Gettysburg, Small miracles and hot bluegrass
August, 2004

Joan and I spent almost two weeks in Gettysburg this summer, mostly at the Granite Hill Campground east of town. We were the only duet act at the 48th and 49th annual Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival, part of two great talent lineups featuring a great many of our favorite acts: Ralph Stanley, Ricky Skaggs, Blue Highway, Rhonda Vincent, Mountain Heart, Robin and Linda Williams, the Seldom Scene, and many, many more top bands.

The festival is a few miles from the Pennsylvania battleground where the Union stopped the advance of the Confederacy in 1863 in the bloodiest battle ever on U.S. soil. While tourism dominates the area, with visitors from all over, the town is a modest place with what I think of as “regular” American country folk. Joe and Lil Cornett have run the campground for many years, and presented two bluegrass festivals a year since 1980. Hot Rize used to play there regularly, and I’ve also performed there with Pete Rowan and Jerry Douglas, Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin, and even solo. In the early 90s I did a series of banjo camps there, and since August, 2003, Joan and I have now hosted three Bluegrass Jam Camps.

This year’s August camp was an especially interesting one, as we started with one of the least experienced groups we’ve ever gathered (we like that), from an interesting variety of backgrounds: a machinist (who built his own excellent banjo), a physicist, a lighthouse keeper, three nurses, two teachers, a plant manager, a number of computer folks, and a truck driver. There was a young married couple and a father and his grown son.

Of the 18, more than half had never before played music with another person, though some had years of closet picking experience. One standup bass player had only played electric bass before, in a country band, and another picker with some performing experience had quit due to stage fright. Two folks had been told early in life (and believed) that they “couldn’t sing”, and three had important physical limitations, including one fellow who’d had a stroke.

The good news is, after meeting each other on Tuesday morning, they managed to perform Thursday afternoon on the main stage, mostly terrified, but enthusiastic, really nice-sounding versions of Good Old Mountain Dew and Will the Circle Be Unbroken. One of the verses was sung, (mostly) in tune by one of the folks who had been told he couldn’t sing at all. A banjo picker who had never created a solo on his own took two breaks on stage, that he created during the camp.

To most music teachers’ way of thinking, most of the above might be considered impossible and even a bit miraculous. I can honestly say, though, when you have motivated students and teaching methods that work, these breakthroughs are not only possible, they are commonplace. They are a big part of why I find Bluegrass Jam Camps so gratifying to teach.

Following our campers’ performance, the 49th Gettysburg Festival started up. With an excellent sound system and an enthusiastic crowd, each and every act displayed high musical quality and showmanship. In addition to the expected favorites, I enjoyed Tennessee Heartstrings, with Casey Henry on banjo, the great Mike Munford playing with Mark Newton, the rare reunion of the classic Bluegrass Cardinals with Don Parmley picking great as ever, the singing and picking of Jeff Parker with the Lonesome River Band, and of course, the wise-beyond-his-years fiddling of 20-year old Hunter Berry (with Rhonda Vincent).

Randy Graham, with both David Parmley and the Cardinals reunion, is one of my favorite festival m.c.s. Speaking of David’s squinting-while-singing style, he said, “You could blindfold him with dental floss,” and later, “Love ya, mean it.” (Remember, Randy grew up in L.A.!)

I got to do two workshops at the festival, sharing a songwriters’ workshop with Paul Craft and Mike Henderson. Songwriting hint of the month: Start by writing different words to any well-known melody, and write as many lines as you can, just to get your creativity flowing. Another hint: Write stories with specific facts, using strong verbs that describe actions, not a lot of adjectives and thoughts and abstractions.

The other workshop was Banjo Basics, and a good crowd showed up, some with banjos. We played quite a few songs, and I got to give my sermon about how music starts with playing simple songs together, following simple chord changes, and “not” with following tablature for soloing with no rhythm playing. I warned the folks to be wary of teachers who think of a lesson as handing out tabs and watching people struggle through assignments that are overly difficult and therefore likely to discourage them. We went right into Tom Dooley (a total of one change from G to D7 and back), after which I said, “There’s nobody here who can’t do that with a few minutes of practice.” I am really on a campaign about this, and as usual I referred people to this web site, for a copy of my recent Bluegrass Unlimited guest editorial, A New Direction in Bluegrass Music Teaching.

Joan and I played four sets on the weekend. They went very well and we feel we really connected with the crowd. Joan sang possibly the best I’ve ever heard her. She says, “Singing at sea level feels so easy after singing in Colorado.” I told the crowd how fortunate I feel not only to have a wife I love so well, but also to have her be such a good singer. We told the folks of our recent 30th anniversary and asked for a show of hands of couples married 30 years or more. Quite a few hands went up, and I felt glad to give a little credit to folks who do the hard work but rewarding work to keep a marriage together.

Our last hours at the festival were as in the “wee” variety, jamming till past 3 with some nice folks we’ve only recently met at this festival. Nice singing and picking, John and Rob. We’ll be back!