This past Thanksgiving weekend, I had the good fortune to drive down to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and attend the South Carolina State Bluegrass Festival. This year marks the third time I have been, and although the festival is relatively small compared to large ones like the International Bluegrass Music Festival and Merlefest, I have always enjoyed the lineup of performers and the musical community present. This year, I spent many hours out of each day at the festival jamming with other musicians. Usually, I would listen to some bands from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. or so and jam until 5 p.m. I would then listen to a few more bands and grab a bite to eat. Around 7 p.m. I would continue jamming backstage with several musicians until about midnight, then climb into my bed and wake up the next morning to repeat the cycle.
Although my traditional jamming binge has not been altered much in the three years I have attended the festival, the setting changed in one particular aspect: this year, the festival hosted one of Pete Wernick’s “Jam Camps.” The idea is pretty simple: regional instructors are brought together to teach beginning and intermediate musicians the art of playing with other people in a jam context. While me and several older musicians were jamming in one room, the Jam Camp was taking place in the room adjacent. During our jam, I heard one picker joke about the Jam Camp: “I oughta go over to that Jam Camp and learn the Pete Wernick method! Then I’ll be good enough to play with y’all!” he exclaimed and then jokingly laughed. The other musicians laughed as well. From this encounter, I realized that many of my own criticisms of a Jam Camp were shared by other musicians. Mainly, these older musicians believe Jam Camps are superfluous and unhelpful because jamming is something you learn to do through casual interaction with other musicians. Jam Camps reduce the casual, improvisational nature of jamming by structuring the volume, tone, breaks, and other musical aspects.
Over the weekend, I got to witness several differences between the traditional jammers who I normally played with and the Jam Camp instructors. Late one night, I found myself jamming with a few of the Camp teachers by the bar at the convention center. I noticed that the Camp teachers usually let all musicians play a break during the song. This would sometimes cause the song to last for 6 or 7 minutes as there were about 10 musicians jamming. Camp teachers also played a lot of bluegrass material from the 1960’s and 70’s– songs from counterculture bands like Old and in the Way, the Grateful Dead, and Seldom Scene. Generally, the older, more traditional musicians played material from the founding generation of bluegrass pioneers (1940’s and 50’s) or from the modern, neo-traditional genre. These distinctions revealed that the Jam Camp teachers generally valued musical inclusiveness over quality. Contributing to this difference is the fact that this school of musicians performs newgrass and counterculture bluegrass musics as opposed to the traditional music that musicians like myself jam on.
To signify these distinctions, I’ve included two videos of songs that were performed in the separate jams. The first clip is of a reunion of Old and in the Way almost forty years after their band dissolved. Their music is full of minor chords and vibes that are not present in traditional bluegrass music.
The next video is of a song we played in the more traditional jam. This Russell Moore classic is one that pushed his band to fame in the 1980’s bringing in a new age of traditional bluegrass music.