a song they know and can play along with. And DON'T PLAY TOO FAST. Then everybody can play along together, and the music sounds good. And the pickers (as well as the audience) like it.
(b.) When you are playing lead or backup on someone else's song or tune, always remember the K.I.S.S. principle of bluegrass music: Keep It Simple, Stupid! When play your break on a number with a wide variety of pickers, that is not the time to show how hot a player you are and how many notes you can pick. It is the time to play AS PLAINLY AND CLEARLY AS POSSIBLE so that everybody can hear what you are doing and play along. That's the way to keep the picking session sounding good.
Now, let's consider Jam Session #2. This session happened to include just three people, at an old-time music gathering where the rest of the folks were taking a supper break. The instruments present were a fiddle played by a good player, a guitar played by a non-guitar specialist, and a mandolin played by me. So, as one of just two lead players it was my turn to pick out every other tune. I selected interesting but well-known numbers that sounded good even in such a small group, and were easy for the guitar player to back up even though guitar wasn't his best instrument.
BUT... when the fiddle player picked out tunes to play, they were not like that. They were some of the fiddler's favorite rare, obscure, "unsquare" tunes, which neither I nor the guitarist knew or could play well. By the time we'd gone through each tune several times I had learned the basics of it, but the effect of a learning mandolin player and a hesitant guitar player meant that the tunes sounded a lot weaker, and to me (at least) were much less satisfying to play, than the tunes I had picked out specifically to avoid that situation and help us all sound good. I thought that the fiddle player lacked good manners.
So whatever session you're in, YOU use good manners. Pick tunes that the other musicians can play, and play them in such a way as to make it easy for the others to play along. Sometimes in advanced sessions, this means that you can play about anything you want any way you want to, even without announcing the name of the tune. But in other sessions, it means that you have to pay attention to the other musicians and help make everybody sound good. Think about it.