Jam Camp

Chris and I returned yesterday afternoon from a week at Pete Wernick’s Bluegrass Jam Camp, this one in Wilkesboro, North Carolina preceding the MerleFest music festival. In years past we’ve attended both the festival (which is always one of the best) and the camp, but time and money are short these days so we had to choose, and I think we made the better choice.

This year the camp was held at Herring Ridge, a conference and summer camp facility run by the area YMCA. Previously the jam camp had been staged at the community college where MerleFest happens, but as the festival grew it became more difficult for the campers to stay out of the way of festival preparations, so Pete was strongly encouraged to consider moving it to Herring Ridge. Which turned out to be a great improvement, in fact; the cost was lower than staying in area motels, and since campers mostly ate and slept at Herring Ridge there was much more time to spend playing music with one another.

This is the fifth camp Chris and I have attended. It certainly doesn’t take five camps to learn what Pete Wernick has to teach about jamming, but it is a great environment and many folks are repeat attenders, coming back to see old friends and to spend four days playing music. We generally justified our return visits by having Chris focus on a different instrument, one year guitar, another year bluegrass banjo, and the last time he worked on his fiddling. We didn’t attend last year, but since last summer Chris has really buckled down on learning old-time and bluegrass fiddle, and we thought this year that camp would be the perfect place for him to take what he had learned and put it into practice in an ensemble setting.

Also, we had seen Pete at the IBMA convention last fall, where he told us he was thinking about expanding the jam camp by adding some intermediate-level teaching. He was initially surprised that anyone would sign up for the camp year after year, and as more people did so he wanted to make it a good experience for them as well as the beginners, so at the MerleFest camp he planned to experiment with breaking off the more experienced players and giving them some advanced instruction. Chris and I thought that was a great idea, and told him we’d definitely be interested in attending such a camp.

We arrived Sunday afternoon and set up our camping equipment. Most campers stayed in fourteen-bunk cabins, which was inexpensive enough, but we decided to save another $210 (for two people) by taking the tent-camping option. For the most part that worked fine, since the weather was warm and dry and the tent handled the wind. Towards the end of the week the weather turned rainy, but even then we made out by moving the tent from a field to the porch of a nearby unused cabin.

There was plenty of opportunity to play music, not all of which we used. The Sunday night before the beginning of camp there is always a reunion jam, and we joined in with that until 10pm or so, and I think we were the first to leave. Monday night we were tired enough that we simply retreated to the tent after supper, reading books and listening to the music from a distance. Tuesday we might have done the same, but as we were walking out of the dining hall we ran into a small group on the porch where a friend, one of the more experienced players, was playing two-chord songs very slowly so that some of the beginning players could have some practice changing chords. Not only was that a kind and noble thing, but the slow tempo really lent itself to establishing the kind of groove that Chris and I live for, so we stopped to help out and ended up staying a couple of hours—and still we were the first to leave, around 9pm. And on Wednesday, the final night, we jammed for about an hour before we had to go practice with a few others for a school performance we would be doing Friday morning, after camp was done. But we were relatively wimpy; we generally heard music being played past midnight, which is pretty good for a group of folks who had been playing steadily since mid-morning.

The experimental intermediate camp was divided into two parts—well, maybe three, since we did spend stretches of time together with the basic-level campers, either working on subjects that were relevant to us all (e.g. harmony singing) or practicing songs for the end-of-camp group performance on the MerleFest stage. But at many points the intermediates met separately, either as a group so that Pete could teach us some higher-level techniques, or as small ensembles of intermediate players that would be visited by instructors from time to time. Initially Pete formed the jamming groups almost randomly, replicating the random collection of people you’ll often find at a jam. And then towards the end of the second day he reconfigured the groups, having spent a good deal of time thinking about who would fit together best; the second group was your group for the rest of the camp, and the one that would perform during the Jam Camp Opry, a Thursday afternoon event where each group gets up in front of the rest of the campers and performs a song they’ve been working on.

The first time around Chris and I were in different groups, as Pete would usually have it. Since we both think it is important to be jam facilitators, I think this is a wise and helpful thing. The playing was certainly at a higher level that it had been in years past, when we had been mixed into groups with more basic players, but there are a lot of non-musical behaviors that are counterproductive (e.g. sitting around talking about instruments or favorite performers rather than getting on with the playing) and both Chris and I do anything we can to counter such behavior (e.g. suggesting another song if a lull begins to stretch out too long). These are all things that Pete teaches about in the basic camp, but they still cropped up in the early stages of our first group—we were rusty, I guess.

For the second group Chris and I were back together. In fact, I had missed the announcement of the new lineups, and when I asked Pete who to join up with he told me that he was smiling as he was forming our particular group. And it was a good one. There was Charlie, a young fellow who has been to Pete’s banjo camp and plays a very solid Scruggs-style banjo. And John, a proficient mandolin player who had been mostly a closet picker focused on tunes but wanted to learn to play well with others. And Greg, a fellow visiting from Australia who was originally not going to attend the camp, but was just traveling with his camp-attending friend Allan. But a week before camp another camper suddenly couldn’t attend because of a medical emergency, and rather than take a partial refund he decided to pay the rest of his tuition and offer his spot to someone who couldn’t afford to attend otherwise; and Greg took him up on this generous offer. Greg’s instrument is banjo, but since the camp was heavy on banjos and light on guitars this year he agreed to play guitar. He also is an experienced singer, something much appreciated by me and Chris since all week long we struggled with hoarseness due to lingering colds.

I have to say that our second group was hot, really hot. I felt guilty about having commandeered (sort of) the time and skills of the best musicians at the camp, but not so guilty that I was going to demur. Especially because this was exactly the thing I thought would help Chris’s fiddling the most, being challenged by playing in a proficient ensemble, something we haven’t yet been able to put together at home. Chris more than rose to the occasion, and I’d say that he now has the basics down for good bluegrass fiddling. And I don’t think he’s ever enjoyed himself more playing music.

The first couple of times our group met we mostly ripped through a lot of standard repertoire, although occasionally one of us would dig a little deeper and suggest a song that the rest were just vaguely familiar with, and we would spend enough extra time running over unusual p
arts so that we could play through them properly. During Wednesday afternoon’s meeting Greg suggested “In the Sweet By and By,” a song the rest of us had heard but never played. It’s a great song, and although nobody’s favorite—I can think of other similar songs I like a lot better, and Greg even suggested a couple which we also tried—there was just something about our sound when we played it that made me think it should be our performance piece for the Opry. I suggested we do it, the others agreed, we played it a couple of more times, then moved on to other things.

Our Thursday morning meeting was the last one, about an hour long. Pete had suggested that we jam for awhile, then spend the last twenty or thirty minutes picking a song to perform at the Opry and playing through it a few times to prepare. Instead we went off and spent the entire hour practicing our song, making sure the baritone harmony was correct, figuring out the optimal sequence for the breaks, even working out our single microphone choreography. Since the song sounded so good to us, it wasn’t drudgery at all; each time through it felt a bit tighter, the only reward we needed to keep at it. I also seemed to remember Pete’s advice that, under such hurried and pressured circumstances, we’d be lucky if the final live performance were 80% as good as our best efforts in the practice room. And, indeed, I think we only reached about 80% at the Opry, so I’m glad we pushed it as far as we did during practice.

As I said, the intermediate track was an experiment, but I think the results were very promising, and I think that with some work and thought Pete will be able to offer something new, something that could attract more experienced players who have never attended his camp at all.

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