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