Early in August, thirteen mostly young singer-songwriters were invited to spend four days at the Mast Farm Inn to work with Ronnie Bowman and Dan Tyminski on their song writing skills. The thirteen people were brought together by Henri Deschamps, owner of the Mast Farm Inn as well as the brains and workhorse energy behind a Facebook project known as The Bluegrass Legacy. Fortunately, I already knew two of the participants and Henri's been a friend for a year or so. This provided me with entree to the event. Since then, I've interviewed several of the participants and the pictures on this entry were mostly donated.
The Plan - The Participants were led to understand early that they weren't going to a fancy bed and breakfast for four days to hang out with Bowman and Tyminski, jam, and have fun, although all that happened during the sessions. They were there to work, and work hard. This was signaled by the assignments distributed to them well before the scheduled date. Participants were assigned a task of writing and arranging one new song to bring with them to the Sessions. On the opening morning, they would each sing their song to the rest of the group, receiving no immediate feedback, not even applause from the group. I think it was Carol Hausner who said, "I'm used to writing when a song comes to me, when I'm inspired." But Ronnie Bowman is a professional song writer who works every day at writing songs, inspiration or no. Part of the plan was to help participants become working song writers.
Attendees were expected to study Writing Better Lyrics by Pat Pattison, which was mailed to them 8 weeks before the workshop. Pattison teaches at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and, according to Henri Deschamps, is one of the top song writing guru in the country. In fact he created the first songwriting major in America. His book was assigned as a bedrock text. A second option was to write a song based on the body of research on mythology and storytelling by Joseph Campbell professor of mythology at Sarah Lawrence College whose book A Hero s Journey served as the writing framework for hundreds of movies such as Star Wars, The Lion King, Matrix. Option 3 was to read Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath, a business communications book on message simplification also sent by mail in advance, and seek to write a song based on the principals of this book. Participants could select one or all of the strategies, but were assigned to arrive with a finished song.. The pre-session assignments were designed to assure that each participant arrived at the sessions with a completed new song so that assignments would not have to be accomplished during the sessions, leaving time to permit them to work together and with Tyminski and Bowman at learning how to develop each song to a new level of proficiency.
The assignments were designed to assure that each participant arrived at the sessions with a completed new song so that assignments would not have to be accomplished during the sessions, and leaving time to permit them to work together and with Tyminski and Bowman at learning how to develop each song to a new level of proficiency.
And so thirteen young, and not-so-young aspiring singer/songwriters arrived at the Mast Farm Inn, a facility most of them could never think of affording to attend, for four days of learning and growth, teaching and learning, sharing and becoming, and working with two acknowledged masters of the art they were desperate to succeed at.
The Sessions: On Monday morning, after enjoying the Tyminski-Bowman concert in the intimate surroundings of St. John's Episcopal Church, the thirteen participants appeared at the first formal session to present the songs each had written. The lyrics had been circulated for each person to read, but this would be the first time members of the group had heard them. Dan Cates, program director for a South Carolina television station who has played in bluegrass bands and is an aspiring song writer described how intimidating singing your new song before the rest of the group on the first morning was. He noted that the rule was to give no feedback until all the songs had been presented: no applause, no comments, nothing. Questions raced through his mind, "Did it work? Did they get it? Did it bomb?" He said that afterwards, once the floor was opened to comments, the feedback was open, honest, presented in ways that made it acceptable, and always helpful. He ended up doing a complete re-write of his song - new lyrics, new tune, new arrangement, without ever losing the sense that it was his song. The work of his new friends in the group and the expertise of Ronnie Bowman with the lyrics and melody along with Dan Tyminski's expertise in arranging the song combined to turn it into an entirely new, yet clearly related, product.
Thus began a new approach to song writing and working together that came to permeate the sessions. Everyone spoke about the warmth and openness they experienced from Ronnie Bowman. My few experiences with Ronnie Bowman suggest he's ultimately a shy person who takes a while to open up to new people. Clint Wilson, a member of a regional family band called The Wilson Family Band and a budding song writer already, commented on this. "It took Ronnie a day and a half to get comfortable enough with everyone to let go and open up." But then, everyone commented on his warmth, helpfulness and humor. He had the unique capacity to make suggestions which pointed directly to necessary changes while never taking the song away from its original writer. He seemed to appreciate the openness of the group and reciprocated fully. After a while, both Ronnie and Dan felt like big brothers to Clint, just twenty years old and a college junior. Clint commented that he had arrived with high expectations, and they had been exceeded in every way. He learned much more than he expected, including technical elements and about human interactions, too.
Dan Tyminski proved himself to be particularly adept at helping the participants to relax around the two "celebrities." An amazing and endearing characteristic found in the bluegrass community is the way in which prominent players turn out to be accessible and eminently human. Tyminski also was a great resource in helping members arrange their songs for performance as well as providing enlightening insights into the business aspects of song writing. The participants received a quick course into the seemingly arcane skills necessary in getting songs copyrighted as well as dealing with the performance rights organizations like BMI and ASCAP, important skills for any song writer hoping to make money from the work they do. A hit song in country music can provide huge royalties and continue to pay for many years. Maria Fitzmaurice, who, with her twin sister Sarah, fronts the band Fitzmaurice, said, "Dan is one of the funniest people I've ever met - witty and quick. He kept things light and helped to reduce our anxiety at being in such company."
Throughout the next couple of days the group coalesced into a strong and unified group eager to provide feedback, help, and support to each other as they worked on their songs and the range of skills that come together to develop and prepare a new song for performance. Rachel Renee' Johnson, a seasoned professional who tours with The Dixie Bee-Liners, commented on her own learning and the spirit of the sessions. Rachel said she arrived with her song only half written, but everyone in the group was ready to help her develop her ideas. She learned how to tell a story and to re-write. She particularly noted that Ronnie modeled good teaching in finding gentle ways to make suggestions like, "What if you said it this way...." She was convinced that both Bowman and Tyminski were there to help every participant get better. Rachel says she came away with vastly increased confidence in her ability to make significant contributions to her band's music. The Dixie Bee-Liners only do band originals, and Rachel says she lacked confidence to contribute, but now "I can start doing my part off stage, where I'll have more input. This experience inspired me to really get into making contributions."
During the three days, participants worked alone, in small groups, in jam sessions, and with the staff to develop their own songs as well as to assist others in developing their's, too. Meanwhile, Tyminski and Bowman became increasingly a part of the group rather than part of a staff assigned to teach song-writing. By the end, Dan Tyminski, who had also experienced some anxiety about the workshops because he's not known as a song writer, made the suggestion there should be a reunion. By Tuesday evening all members of the group had an arrangement of their newly re-written songs ready to present to the rest, with a band of fellow members there to support them musically. One interesting exercise, described by several participants, paired two people to take each others lyrics and create a melody of their own for it. Maria Fitzmaurice commented that this helped her to understand at a deeper level the possibilities inherent in collaboration. Wednesday was devoted to discussions of the music business, making plans for ways to stay in contact in the future, and efforts to seek closure for this life-changing event. Every person I spoke to who attended the workshops asserted they'd had a life changing experience that couldn't be equaled or adequately described.
In order to maintain the participant's sense of community and oneness, Henri Deschamps has agreed to keep a private site devoted to them available to them and a mailing list has been created by Stacy Claude, of the band Delia Low, to facilitate collaborative writing. Such follow-up is essential to help this group maintain their sense of purpose and their new commitment to collaboration. Journalist and documentary film maker Craig Havighurst was present at the event and will soon be releasing a video detailing this important event. My thanks go to Craig, too, for providing most of the photographs for this blog entry.
So who is this Henri Deschamps and what is the Bluegrass Legacy? Henri was born in Haiti and grew up in Coral Gables, FL. He went boarding school in Jacksonville, Fl and then to college at Boston University, later returning to Haiti to connect with his roots, but ending up in business in France, where he lived for many years establishing many successful enterprises, first in text book publishing and later as an Internet entrepreneur. Several years ago he retired, and in looking for a place to live and work with his family, he stumbled on Valle Crucis, NC, located between Boone and Blowing Rock where he purchased the Mast Farm Inn. Craig Havighurst has suggested that Henri selected Valle Crucis because of its distinct resemblance to France. A man of seemingly endless energy and enthusiasm, Henri was not long content to operate a high end bed and breakfast in which his Cordon Bleu trained wife is the executive chef. Rather he became interested in bluegrass music. For Henri, an interest turned into huge enthusiasm, and his energy and means have permitted him to develop a range of web sites and associated experiences which have spread widely through Facebook. As of this writing, The Bluegrass Legacy Fan Page has over 23,000 followers.
Since the Bluegrass Legacy began spreading the word about bluegrass in Henri's own inimitable fashion, it has focused on hundreds of bands, events, writers, and others who are part of the bluegrass complex. He began holding house concerts at the Mast Farm Inn, small, acoustic events at which up-and-coming as well as established bands perform without amplification in the Inn's small, wood-paneled dining room. He convinced Ronnie Bowman and Dan Tyminski to come to The Inn for four days to hold the seminars described above. His latest effort will come to fruition at the International Bluegrass Music Association's annual World of Bluegrass in Nashville from September 27 - October 3rd this year.