I spent most of last week at the 2021 Monroe Mandolin Camp, held at the DuBose Conference Center in Monteagle, Tennessee. Heidi Herzog and Mike Compton hold the camp. Heidi is the executive director, who makes it all happen. Mike, one of the foremost (if not the foremost) exponents of the Monroe mandolin style, is the guiding mandolin spirit and teacher. As the camp’s name denotes, it’s (primarily) for mandolin players looking to expand their knowledge of Bill Monroe’s music, in particular, his innovative mandolin style.
Other mandolin instructors this year included Alan Bibey, David Davis, Lauren Price, John Keith, and Silas Powell. In recent years, the camp has added banjo, fiddle, guitar, voice, and bass instruction as well. This year those courses were taught by Jeremy Stephens (banjo), Corrina Rose Logston (fiddle), Robert Montgomery (guitar and singing), and former Blue Grass Boy and (with Mike Compton) founding member of the Nashville Bluegrass Band Mark Hembree (bass). Will Kimble provided on-site luthier assistance and Chris Sharp provided guitar and vocal support where needed and handled videography and photography.
I attended the Monroe Mandolin Camp twice before, in 2018 and 2019 (the 2020 camp was held on-line). Before 2018 I had never attended a music camp of any kind, and the Monroe Mandolin Camp is the only one I have attended. Nevertheless, a description of the camp and my very pleasant experience there may be of interest not only to mandolinists but also to anyone considering attending a bluegrass music camp. I have no financial or other interest in the Monroe Mandolin Camp beyond being a very satisfied student who would like to see it continue so I can attend in the future.
The camp was extremely well run, and that was largely attributable to Heidi Herzog’s many efforts over the preceding 12 months. Housing and meals were provided on-site and so participants were able to stay at the conference center from Wednesday through Sunday. A total of 90 separate classes were offered, and each student had the opportunity to attend for ten class periods. Three 75-minute class periods were held Thursday-Saturday, followed by a special presentation during the second half of Thursday-Saturday afternoons. Saturday’s special presentation was a Q&A with Norman and Nancy Blake, who talked extensively about their long and varied careers in traditional music. There was one 75-minute class period on Sunday morning before the camp ended at noon.
In addition, the instructors performed a concert together on Thursday night at a nearby college; all of them shone during their moments in the spotlight. (There was also a concert on Tuesday night in Nashville featuring the instructors and special guests that I did not attend.) Highlights for me included the performances of Jeremy Stephens and Corrina Rose Logston, who are part of the High Fidelity band, a terrific group of young bluegrass masters who play it like the founders. In addition to his prodigious banjo skills, Stephens is a mandolin crosspicker who sounds like Jesse McReynolds in his prime. Both he and Corrina are outstanding vocalists, and Thursday afternoon they and Lauren Price did a special presentation on vocal harmony.
(Jeremy Stephens is playing guitar in this video)
Each student received a thick camp manual that included course schedules, course descriptions, and the instructors’ written transcriptions (in music notation and/or tablature or chord diagrams) of the tunes or techniques to be taught. In place of transcriptions, a few instructors provided video links to their demonstrations of the tunes or techniques. These manuals permit students to work on the tunes and techniques at home after the camp.
My only problem with the course offerings was that, having to choose 10 classes from the 90 offered, I couldn’t take two or three classes at the same time. Mandolin courses were offered for players at all skill levels from beginner to advanced/professional. Each course was graded by level of difficulty, and each was described in detail in the manual. This information was very useful because there were students at all levels of experience in attendance.
I took mandolin courses taught by Mike Compton, David Davis, Lauren Price, and John Keith. Although their teaching styles varied, each was an excellent teacher as well as an expert in the Monroe style. And their slightly differing approaches to Monroe’s music demonstrated that there is more than one way to channel Bill.
I have been a Mike Compton fan since the first Nashville Bluegrass Band album (My Native Home) came out in 1985. That record included Mike’s mandolin instrumental composition “Monroebillia,” a tribute to Monroe and an exciting piece of new music within the Monroe mandolin style. Since then Mike has released many projects exploring the boundaries of traditional bluegrass mandolin and old time music, especially Mississippi old time string band music. And he has been a part of many landmark recordings over the years, including some of the last recordings that Bill Monroe made in the mid-1990s. The classes I took with Mike included “Old Time Tunes In C” (e.g., “Billy in the Lowground” as played by Monroe), “The Monroe Brothers,” and “Uncle Pen Tunes.” As the titles suggest, these courses focused on the old time side of Bill’s work. Mike taught note-for note versions of Bill’s breaks but he also showed variations and put the tunes in historical and musical context. Explaining a particularly discordant and jagged mandolin solo on one of the Monroe Brothers’ gospel songs, Mike said that the song was about preparing for the possibility of damnation and the mandolin solo reflected that dark spirit.
I have been a David Davis fan since I first saw him with his band, the Warrior River Boys, at a festival in upstate New York in 1991. They made a very hot band. In addition to David’s strong and tasteful mandolin playing, “dripping with Monroe authenticity” (h/t Matt B.), he is a powerful singer on lead and tenor parts, and he taught some of the vocal classes as well. Courses I took with him included “Artistic Interpretations of Monroe Tunes” (i.e., what works in crafting your own takes on the tunes), “Foundational Fretboard Understanding,” and “Master of Bluegrass” (David’s take on several tunes from Monroe’s iconic instrumental album of that name). David was very encouraging, showing us how he interpreted the tunes and asking us to play our versions if we were comfortable doing so. He also talked about his background, his mandolin, and some of his experiences with the Warrior River Boys since the mid-1980s. It was very interesting to hear directly from a top bluegrass band leader what that life is like.
Lauren Price and her twin sister Leanna make up the Price Sisters, who specialize in expert duet singing, firmly anchored in the tradition, with mandolin (Lauren) and fiddle (Leanna) accompaniment. I took two classes with Lauren, the first devoted entirely to Monroe’s four-part masterpiece, “Tanyards,” and the second to three classic Monroe breaks from his “High Lonesome Sound” album (a compilation of Monroe’s early 50s recordings). Lauren is an excellent teacher, organized, focused, and disciplined, as well as a deep and thoughtful Monroe mandolin stylist. The tunes she taught were not easy, and she had most of us playing them with her by the end of the classes. I was very impressed.
I heard and met John Keith for the first time at a festival in 1991 when he was touring with the Goins Brothers Band. I particularly remember that he took some time one afternoon to sit down with another mandolin player and me to visit and show us some mandolin licks. John is a powerful (I have used that word a lot in this piece but it fits) mandolin player-the notes just pop off that old mandolin. He is also a pro-level singer, guitarist, and banjo player. And a fine teacher. I took his class devoted to “McKinley’s March,” one of the “Uncle Pen” tunes that didn’t make Bill’s tribute album to the fiddle playing uncle who taught him about old time music. John used that tune to illustrate the “Georgia shuffle,” a basic fiddle rhythm groove that underlies much old time music as well as a lot of Monroe’s mandolin playing.
In addition to the group classes, each student had the opportunity to sign up for one 15-minute private tutorial with one instructor. I chose David Davis and asked him to play Monroe’s mandolin version of Deford Bailey’s “Evening Prayer Blues” (Monroe’s recording is on “Master of Bluegrass”). I knew that David had recorded a stunning version of the tune and he didn’t disappoint me-his rendition this day had great depth of feeling, dynamics, variations, and soul. Then he asked me play it back as I knew it, and he gave me an honest and very worthwhile critique of my playing. I found it a very valuable 15 minutes.
Finally, jamming was a huge part of the camp experience. Most of the jams took place in the evening and were either instructor-led or informal gatherings. I was part of both types of jams, and both were great fun. The instructor-led jams were graded for beginners, intermediates, and advanced players and there was also an old time/country jam. One night I played with David Davis and Robert Montgomery who led the old time/country jam. Robert Montgomery is an excellent singer and banjo player. Another night I played with Jeremy Stephens, Corrina Rose Logston, John Keith, and Mike Compton in the old time/country jam. Getting to sing and play with musicians whose music I have admired for (in some cases) decades is a thrill beyond description. Singing and playing Reno & Smiley’s “Never Get To Hold You In My Arms Anymore” with Jeremy and Corrina and hearing her fiddle and vocal harmony and his note-perfect rendition of Don Reno’s banjo break was likewise a moment I will not forget. The informal jams were also very rewarding, and I found many musical kindred spirits to pick and sing with.
You can tell by now that I very much enjoyed the Monroe Mandolin Camp. I certainly recommend it to anyone interested in an in-depth study of Bill Monroe’s music. I suspect that many of the activities I have described are similar to those at other bluegrass music camps, although it is hard to imagine any camp being more ably organized and operated. If you are serious about learning more about the music, the Monroe Mandolin Camp and similar bluegrass camps offer a valuable education.