While attending Pete Wernick’s jam camp last week (Sept 13-16) near Wilkesboro, N.C., I got to sing “Hot Cold, Cold Corn” with more than a dozen fellow campers on the “cab” stage at Merlfest, and I also got to interview the master banjo picker over a lunch of pulled pork and baked beans on the final day of camp. Here’s the result of that interview, edited for length and clarity:
Q: Would you call yourself a bluegrass purist?
A: Yes and no.
My favorite kind of bluegrass tends to be the real hard core stuff. I really love the Stanley Brothers. But I also really like the more modern bluegrass if it’s done well.
Q: So does it bother you when Sam Bush comes on stage with a drummer and an electric bass player at bluegrass festival?
A: That doesn’t trouble me because that’s the way Sam wants his music to be heard and he’s a tasteful guy. If he’s playing reggae at a bluegrass festival that does not offend me. But when the crowds go for the louder, more modern types of bands, the traditional groups tend to get pushed to the side and even the clientele at the festival might start feeling like they’re at a rock festival. To me, that’s a problem. I like the peacefulness of a regular bluegrass festival.
If people are real respectful of the roots, that’s the most important thing.
I’ve been in festivals where they’ll have a country band that is playing old time country music and that fits in with bluegrass and it’s nice to have a change of pace at a festival, as long as it doesn’t tilt over into, “OK, now were not really hiring acoustic bluegrass bands anymore, we’re hiring more rock type bands.” I’ve seen festivals go through that transition, and it’s disappointing.
Q: Can you name a couple of artists who in your opinion are keeping bluegrass alive but are not what you’d call traditional?
A: (Fiddler) Michael Cleveland is a very creative musician but he’s pretty much hard core. The Del McCoury Band does material that comes from a whole variety of sources, including pop music, but they’re a five-piece bluegrass band, and they’re all masters on their instruments. So when they take a Tom Petty song and do it in a bluegrass style I don’t have any problem with it. It’s the same with Alison Krauss. I just like the sound of acoustic instruments. And straight-on singing in three-part harmony means a lot to me as well.
Q: I noticed you make sure your jam campers have the opportunities to work on their singing. Can you talk a bit about the importance of singing in the teaching of bluegrass?
A: A lot of people don’t even think about the singing. I’ve heard someone joke that “singing is what you have to to do while waiting for my next fantastic solo.” That’s not my point of view. Even Earl Scruggs, who is my main man in terms of influence, spent more time when he was in front of people singing baritone harmonies than he did did playing banjo solos.
The back up playing was important, of course, but at the microphone he would play maybe one solo per song, but he’d sing on three choruses.
In jams, it’s common that some people sometimes don’t know the words or they don’t sing loud enough to be heard. And learning to sing three-part harmony is quite a skill that only some people go to the trouble to do.
If people are having a good time, I don’t want to interfere, but when I’m teaching I don’t want to neglect the singing. I’ll take them aside afterward if they were singing a melody wrong and have them record it so they get it right.
Q: Covid concerns aside, how strong is the market today for bluegrass camps?
A: It seems to be on the rise. Not counting the Covid impact, my camps have grown and I keep hearing about other camps going on, new camps. I was the guy who actually started bluegrass camps.
in 1980 I started doing banjo camps, then other banjo camps started springing up and then other programs like Augusta in West Virginia and Swannanoa in North Carolina got started along with other ones that offer a whole set of courses over a week’s time and get 200 people. Now there’s one in England, in Norway and in the Czech Republic.
The Kruger Brothers started a camp here in North Carolina a few years back and I just heard Alan Bibey, a great mandolin player, is starting a camp. Steve Kaufman has a real big camp.
Q: More competition?
A: You could say it’s more competition, but many people go to more than one.
A lot of people love the camps, and why wouldn’t they? in our surveys, they say they like the instruction but as often as not the main thing they say they like is being with other pickers, and playing music with them.
Q: A lot of music instruction migrated to Zoom during the pandemic. Did you try teaching on Zoom?
A: I accepted an offer to teach a jam workshop on Zoom. it was kind of strange, as I knew it would be. So here were all these people and they were all over the place and there’s no way they can play together, so its not going to be bluegrass. It’s just a guy talking about jam skills. People were glad they did it because they learned something about jamming, but they didn’t get to jam.
Q: So you don’t see Zoom as something that could be part of your teaching programs?
A: No. Its like having a baseball camp where nobody gets to play baseball. It doesn’t make that much sense.
Q: How would you describe the ideal bluegrass jam?
A; Ideally, you’d have one person on each instrument, (guitar, bass, fiddle, mandolin, banjo). If you have a player who is really shy its not a bad idea you may want to add an extra guitar or an extra banjo who can lend support.
Q: So you are not a fan of big jams?
A: Bluegrass is not designed to be played by 15 people. When there are too many people someone might be out of tune, someone may drag the beat, and the music tends to suffer.
Even with professionals, when all the bands get on stage at the end of a festival its hard to keep the tempos together because they don’t all hear each other so well.