On Wednesday morning there seems to be more energy than there was yesterday. We certainly are more relaxed about getting there and still get there in plenty of time. Pete calls us together for announcements. One of our number is giving away some banjo gear, having wisely switched allegiance to the mandolin. Another banjo player bites the dust, the joy of many. Pete begins to deal with the logistics of tomorrow’s trip to Merlefest for our first and last performance as a jam orchestra. Pete is now in the position of having a number of balls in the air and he must keep on juggling. He uses this problem as an opportunity to discuss the history of Merlefest and the importance of director B. Townes in its development.
After handling, or at least delaying, the concerns about tomorrow, we get to group singing. Fran leads us in singing “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud, Loud Music.” She has a strong voice and does a good job, particularly since she’s at a mike and singing in front of the whole group. We sing a couple of other songs and then Pete moves to the importance of learning lyrics and singing harmony. He emphasizes learning lyrics by listening, repeating, and practicing. While song leaders at Jam Camp can us texts to help them, the other jammers are strongly encouraged to learn the choruses by ear. He and Joan assert that recent brain studies suggest singing and ear learning.
At the end of the morning class, we are reassigned to the jam groups in which we’ll stay until the end of camp. It’s in these jam groups that we’ll be asked to perform in Thursday’s closing camp event, The Jam Camp Opry. Pete reads the names of each of the group members and they find each other, clustering around the floor.
Our group has three banjo players, all of whom are tentative in some aspect of playing, and none of whom is comfortable at taking breaks, the signature of banjo play. Angie Sumpter is the owner of Angie’s Banjos.com, a web site particularly focused for people who started playing the banjo after age fifty. Her web site publishes a magazine called Silver Strings, which is filled with articles about starting late. She also sells banjos and gear. Frank is at his third Jam Camp and has progressed since last year, but is still uncertain of himself. I tend to fall apart every time I’m asked to solo, but my vamping has improved. Cleve loves the music and has the same problems with tentativeness as the rest of us. Connie has been playing the acoustic bass guitar for just over a year. Irene is an accomplished singer and a vastly improving mandolin player who believes she’s still a beginner. She provides us with leadership through her strong voice and sense of timing.
This morning our group is supported by Scott, whose relaxed attitude is complemented by accurate feedback and helpful suggestions. We take turns calling songs and leading them, each of us uncertain in the roll and coached by Scott. A growing sense of mutual support begins to emerge as we hear something that sounds like bluegrass music. At Scott’s urging, Connie turns up her amp, providing us with an increasingly strong bass beat that we need desperately. Each person solos to cries of “good job” and applause. We’re beginning to find our feet. We also need to come up with a name for our group to use as a band. By lunch we’ve begun to think of ourselves as a band.
Lunch is graced by the appearance of top Merlefest staff who eat, chat with Pete, and check out the scene while they hardly interact with us campers. I get a brief chance to chat with Ted Hagaman, the new festival director, who has given me a thumbs up sign. I learn that I’ve been given access to the photo stands as a photographer and will be able to pick up the badge at check-in. We’re much more relaxed as a large group. We linger over lunch. Joan Wernick creates a women’s luncheon group and then has to fend off my teasing about discrimination despite the fact I’ve had a perfectly satisfactory lunch with a compatible bunch of guys. Pete has some difficulty dragging us back to the task at hand as he begins the afternoon session.
We practice more harmony singing using a couple of songs he is considering for tomorrow’s performance on the Cabin Stage, a traditional event during the opening hours of the festival. He’s eager that this be a good performance both because he wants us to have a positive experience and because our performance functions as a recruiting tool for his jam camps. Lots of us struggle with the idea and practice of harmony singing, something we’ve now been working on for three days.
In the afternoon Joan rejoins our jam group, but we need to understand that we’ll be on our own when we perform tomorrow. We try out a few names and a few songs. After a while “In the Pines” emerges as the song and “Wonders Never Cease” as our band name. We try out breaks and singing combinations and slowly a performance emerges. It still needs lots of practice, but we’re headed in the right direction as the afternoon ends.