Four bluegrass music camps, Spring of 2002: England, North Carolina, Massachusetts, and California!

This spring was a busy one for me, music camps-wise. England, North Carolina, Massachusetts, California– about 600 campers and at least 50 teachers in all. Quite a change from the first-ever all-bluegrass multi-instructor camp, in Oregon, summer of 1985. That was an experiment, with me as director and the rest of Hot Rize and Fred Sokolow, and about 60 students. It worked, and blazed some well-traveled trails.

All the camps are great fun, very conscientiously-run, and interestingly different from each other. In order:

Sore Fingers Week, England, the Cotswolds area, northwest of London. April 2002.

I helped plan the first of these, back in ’96. Back then it was about 55 people, mostly banjo players! This time it was about 180, nicely balanced, with classes on all the instruments, even two autoharp classes, clawhammer banjo, vocals, etc. John Wirtz, a skilled sound man, and Andrea Gauden, are the administrators, and they do an excellent job.

The scene is an old English boarding school, on spring break. The housing is dorm-style, a bit cramped, but with so much to do, little time is spent in the rooms. After-hours, there is the obligatory pub, with two or three jam groups in high gear, plenty of socializing, and of course, good old grog. Many attendees have been returning for years, and they’re a nice community of folks who know how to have fun together. It was a pleasure being welcomed into this upbeat society!

Danny’s bass workshop takes a break.

People in the U.S. sometimes wonder what the overseas bluegrass scenes are like. Having participated in England’s largest bluegrass event, the A-1 Festival a year ago, and Sore Fingers Week, I can say the scene in Britain shows all the signs of being well-established, led by some fine, experienced players, a healthy mix of bluegrass and old-time musicians, and a lot of participation at all levels.

The instructors at SFW were largely drawn from the U.S., including Sally Van Meter, Barry Mitterhoff, Kenny Kosek (subbing for Stuart Duncan, who stayed in the U.S. to be with his dad in his final days), Dede Wyland, and Orrin Star. We got to perform together for the group on the last night, and had a fine time hanging out in the dining room, catching up on old times, comparing notes, etc. Notables from the U.K. included the virtuoso bass player Danny Thompson, who doesn’t play bluegrass primarily but sure knows how to make his bass talk!

Highlights for me included some of the specialized workshops: harmony singing, playing under pressure, and songwriting. A lot of talent in this group! Kenny and I did a fiddle-banjo session for a joint meeting of our classes. Kenny and I go way back, to New York City in the 60s, and this was our first chance to play together in a long time. A pleasure.

As I said, this camp is very well-run, with a relaxed atmosphere, plenty of personal attention, lots to do, good fun, even good (catered) food. I hope to return!

My banjo class at Sore Fingers Week. They’re a like-minded bunch.
It’s not just fingers that give out, sometimes it’s our brains, too.

Bluegrass Jam Camp at Merlefest, Wilkesboro, NC. April, 2002

This was our fourth annual, and we had the biggest turnout ever, 40, with about a third returnees. Joan was one of my lovely assistants, along with my pal Andy Owens and Beth Smith.

The group has a great camaraderie, experienced folks helping the newbies, and social connections going well beyond the four days of the camp. Many thanks to Tom Gilbert, who’s been there every year with his bass, for setting up a Yahoo.com discussion group. It stays active, with people asking for and getting advice, sharing songs and war stories, even planning occasional get-togethers. (To get on the list, contact me at [email protected].) Andy and his wife Kathy made a big contribution this year, hosting a big party for the campers one night at their beautiful mountain top home in Deep Gap, 30 minutes out of Wilkesboro. Big porches, great food, a big old jam session, hard to beat.

The teaching of such a large group with a wide range of jamming experience presented a challenge. Sometimes the 5- or 6-piece jam groups were mixed, with different experience levels; sometimes they were more closely matched up. (Both situations are typical of what happens in real life.) During some of the more basic-level teaching sessions, the more experienced folks got to go out and jam and renew old friendships.

This group had a wide age range, 7 to about 70. Fourteen states represented, coast to coast, and even a professional musician in the group, our pride and joy, Tim Tolliver. He and some other veteran jam campers did a great job guiding some of the jams they were in (Thanks Tim, Terry, Shirley, Tom, Tom, Joseph, Alistair). A fine collection of people, lots of enthusiasm, and a good mix of instruments (though only one resophonic/dobro player).

Highlights included some all-class harmony singing, a short video history of bluegrass (with a video player available for extra-curricular viewing of some of my favorite tapes), instrumental break-out sessions, and a really fun set of last-day in-class performances by all the jam groups. Quite a show– enough pressure to get everyone a little keyed up as they put out their hastily-practiced arrangements, and much cheering for all the heartfelt performances.

The final event, as always, was the all-class on-stage jam at the cabin stage, for the big festival crowd on Thursday night. Some wonderful harmony and lead singing on Gotta Travel On, even harmony fiddle breaks. We got some big applause!

The jam campers wail on “Gotta Travel On” before the Thursday evening festival crowd. It’s the wind-up event for the camp, with 40 jammers going full-tilt.

The evaluation forms came back overwhelmingly positive, but as usual, also with ideas for good tweaks for future camps. I’m grateful to all the campers for their participation and enthusiasm.

A postscript to the camp. I’ll let Joan tell you about it:

“I had such a wonderful time at my first Merlefest! I had been hearing about how great is for years, but this was the first time I got to attend because our son Will is now in college and I am able to travel during the school year. My experience started out with the Jam Camp and some of the neatest people I have met ANYWHERE!

“One of the high points of the camp was the concert I and five jam campers gave at a local grade school. For an hour we were a bluegrass band! Terry on guitar and vocals, Greg on mandolin and vocals, Alistair on fiddle and vocals, Tom on bass, and Tim on guitar and vocals. We had a blast and so did the kids and the teachers. I know we will all want to do it next year if they will have us.

“I had had breakfast with Earl Scruggs the morning of the concert and told him where I was going, and he regaled me with stories of how he and Flatt and the Foggy Mt. Boys would go from school to school giving concerts because the gyms were the best venues around. He told me the sound would be great in those old gyms, and he was right!

“Another high point of the week was playing with Pete on the cabin stage between sets by Peter Rowan and Sam Bush. What a thrill to look out there and see all those lovers of close-to-the-bone music, and realize that I got to play for them. I am really grateful. I loved seeing Alice Gerrard again and giving a workshop with her and James Leva and Cary Fridley and other great traditional musicians.

“The staff of the festival is so accommodating and the huge amount of work they do makes there attitudes even more astounding! Southern hospitality at its best.”

Flexigrass (formerly The Live Five) on the main stage.

With the amazing Kruger Bros. (Switzerland), and country legend George Hamilton IV.

Pete and Dave Johnson in Yonder Mountain’s set at Merlefest

Banjo Camp North #2, Groton Massachusetts. May 2002.

A wonderful spot in mid-May, excellent direction, a phenomenal crew of teachers, and a gung-ho bunch of banjo players. What a combination!

A sad thing colored this year’s event for me– the sudden passing of my dad, Bill Wernick, at age 91, the day before the start of the camp. I excused myself from pre-camp show in Lexington, though I heard it was great.

My dad was a music lover and we used to do many small performances on banjo and harmonica at various places he lived, and the Denver Harmonica Club whenever he came to visit. He always encouraged my playing (he even bought for himself when I was little, what became my first banjo), and was proud of my music career. So being in the camp was a tonic of sorts. It also helped to have the sympathies of so many of the people there, especially my good buddy Tony Trischka. I sang two songs about my dad at the two faculty concerts. Much of the rest of the weekend, I lost myself in teaching and playing, though I was to experience, and am still experiencing, a large measure of grief at times when I’m not so occupied. Now that I know, after all these years, what it feels like to have lost both parents, I feel I have a new understanding and sympathy for anyone in that position.

But back to the camp, a healthy atmosphere for uplifting the spirit, whatever the circumstances.

Mike Holmes and Ken Perlman organized the camp with a great combination of attention to detail and love for what they’re doing. The program has a great deal of variety, especially for what lasts essentially just 48 hours. No time is wasted! The biggest problem (not a bad problem really) is having to be only one place at a time. In any given slot, there are about 10 choices, and that’s only the classes. The pretty lake and woodsy walkways are appealing but are mostly ignored. Concerts, dances, jams by night keep everyone up till at least midnight, then it’s up for 8am breakfast in the big dining hall, and five instruction slots each day.

Mike and Ken choose with care a great selection of teacher/players. Bluegrass and old-time styles are equally emphasized. I was proud to be in the company of folks like Tony Trischka, both Mike and Peggy Seeger, Bill Evans, Bill Keith, Bruce Molsky, Walt Koken, Howie Bursen, Ron Stewart, Lynn Morris, Curtis McPeake, Mike Kropp, the list goes on and on. I loved all the teaching opportunities I had, but regretted not being able to see any of the others teach except when we were group teaching. I did get to enjoy hearing everyone at the concerts, though, and hang time in the dining room and the dorm was a special treat. My thanks to Sandy Sheehan of Sandy’s Music in Cambridge for managing the merch area, and all the folks who gave of themselves to make this a great event. I certainly hope to return to this one too!

California Bluegrass Association Music Camp

Another very well-run camp in a lovely setting, also in just its second year. It grew significantly from last year, to over 170 folks, and along with all the bluegrass instruments, some old-time instruction as well. The tall piney woods in Grass Valley were majestic and gave great shade. Quite a group of instructors, too, over 20 in all, with Laurie Lewis, John Reischman, Bill Keith, Bruce Molsky, Paul Shelasky, and Tom Rozum among the better known ones, but also some really fine musician/teachers not as well-known, such as young resophonic whiz Michael Witcher, Avram Siegel, Dix Bruce, Jim Nunnally, Tom Sauber, Steve Pottier, and more. What a crew, great fun to be around and to pick with.

Our ringleader, Ingrid Noyes, did a great job coordinating the teaching and keeping everyone well-occupied and happy. There was a lot of attention to jamming, including the all-important slow jams for novices. Classes were planned so that Avram, Bill, and I each had groups of no more than six banjo players, but rotated through six such groups so that each had time with each instructor. A setup I’d not encountered before, but with some nice advantages. The elective classes included Jack Tuttle’s highly-recommended “critical listening” seminar, complete with classic recordings, attended by most of the campers.

The final event of the camp was a very enjoyable student concert, with hastily assembled groups each doing a song. One memorable group name: Chicken Sedan (“Why does a chicken coop have two doors?” “If it had four doors, it would be a chicken sedan.”). Ingrid’s flexible and responsive leadership style made it possible to take a late suggestion from me that the show end with a “mega-jam”. With help from six volunteer lead singers, I led over 100 people singing and playing “Long Journey Home”, complete with entire sections playing solos — the fiddle section, the banjo section, even the autoharp section, and the bass section! A very fun way to wrap up a wonderful camp.

Having spent a lot of time in California over the years, I got to see many musician friends I don’t get to see enough. One old buddy, Bill Schneiderman, whom I knew back in the Bronx in the 60’s, gave me some CDs of the Hunter College Hootenannys from the mid-60’s in New York, and I got to hear myself at 19 as part of the Gurland/Wernick duo. A rare chance to hear myself on my first good banjo, a 1962 archtop Mastertone I got new. Bob and I were pretty green, but not half bad! Well, maybe about half-bad.

The CBA Music Camp is a top-level bluegrass camp, one which I hope to be part of for a long time to come. Congratulations to Ingrid and her staff for making it work so well in only its second year.

I’d like to sum up this report by saying the bluegrass camp experience is something worth going out of your way for, whatever your instrument, whatever your skill level. People who love bluegrass are a great bunch, and the interactions and friendships at these camps are a wonderful thing — something especially needed in this weird hi-tech age. There is now a large coterie of highly skilled teacher/performers who not only help people play better but provide special insights into the world of professional musicians. Many of these camps, maybe 20 or more, take place each year. From what I’ve seen, virtually everyone goes home happy and looking forward to their next chance to be part of such a fulfilling gathering. I feel privileged to have been a part of this movement from the beginning in 1980, right up into the present and future. I hope you can make it to at least one next year.