Bluegrass Camps – the Next Wave of Bluegrass Festivals

Since the mid ‘60s, the bluegrass festival both saved and indeed enabled the music to prosper. The combination of a several day-long picking session, band watching, trading and socialising was the winning formula that created and extended careers as well as establishing a world-wide movement.

With changing economic times, an ageing population and the need to stay competitive with all the other forms of entertainment now pulling at people, a new type of festival has slowly been becoming more prevalent within the genre. It is the festival devoted to skill advancement. During September this year, I will be attending two of these – one as a participant and one as an instructor.

The first one has been on my bucket list for a while and now that it has a fiddle component, it is a done deal! The Monroe Mandolin Camp, run by Mike Compton and Heidi Herzog, can only be described as a total Monroe doctrine immersion!

With a roster of Monroe former band members and disciples, it promises to be a great experience. My friend and colleague in Bluegrass Parkway, Paul Duff, has been going since it started and has never failed to talk up what a great time it is. So now that the fiddle is involved (and of course, the fiddle is pretty central to any understanding of Monroe’s music), it is something I am very much looking forward to. Spending four days in the company of certified Monroephiles should be a great learning and jamming experience and one that can’t be replicated any other way. In addition, the location is within the Nashville metropolitan area, so the facilities, convenience and logistics are made far easier than at a rural, remote festival.

This weekend should definitely be on every mandolin player’s bucket list and now that it has expanded its range, it should appeal to any picker as well. There are now many such camps in the US and in other countries and it a fast growing sector of the bluegrass economy.

The very next weekend, imbibed with all my Monroe-ness, I will be travelling about the furthest possible distance without doubling back to Manjimup, Western Australia, where I will be one of the tutors for the Manjimup Bluegrass Jam Camp Weekend.

Manjimup has now already been going for a few years and is steadily gathering a national profile with a solid core of participants as well as a dedicated team of organisers.

I’m really looking forward to this for several reasons. It will be great to work with the assembled team of experienced tutors, all of whom know their subject well. Together, we will be preparing a special program of songs and tunes with the emphasis on learning sound fundamentals, basic repertoire building and having fun jamming. One of the great things about bluegrass is that, with a toolkit of understanding chord changes, identifying melody lines and listening to others, you can play a set of material with just about anybody.

Some of the traditional performance-based festivals can be a little hit and miss now. Jamming may or may not be good, the location sometimes remote and the facilities sometimes primitive, so to me as a consumer I think the study/jamming festivals offer more. Some festival organisers are deciding that, rather than spend a large part of their budget on a ‘name’ band or two and taking a chance on this, they are now leaning more towards providing a more interactive experience for the public – especially one like bluegrass where the proportion of picker to audience is amongst the highest of any genre. It might be increasingly the way of the future.

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