Friday, April 27, 2007

Pete Wernick's Jam Camp at Merlefest - Thursday

The last day of Jam Camp is one of performance anxiety, practice, continued learning, sadness, and relief. We all know we’re headed for the Cabin Stage at Merlefest this afternoon. Pete tires to keep us relaxed about the vent, where he says the people in their seats will be very supportive and are eager to see us. His hypothesis is that we’re ordinary folks on stage performing and the people in their seats connect to us and give us more support than they would give professional musicians. At the same time, the Jam Camp performance at various festivals serves as an important recruiting device for future camps, so he want our performance to achieve a certain level of quality. Someone in the group has suggested we collect some money for the women in the kitchen. They’re called out and applauded and feel it necessary to hug each one of us individually. A nice moment. Most of us have never been on the other side of the stage. This means we’re quite apprehensive about learning our songs well and not messing up.

There’s also the Jam Camp Opry. Each of the jam groups we were put into on Wednesday is responsible for singing one song it has prepared for the rest of the camp. We’ve been working on “In the Pines,” a slow and doleful piece for which we can manage the chord changes and tempo. We’ve practiced it some already, and today we’ll get the honor of having Pete work with us intensively. First, we go over the logistics of getting to the Wilkes Community College Campus and getting out of camp. We practice harmony some more as well as Pete giving us a few more stories. We’re all eager to get to our groups, so there’s some restiveness.

We sit down with Pete, who has us run through a couple of songs and builds on the principles of announcing and describing songs for the rest of the group. We work on the problems that plague members of our group: timing, chord changes, knowing the words. Pete is supportive and helpful and we relax under his instruction. We then turn to our performance song. Group members who did their parts well yesterday flub when sitting with Pete and we work through the issues again. Irene continues to provide leadership through encouragement and example. We improve slowly, and by the lunch break, we’re relatively ready to go.

We eat a pretty quick lunch and assemble on the front porch for a group picture. Bill’s wife Anne uses each of our cameras to snap us for posterity. These pictures will ciculate through the Jam Camp mailing list so that anyone who wants pictures will have plenty. We return for a few more announcements and then the Opry. In turn, Pete introduces each group, which comes to the microphones, introduces its song, and plays. As the weakest group in camp, we kick off the Opry. We’ve called ourselves Wonders Never Cease. I’m asked to act as group emcee. This goes quickly, Cleve kicks off the song, and we work through it with a minimum of flubs and with cheers for each solo. Other groups follow with increasing levels of competence. The last group does quite well and we all congratulate ourselves. After the Opry, Pete singles out several people for what he calls the Jam Camp Hero awards. They go to people who’ve contributed to camp through their skills and spirit. To our surprise, Irene, a first time camper, is singled out for the final award, much to the approval of all.

Now it’s time to practice some more for our Cabin Stage appearance. A little harmony and a few run-throughs and we’re into the cars headed for Blue Lot D. This is a remote lot where, we’re told, vans will be waiting for us to convey us to the stage. And here is where it all threatens become a train wreck, a term we though was limited to use for songs that fall apart. We arrive at the lot and the volunteer staff has not idea we’re coming, isn’t prepared for twenty cars and thirty-six people carrying instruments, doesn’t know where to park us, and no vans are anywhere in evidence. Our performance is scheduled for 4:30 and it 3:45. We try to explain to the volunteers who we are and where we’re supposed to be. They don’t seem to get it. Performers are supposed to go to performer check-in. Here we are, a bunch of mostly middle-aged folks, some used to high powered professional positions where others listen to them. And we’re stuck a couple of miles from where we’re supposed to be.

We mill around. Some people pull out cell phones. We plead our case with bus drivers, who are willing to take us to the main entrance but not to alter their route to take us back stage, something they should not do anyway. The group’s biggest concern is for Pete, who, they think, will be frantic worrying that we’re not there Finally, a bunch of vans arrive, as 4:30 approaches. We stuff ourselves and our instruments into the vans and are whisked to the Cabin Stage, where Pete, Joan, and Scott are on stage performing. He is blissfully unaware of our problem. Quickly we grab our instruments, tune, and rush on stage where each person goes to a mike, introduces her/himself, and tells where they’re from and what they did. We group ourselves and Charlie Apple kicks off the first song, “Bury Me Beneath the Willow.” We play through it to the cheers of the assembled multitude, Pete says a few words about camp and us, and Tex kicks off “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” We play it successfully and hustle off stage. The next act on the Main stage is ready to go. Jam Camp is over. We’ve had a wonderful time and are sad to part, but the four days of festival lies before some of us, while others are headed home.

Jam Camp provides great opportunities for aspiring bluegrass jammers to move from the closet, develop some jamming skills, begin to actually do it, and have a lot of fun. I realize that in the year since last year’s camp I’ve improved and the improvement will continue because my wife has soaked up the same material with me this year and we’ll be able to reinforce each other and practice skills we’ve learned as well as enjoy pickin’ together even more. Pete Wernick is a thoughtful and practiced teacher who prepares us for the experience and brings us along at just the right rate. The campus at Herring Ridge is a fine place for a workshop, but Jam Camp is held all over the country. Information about camps can be found at Pete Wernick’s web site The price is fair and the experience is fulfilling.