Fever. Yesterday while lying in bed with a fever, …

Fever. Yesterday while lying in bed with a fever, I wrote (in my head) a lengthy essay on films that involved Tim Burton, Beetlejuice, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and the question of whether a film could ever truly be a work of art. It seemed pretty good at the time, and at some point I’ll try to dredge it out of the memory banks. Although I’m a bit concerned it’ll come out reading like this:

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Smoker. A minor setback in my agrarian-ward journe…

Smoker. A minor setback in my agrarian-ward journey: I’ve replaced my Brinkman charcoal smoker with a Brinkman electric smoker. They are identical in every way, save that with the old you filled the firepan with burning charcoal, but with the new you have a layer of lava rock with an electric element on the top. (Well, the new one is fire-engine red, a bit cooler than the old forest green.)

I’m in favor of charcoal fires over electric ones; in fact, when we move to our property I hope eventually to built a small smoke house that will be fired with wood. But as with so many other things, I am in favor of actually doing something, however impurely, rather than being a purist that never does the pure thing. We love smoked meat far more than suggested by the five or six smoking sessions I had last year; yet five or six times was all I was willing to mess with the constant tending that the charcoal smoker needed over the course of ten hours. Now, I’ll grant that the constant tending was mostly due to my incompetence at building and maintaining a charcoal fire. But until the day comes that I have time and leisure to turn my attention to becoming an expert at that, it seems prudent to simply step back and adopt a technology that with even my limitations will produced smoked meat on a regular basis.

It’s out there right now, puffing away. Aside from the occasional glance, the only thing I’ve done in the past four hours is toss a few more wood chunks on the fire at the start of hour three.

Land. We are about to close on a parcel of land ne…

Land. We are about to close on a parcel of land near Mendota. This is not the parcel of land that we spent the last year trying to purchase; that deal fell through about six weeks ago. But immediately after it fell through, R.C. went back to work and found us another place, one that is much more suitable in many ways. The parcel is 28 acres, which will be used by the Saenz family, the Sproul family, and the study center.

The property is located at a bend in the north fork of the Holston river, and includes a hundred feet or so of river frontage. The best potential homesites are up on a ridge, and the views from there are quite nice. The property is perhaps 3/4 of a mile from downtown (!) Mendota, where the Hays family lives; three other families who are friends of ours live within three miles. Mendota is quite rural, but still only 30 minutes from both Bristol and Kingsport, the two closest large towns.

Richard Weaver. I've just finished reading Ideas H…

Richard Weaver. I’ve just finished reading Ideas Have Consequences for the second time, and already I’m thinking that I need to re-read it. It is not a difficult book to read, but it is extremely dense—if you’re reading carefully, by the time you’ve read a few pages your brain is filled to overflowing with ideas that need to be dealt with. Mastering the material in this book would require a long and careful study. However, there is also value in simply reading it at normal speed, letting the ideas wash over you; some of them will stick with you, and any one of them is worthy of extended meditation.

Jam Camp. I've already receive a couple of respons…

Jam Camp. I’ve already receive a couple of responses to our message of introduction, including one from Dr. Banjo (Pete Wernick) himself, who said that the concern about the autoharp was a legitimate one—he likes the sound of it, many others don’t think it has a place in bluegrass music, and there is a general difficulty with integrating it into a bluegrass jam because it tends to create a “wall of sound” effect. Given that, and given the general shortage of bass players at camp, he encouraged me to practice hard on the bass and to bring both bass and autoharp along.

I am trying to get more diligent about bass practice. Yesterday afternoon I spent about 75 minutes playing along with the Bluegrass Jam DVD that Dr. Banjo put together; I enjoyed that so much that after the kids were in bed I did the same thing again, and I will try to do the same once a day until camp in four weeks. My goal is not only to get some basic facility with chord changes and to learn some standards, but especially to learn to anticipate the chord changes from the music. There were times yesterday, though still scattered and infrequent, where it felt so right to make a particular change that my fingers moved into position almost automatically. Not only do I need to be able to do this in a jam, where I’ll be learning new songs on the fly, but it is very satisfying as well.

Jam Camp. Here's the message I wrote introducing u…

Jam Camp. Here’s the message I wrote introducing us to the Merlefest Jam Campers email list.

Dear Merlefest Jam Campers,

Thanks to Tom Gilbert for the invitation to join this discussion group, and for the work he’s done in bringing it to life. I just spent some time reading through the 400+ archived messages, and they helped me to get a much better understanding of what Jam Camp will be like. Let me add our story to the mix.

My wife Debbie and I have five children–Chris (14), Maggie (11), Matthew (7), Elizabeth (6 months), and one on the way. Music wasn’t a significant part of our family life until we moved to Bristol, Tennessee eighteen months ago. Turns out that Bristol is the self-proclaimed Birthplace of Country Music, and the atmosphere is thick with bluegrass and old-time music. Partly through osmosis, and partly through the help of a friend who is very knowledgeable about such things, we began some tentative explorations. Our friend also gave Chris a few guitar lessons, which revealed that Chris has a natural aptitude for it; since then he has become reasonably proficient with both guitar and clawhammer-style banjo.

Merlefest 2002 was a watershed event for us. Chris and I attended, at the urging of our friend. Early on we attended a Homespun Tapes banjo workshop, hosted by Pete Wernick, as much for the comfortable seating as for the workshop. Instead we left with our heads spinning, after having heard Jens Kruger talk about how he approached his music. It was enough to clue us in that there was a lot more depth to bluegrass and old-time than we had expected, and so the rest of the festival became a study session for us, as we made some deliberate choices about which performers to follow around and study closely (I’m sure by the end the Kruger Brothers were tired of seeing us). We came home to the rest of the family with lots of stories and a stack of new CDs.

Last September I happened across Dr. Banjo’s website, and read the description of Bluegrass Jam Camp. By this time Chris was really feeling the need to have someone to play music with, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity. But I didn’t think it would be a good idea to send him to the camp alone, being only fourteen. The solution was to sign both of us up for the camp; and, since I didn’t want to just sit around the camp making other people feel weird, I decided to teach myself to play the autoharp.

I chose the autoharp partly because I like the sound, partly because it is simple to play–but mostly because my hands are pretty twisted from a long-term bout with arthritis, and I find it somewhere between difficult and impossible to form chords on a guitar or (sigh) banjo. It was probably a good choice; I haven’t had the time to learn melody picking or fancy strums, but I can strum a few patterns and can usually find the next chord when the time comes. I enjoy using it for family singing, and as an accompaniment for Chris on guitar and banjo. I’m curious how it will work out in a jam environment; I’ve tried it a couple of times playing with others around here, and I’m still unclear whether it contributes to or detracts from the overall sound. Perhaps we’ll figure out together how to make the best use of it.

I’ll also be bringing along an inexpensive acoustic/electric resophonic bass which I recently bought. As we’ve continued to play it’s become ever more important to me to provide a helpful but unobtrusive accompaniment for Chris; my main interest in playing is in playing together with friends and family, not in developing performing skills. So as I became more unsure that the autoharp was providing a good accompaniment, I started thinking again about what sort of instruments I might be able to manage. Finally it occurred to me that the bass might work, since I could probably get my fingers into position note by note. I tried one out and that seemed to be true, so I purchased one two weeks ago and have been scrambling ever since to learn enough patterns for simpler songs in various keys. We’ll see if I’ve made enough progress in the remaining weeks to provide a useful contribution.

By now I’m sure Dr. Banjo is worried that he wasn’t quite clear enough about those minimum requirements. But rest assured that my main purpose in attending is to be the chaperone that allows Chris to attend. Beyond that, I’m happy to do whatever I can to help make the camp a success; maybe it’ll be playing, or maybe singing a bit, or maybe just giving folks practice with integrating a rank amateur into a jam. I’m also willing to be persuaded that they also serve who only sit and watch.

We’re looking forward to meeting you all next month.

Rick and Chris Saenz
Bristol, Tennessee

Jam Camp. This morning I received an emailed invit…

Jam Camp. This morning I received an emailed invitation to join a Yahoo discussion group whose members have attended or will be attending one of Pete Wernick’s bluegrass jam camps; about forty alumni keep in touch this way. I read through two years of messages (about 400), and got a much better feel for how the camp is run (short version: very laid back, very friendly). I will probably spend the rest of my Saturday afternoon on one final small chore, namely writing an email to introduce Chris and myself to the group. Big things can wait until Monday.