Jam Camp Report Here's the more-or-less straightfo…

Jam Camp Report Here’s the more-or-less straightforward account of what jam camp was about; there were deeper things going on as well, but I’ll have to write about them separately.

The idea behind the bluegrass jam camp is to gather musicians who, because of shyness or lack of opportunity, have had little or no experience playing with a group of people, i.e. jamming, and giving them a chance to do so in relaxed and unthreatening surroundings, as well as teaching some of the basics of jamming etiquette and technique. Camp was held at Wilkesboro Community College, home of MerleFest, for the four days prior to the festival. Just shy of forty people attended, Chris and me included. Maybe half of the folks had attended the camp previously, and were returning for the sheer fun of it.

And it was a lot of fun. Pete Wernick, a.k.a. Dr. Banjo, is a fine musician and a fine teacher, able to keep forty people interested and on track while staying very relaxed. After a bit of introductory stuff, he dismissed the more experienced alumni for the time being, then got the thirty-five or so of us who were left to start playing along with some simple two- and three-chord songs. By late morning he was ready to take those of us who were confident enough for it and form us into five five-person jam groups that would practice on their own, with occasional visits from an instructor; the rest formed an absolute novice group that received gentler and constant attention from Dr. Banjo or one of his assistants.

Those first groups were intentionally assembled to have a wide range of abilities within the group, something that happens often in real situations. We stayed in those groups through Tuesday morning; at that point, we were reassigned to new groups where our skills were much more uniform, and that’s where we stayed for the rest of the camp. Early Thursday afternoon each group took a turn at performing a song for the rest of us.

The pattern was roughly a couple of hours of everyone meeting together for a talk or some hands-on instruction, followed by a couple of hours of jam group practice. One of the topics covered with everyone was harmony singing; we turned out to be pretty good at that (or at least enthusiastic about it), and so Pete Wernick spent extra time working with us on it, incorporating it into the group performance which ended the camp.

Preparing for that performance was major fun. We spent some time working up two songs, “Love Please Come Home” and “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” both with three-part harmony on the chorus. I couldn’t tell you how it sounded at the performace, being one of forty nervous people crowded onto a tiny stage, trying to sing at three widely-spaced vocal microphones. But we sounded quite good during rehearsals.

Chris and I enjoyed ourselves thoroughly, we learned a lot from our time there, and we plan on returning next year. And we plan to spend the intervening twelve months practicing to be a lot more competent than we were this year.

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Festival Report. Sorry for doing this out of order…

Festival Report. Sorry for doing this out of order, but I think I can cover our experience as Merlefest attendees in one long post; the jam camp episode will take several of them.

It began for us in an unusual way, because of the jam camp—the culmination of that was an actual festival performance, at which forty of us got up on the Cabin Stage, a small stage to the right of the main stage, and played two songs for the couple of hundred folks who were there for the late afternoon performances. It turned out to be a good time slot, since we directly followed Doc Watson, who I know is popular, and led into a performance from Rhonda Vincent, who I gather is popular (at least she’s riding in the Martha White bus this year). It gave us a chance to check out the backstage area, which was fun, and to show off what Dr. Banjo had managed to teach us over the space of four days.

From there the campers broke up, and Chris and I went in search of dinner—the food at MerleFest is actually a highlight, provided by local volunteer organizations at a reasonable price, and in general pretty tasty—and then to our main stage seats for an evening of performances. Our favorites by far that evenign were Asleep at the Wheel, who have settled comfortably into their role of carrying the torch for Western swing, and play a solid set of standards with a very high level of showmanship. Ray Benson was in fine voice, deep and controlled; there were twin fiddles on this tour; and the piano player was especially adept at rising to the challenge presented by all the different styles that the band plays in.

On Friday, the rest of the family joined us for a day, one that was cut short because of bad weather. We’re not particularly valiant when it comes to outdoor festivals—MerleFest is even a challenge for us, and it is exceptionally cushy—so after a few performances we decided to eat a late-afternoon supper before sending Debbie, Matthew, and Elizabeth on their way back home, while Chris, Maggie, and I retired early to the hotel.

Saturday and Sunday were excellent days. On Saturday the weather turned bad in the afternoon, but that was fine because our plans had us mostly indoors at that point. We saw Doc Watson again, and some fine cowboy singing by Don Edwards, and a standing-room-only show by Hot Rize, a family favorite. On Sunday the sky was clear as a bell and the temperature was in the mid-70s—wonderful. Maggie had some clogging lessons, Chris attended a banjo clinic, and we heard Pete and Joan Wernick, Etta Baker, and a second Hot Rize performance. By then we were filled to overflowing with music, so we headed on home.

I can’t recommend this festival highly enough. It is friendly, well-organized, and surprisingly affordable. And it is an unparalleled experience to be able to attend show after show after show presented by the very best performers that Americana music has to offer. It was world-class, and most of it was up close and personal. We’ll be going back again next year, and probably for many years to come.

MerleFest. Well, we're back. Eight days is longer …

MerleFest. Well, we’re back. Eight days is longer by far than I like to be away from home. But the week was a rich one, and its events will probably dominate my weblog entries for the next week.

That is, if I can find the time to write them. Being gone from Sunday to Sunday leaves you with six days of work to catch up on, and for now I’m trudging through a pile of accumulated chores. If there’s not enough to read here, take the time to catch up with Cartularium and The Walker Mountain Sessions, and then pay a visit to a new entrant, Tim Varner’s WhetWords.

Anniversary. I see that we're closing in on one ye…

Anniversary. I see that we’re closing in on one year of posts to this weblog in its current incarnation. (It existed in various other forms for about two years before it became part of the HSC website.) The list of archive links on the right side of this page is getting pretty long, but I don’t know of any good way to fix that.

Merlefest. This is by far the best-organized and m…

Merlefest. This is by far the best-organized and most comfortable outdoor musical event I’ve ever attended. You can take stuff along if you like, including food and drink so long as it is not in glass containers. Or you can buy just about anything you might want while you’re there, at reasonable prices. One thing that is at a premium, however, is seating. Except for the main stage, the outdoor stages provide only ground to sit on. Lots of folks bring along lawn chairs and the like, a good idea but often not as portable as you’d wish.

Last year Jonathan Daugherty introduced us to the concept of ultra-light-weight camping stools (introduced in the sense that he had one and we didn’t). So we made sure to pick up five of them for this year’s festival (Elizabeth will be riding in the royal coach, i.e. her stroller).


The stool on the top is what the kids get; the somewhat smaller, lighter, and fancier stool on the bottom is for the grownups.

Hiatus There's one coming up. Merlefest (and the a…

Hiatus There’s one coming up. Merlefest (and the attendant Bluegrass Jam Camp), which I’ve been nattering on about for months, is finally here; Chris and I leave Sunday afternoon, not to return until late the following Sunday. So both this weblog and the HSC website will be out of commission for ten days beginning sometime today.

Music. I hope that the whole world is aware that A…

Music. I hope that the whole world is aware that Amazon has approximately one gazillion MP3 songs available for free download. Not just for wildly popular bands, either; I searched for “Dry Branch Fire Squad” and found that there were twelve of their songs to be had. Here’s a particularly good one, Memories that Bless and Burn, from their album of the same name that collects their bluegrass gospel songs—just mandolin, bass, and the amazing voice of Suzanne Thomas, who also wrote the song.