Bluegrass Heaven – Blog

ms-jc-bg-singI was visiting my parents over Labor Day weekend when I saw an advertisement in the paper for the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Festival. Reading through the list of events, I was excited to learn about Gilbert Nelson’s Bluegrass Jam Camp that was part of the Festival. It had been years since I had played any bluegrass style songs, and I made a decision to sign up for the camp. For the last many years, I have been playing rock, blues, and country. I had, however, written a couple of country songs that were more on the bluegrass side of town and wanted to see what I could pick up through the camp. In the above picture (courtesy of Becky Campbell Photography from Johnson City TN), you can see me smiling as I performed with my new bluegrass friends at the Jam Camp.


The camp was four days, Tuesday through Friday, and was held at the Jubilee House Retreat and Conference Center in Abingdon VA. Gilbert Nelson is a certified teacher of the Wernick Method of learning to jam. The camp and the instructors were fantastic!  Gilbert, his wife Leigh, and their team of fellow instructors Dee, Alan, and Bob were great to work with. On the third day we were divided into bands, picked a name for our group, and worked on a couple of songs to perform that night for friends and folks from the local community. It was great to see everyone step up and the concert by all accounts was a success! My parents came to the concert on Thursday and thoroughly enjoyed it. My Dad said that he hadn’t seen me smile that much in ages.

Above is a picture (courtesy of Becky Campbell Photography) of all those that participated in the jam camp. Guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, dobro, and bass were all well represented. That’s me in the black shirt kneeling in the front row. When I was getting ready to leave on Thursday night, Alan (the mandolin instruct0r), said “hey you want to stick around and play a few tunes before you leave?” So I asked my parents to come out on the patio and proceeded to jam with Alan, Gilbert, Bob, and a couple of my fellow students. That was truly one of the highlights of the jam camp. On Friday, the group did a performance on the main stage at the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Festival. Unfortunately, I missed the performance due to a prior obligation in DC.

A week or so later I attended the IBMA Award show in Raleigh at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. It was filled with fantastic performances and I got to see firsthand some of the hottest acts in bluegrass. The next two days, I attended two open jam sessions hosted by Pete Wernick and Gilbert at the IBMA conference. It was fun to jam with others that were there to take in the IBMA World of Bluegrass. The second day was exceptionally fun. We  sounded so good that we had a small crowd around us at the Raleigh Convention Center – including the two gentleman that worked at the information desk. After the open jam was over, I stayed and had the privilege of jamming with Pete, Gilbert, and a couple of other Wernick instructors. Needless to say, it was a whirlwind of a two week immersion into the world of bluegrass. Looking back, it was a great experience and I’m grateful for the “authenticity” and “realness” in the music that I heard and in the people that I met. Truly a refreshing change of scenery. There is a happiness that seems to emanate from roots music and the culture is very refreshing.

On the final day of the IBMA Festival, I was able to watch Flatt Lonesome play inside the convention center and showcase attendees by letting them come up and sing with them in “Bluegrass Karaoke.” Later that night at the Red Hat Amphitheatre, I enjoyed watching the two closing acts:  the Steep Canyon Rangers, and Del McCoury.

I have a feeling that I’m going to enjoy bluegrass more and more in the coming years. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was able to sit down with my 88 year old uncle, James, and jam with him. Within days that was followed by jamming with Chuck, a family friend, and then with my niece Allison. It’s nice to take the time to appreciate one of the greatest gifts in life – music – and share it with others. And bluegrass is definitely a little slice of heaven worth including in the mix…

–Mark Salyers

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