Dawn Watson is a product of Bluegrass 101.
In Levelland, Tex., South Plains College offers an associate's degree in bluegrass as well as an assortment of courses in the age-old tradition. Watson went there from Nebraska to study bluegrass and the mandolin.
She also played in a number of bluegrass ensembles at the school, and in 1989 she joined what can be called Bluegrass 999 Alan Munde and Country Gazette. She is now one of four distinguished "professors'' in this well-regarded bluegrass ensemble.
"I was very happy Alan let me in the band,'' Watson said. "It's a really great group of players.''
THE COUNTRY Gazette makes a Lawrence appearance at 9 p.m. Saturday at Rick's Place, 623 Vt., formerly Bogart's. In addition to Watson, the band includes five-string banjo player Munde, bass player Steve Garner and singer Dave Hardy.
Munde, who released a solo album in 1968 called "Poor Richard's Almanac,'' formed the group in 1972. The band has gone through several cast changes; his three current cohorts all come out of the South Plains College bluegrass department.
They've appeared on "A Prairie Home Companion'' several times and produced a series of records, including the latest, "Keep on Pushing,'' which features the bluegrass-chart hit "Rosa Lee McFall.
Watson was born in Arlington, Va.; at the age of 8 she moved to Lincoln, Neb., with her mother. Her parents influenced her interest in music.
"MY PARENTS gave me a guitar when I was 6, and my mother played in a lot of Virginia festivals,'' Watson said from a tour stop in Texas during a recent telephone interview. "When we moved, I began getting interested in bluegrass music, and I started playing in a band in Nebraska. Then when I was 16 I picked up the banjo and the mandolin.''
She won the Arizona State Mandolin Championship in 1989, and she performed with the Nashville touring group Petticoat Junction as well as others in the Midwest. She is now a full-time faculty member at South Plains College.
Watson said she appreciates the long tradition of bluegrass, which began in the folk melodies of Great Britain and Ireland and evolved in the Appalachian mountains among descendents of American settlers.
"A LOT OF people think some of the old songs date back to the 1920s and '30s, when they were first recorded or published, but they're a lot older than that,'' she said. "When we went up to play the Winnepeg Folk Festival this year, it was incredible to hear various folk-music traditions and find out how inter-related they are.''
Although the audience niche for bluegrass continues to be small, Watson sees potential for growth in the Midwest and around the world, particularly in Europe and Japan.
"Every year there are more and more festivals,'' she said. "Every year the number of gigs is expanding.''