When Chris and I started playing music together, there were quite a few times when we would leave for days to attend some musical event, usually a school. Pete Wernick’s jam camp, Pete’s banjo camp, Augusta Heritage school, Swannanoa school—all would take us away from home for a week, sometimes longer. It certainly tried the patience of the rest of the family, but at least in those days what work Chris and I were doing at home could be put on hold for the time being.
No more. Now with the daily farm work, it is a real stretch for us both to be gone for a week. We will still suck it up and make do while Chris is gone to teach at a school for a week (which will happen twice this summer). But the days of attending music schools as a pair are over; we have neither the time or the money to spare for it.
Except for jam camp at Merlefest. It’s a deliberate exception, and one I can’t completely justify, except to note that every one of the six jam camps we’ve attended has paid off in unexpected ways, and returned much more to us than the time and money invested. We skipped the 2006 Merlefest camp, and while we didn’t regret it I’m sure we missed out on a lot.
Then in 2007, after eighteen months in Kentucky where we still hadn’t met any local musicians to jam with, it occurred to me that jam camp was worthwhile simply because it gave Chris a chance to immerse himself in his fiddle playing for four days. Guitar and banjo are something he can keep up just by playing with me, but bluegrass fiddle is a different beast—it needs to happen in the context of an ensemble. Chris worked hard to prepare for the 2007 camp, and the preparation plus the camp experience led to a marked improvement in his fiddling. This year the preparation wasn’t as intense, but he has been playing the fiddle regularly at our Friday performances, and once again the camp experience took him up a level.
We left for camp Saturday morning. Camp didn’t begin until Sunday evening, but we had an opportunity to perform for a Lion’s Club convention on Saturday afternoon in Norton, Virginia, about halfway to the camp location. Not only did the performance pay, but it provided a hotel room as well, so on Sunday we were able to get up and take a leisurely drive to North Carolina. In fact, we arranged to end up in Boone for an early lunch at the Dan’l Boone Inn, one of our favorites. As always the food was fine—fried chicken, country steak, country ham biscuits, fresh vegetable sides, strawberry shortcake for dessert.
We puttered our way to Wilkesboro and then to the YMCA camp outside of town, so as not to show up too early. We still arrived around 1:30pm, and figured we’d just set up camp (we saved money by pitching a tent rather than sleeping in a cabin) and reading until it was time for Sunday supper, the official beginning of camp. But Dave, a camper we had met last year, had already arrived, and so it seemed appropriate that we start a jam. We played songs and chatted, and as other campers arrived they joined in. This went on until 5pm or so, when we figured we’d better get on with setting up our gear.
One odd thing was that we were waiting for the previous group to clear out, a bunch of North Carolina Presbyterians who where having some sort of praise and worship retreat. The bad news was that signals had been crossed and the group thought they had the camp as long as they wanted on Sunday; even after learning that it wasn’t true, they weren’t in any hurry to wrap up their event, and the crowd didn’t start to disperse until after 5pm, making the setup for jam camp rushed. The good news, sort of, was that during one of their breaks quite a few of them came over to hear me and Chris and Dave play, and asked if we would play some gospel songs, which we were glad to do. As they were leaving the fellow who had organized the event came over and told me that they planned to be back at the same time next year, and asked if we would be willing to do a short performance for them at next year’s retreat. Who knows if anything will come of it, but it was pleasant to be asked.
Besides the opportunity for Chris to fiddle, one of the things that had drawn us back to camp in 2007 was that Pete Wernick had been toying with the idea of adding an intermediate track to the camp, and we wanted to help him see if such a thing would work. It did work, very well, and so for 2008 he publicly advertised the intermediate track, split into two parts: one sub-track would allow folks to focus on creating higher level, more polished jams, while the other sub-track would allow them to focus on developing ensemble skills. The short version of the difference is that folks in the first track might play twenty songs once, while those in the second track might play one song twenty times, i.e. practice it.
Early on the jam campers are grouped into small ensembles, where they spend about half the official camp time working on their jamming. Ensembles are formed twice, with the first one having an intentionally broad mix of skill levels and personalities, partly to give less experienced people the benefit of playing with more experienced ones, and partly to give everyone the opportunity to meet and deal with various kinds of awkwardness. Our first group was such a one, and we were happy enough with it, but we had also noticed that our two international campers, a couple that had come all the way from Spain, seemed to be having some trouble fitting in. So Chris and I asked one of the teaching assistants if we could form a small group with just them, and he agreed.
Heri and Maria turned out to be some of the best players at the camp, as well as delightful people in their own right. Heri knew very little English, and we knew no Spanish, so Maria had the burden of translating for us all. But most of the time was spent playing songs—they taught us some, we taught them some, and after a couple of hours our attitudes were relaxed and our playing was tight. At the end of the camp I realized that of the four best jam sessions Chris and I were in, Heri and Maria were part of all of them, and only that first time did we deliberately seek them out. So I think we did help to integrate them into the overall experience.
When the second groups were formed, Chris and I opted for the ensemble skills track, and were fortunate enough to be grouped with John and Charlie, the mandolin and banjo players we had worked with last year. Charlie is a very good banjo player with a solid command of the Earl Scruggs repertoire, while John is a good mandolin player who was the most motivated of any of us to work hard and build up his skills. So it wasn’t long before we had narrowed it down to one particular song (“Nellie Kane”), and we spent almost all the rest of our time together practicing our performance of it, working out the sequence of the breaks, troubleshooting problems with the various instruments, helping John with his lead singing, and even working out the choreography around the microphones. The camp culminates in two events on the last day, one of them a “Jam Camp Opry” where each group performs a song for the rest; our performance of “Nellie Kane” was still quite a few notches below the professional level, but given our starting point and the time we had available for practice it was pretty good.
The other culminating event is a performance by all the jam campers on the Merlefest Cabin Stage, a small stage beside the main stage where short performances take place to keep the audience occupied between band performances on the main stage. The jam camper performance begins with Pete Wernick and his instructors playing a song. Next Pete describes the camp, and then forty-five campers file onto the stage, introducing themselves and taking their place. Finally the campers play two songs they’ve practiced, and that’s it. A special treat for me this year was that Pete asked me to play bass during the instructors’ performance, which is probably as close as I’ll ever get to performing with a ba
nd at MerleFest.
After the performance camp was over, and campers were invited to stick around the festival for the rest of Thursday’s performances. But Chris and I had a special mission. We had found out that Pete’s band Flexigrass would be performing for a closed fundraising event that evening at the festival site. We had never seen the band live, and this was likely to be our only opportunity (they were playing the festival, but we weren’t going to be around for it), so we asked Pete if he would mind if we crashed the event to hear them. He agreed, and so we got to sit off at the side of the stage for that show. It was well worth asking for the favor.
Friday morning we were headed out, but not before helping Pete’s wife Joan (who is also one of his instructors) at a MerleFest-sponsored outreach performance at an Easter Seals day care center. Chris and I and a couple of other long-time campers went along to help, and had a great time even though the average age of the audience (not counting teachers) was three or four.
Not getting to the big city too often, we had to stop to do a couple of errands on the way home. First there was an awfully expensive thirty minutes spent loading up a flatbed cart at Sam’s Club in Bristol. Then we headed over to the Bristol Herald Courier, where every couple of years we stop in and buy up rolls of leftover newsprint—the machines can’t run without newsprint, so they have to stop using a roll of paper before it runs out, leaving them with many, many almost-empty paper rolls that they are willing to sell us for a dollar apiece, probably one-twentieth of what we would pay for the same amount of newsprint from a packing supplies company. We stuffed what we could into the van, which turned out to be thirty-two rolls, a many-years supply for us. The van was riding low as we pulled into the driveway, and it isn’t clear where we’ll store them all, but they are a treasure to us nonetheless.