Music is a universal language and bluegrass Christmas music is a jamming language sung with a twang — and the ability to have nursing home residents in Owensboro, KY, humming all the way back to their rooms with the spirit of the season.

Randy Lanham is the education director at the Bluegrass Hall of Fame & Museum in Owensboro. He teaches people how to play bluegrass instruments such as the fiddle, banjo, guitar, ukulele, mandolin and bass. He does this hoping they will play together and then share their talents with the community.

Lanham did so as a kid when his Grandpa John took him to local nursing homes to entertain with a fiddle. Lanham left for Nashville to pursue career goals but eventually returned to Owensboro and resumed jamming at nursing facilities.

Last summer in the midst of the Hall of Fame’s Romp Festival, Lanham and his students brought the festival’s music to those who couldn’t attend in person. Songs by Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Sr., and tunes such as “Rocky Top” and “Crawdad Hole” filled the air. 

Lanham revived the traveling show idea for Christmas: He distributes phone numbers for his musicians to nursing facility operators, who may call and arrange shows. Sometimes Lanham plays, like he did Monday morning, at 120-resident Chautauqua Health and Rehabilitation, when he and his friend Wayne Morris filled the air with guitar and fiddle music.

The shows by Lanham and his students are called Jingle Jams. The 12 songs Lanham taught his students include “Jingle Bells,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “Silent Night,” “Away in the Manger,” and, yes, even the Gene Autry hit “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” plus “Frosty the Snowman” for good measure.

“‘Rudolph,’ you think it’s a kids song, but everybody in the nursing facility knows that song, and ‘Frosty’ — they love it,” Lanham said. “They may not remember certain things but they remember words to music. It takes them back.”

Chautauqua Activities Director Melissa Scott said after staff go to each room to ask if the residents want to join the show, those available are helped to the sizable dining room, where everyone can practice safe-distancing. 

“They just get so excited about it,” Scott said. “Music is a positive experience for these residents at all levels. Some of them will actually start dancing.”

After Monday’s show, for example, the Christmas spirit spread throughout the facility, Scott said. “When they’re going back to their rooms, they’re still singing some type of Christmas song.”