Backstory: Bluegrass camp
Budding musicians gather on a ranch in Colorado for four days to learn the fiddle, banjo, and bass from icons of the genre.
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"There's only one difference between a bad fiddler – or even a mediocre one – and a great fiddler," he says. "It's one word – details." Visibly awed, his seven advanced students listen intently. Mr. Greene is, after all, something of an icon. He rose to prominence as one of The Bluegrass Boys in the 1960s. As the longing notes emerge from Greene's fiddle, the students – lawyers, teachers, and software engineers – study the precise movement of his bow, in the hope of someday replicating each meticulous stroke.Skip to next paragraph
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Nearby, Tony Trischka demonstrates the finer points of fingerpicking to eight banjo students. "Snap your index finger as you pull off," he instructs. "It's just a banjo; you can't hurt it at all." Hugging their instruments, they try to replicate the move. "It's pretty simple," he says, his fingers flying along the frets and strings.
"We learned from all of our heroes, the musicians we worship," says Dominick Leslie, a 16-year-old mandolin player from Evergreen, Colo.. "For me, this is like New Year's."
Dominick, a phenomenon in his own right, won the prestigious mandolin contest here at age 14, and by 15 had recorded a solo CD. "I quit soccer because it didn't leave me enough time to play music and do my homework," he says. "Music is always going to be first for me."
Part of the appeal of bluegrass is that it harks back to a simpler time, when families gathered on the porch to play music, evocative of a scene from "The Waltons." Relying on acoustic stringed instruments and vocal harmonies, bluegrass is a blend of old-time folk music, blues, and jazz. The style has its roots in the traditional Celtic music played by British Isles immigrants in Appalachia. It emerged in Kentucky in the 1940s. Bill Monroe is considered the founding father of the genre – named for his band, The Bluegrass Boys.
Today the art form is gaining in popularity. Mainstream influences like the film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" have attracted a broader crowd to bluegrass, while groups like Nickel Creek and Yonder Mountain String Band maintain a loyal fan base. More festivals are being held, too. "We live in a world where people don't know their neighbors, where people put fences between their properties," says Dr. Gardner. "Here, the fences are torn down. You can walk up to the campsites of complete strangers and start playing music with them."
Kristin Andreassen, a vocalist who also plays both fiddle and guitar for Uncle Earl, a headline act at the festival, is attending the academy as a student. She wants to add the bass to her repertoire. "Bass is kind of the core," she says. "I think it will help my musicality to learn how to play it."
For instructors, fostering that love of learning keeps them coming back. Sandy Munro, a multi-instrumentalist from Aspen, Colo., teaches here every year. "You don't have to have a yacht or an airplane," he says. "You can be happy without a lot of things when you have music."
As the late-July temperatures top 90 degrees F., students – some with instruments in tow – head to the river for a dip. At the end of the week, they all gather in the St. Vrain one last time for "commencement," standing knee-deep in the swirls and eddies as their voices fall in harmony. "As I went down to the river to pray, studying about that good old way..."
Slow and languorous, the music goes well into the evening and beyond – back to cities and towns around the world as the inspired graduates bring their new skills home.