"And this one time, at jam camp…"


It took six hours to reach North Carolina from Virginia, and it would have been a beautiful drive if it hadn’t been pouring with unseasonal rain most of the way. I arrived in Wilkes County – in the foothills of the Appalchians – with the kind of cold that runs through a box of tissues in under an hour.

I came here for a four-day “jam camp” with 80 other bluegrass pickers, many of us relative novices. In the damp, but otherwise pleasant, environs of the YMCA Camp Harrison, we have been gently instructed in the art of jamming by Pete Wernick, aka Dr Banjo. This is a bit like going to a summer soccer school and discovering that your teacher is, I don’t know, Pele. Wernick’s band Hot Rize was one of the most influential bluegrass bands of the 80s, and he also pretty much invented Flexigrass, a genre of music that combined bluegrass with jazz.

He and his wife Joan have run music camps for several years, and have built a large roster of talented teachers; Pete has a gift for the pastoral as well as for the banjo, while Joan (who is also his duet partner) keeps both him and the pupils in check. Each day contains multiple sessions – instrument lessons, harmony singing tutorials, “electives” where you can learn the history of bluegrass, or how to set up a PA – but most of your time is devoted to jamming in small groups, and designed to boost the confidence and experience of even the greenest of players.

If it was the perfect way to kickstart my playing, it was also a good place to discover some of my darkest fears about this trip. There were several young teenagers who played with an ease and brilliance I can never hope to match. Invariably, I’d ask how long they’d been playing – hoping to hear that their father had clamped their hands to a mandolin when they were still unable to form words – and it would turn out that they’d only been doing it a couple of years.

I’m also getting called “Ma’am” a lot, which sounds very lovely and polite, but makes me realise that I am now very definitely out of the “Miss” category that I have held onto for so long. The South is the only place that can inform you, with such brutal courtesy, that you’re not young any more. 

Mountain sounds in Shepherdstown, West Virginia

O'Hurley's General Store, Thursday night jam, West Virginia – complete with dulcimer

O'Hurley's General Store, Thursday night jam, West Virginia – complete with dulcimer

This was not my first time at the bluegrass jam in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. I’d visited once before when I’d come over to the States on work, travelling without my fiddle. My plan to sit in the audience and listen lasted about two songs – my fingers itched so much at the sound of the music that when I spied a spare instrument in the corner, I’d asked if I could borrow it and get involved.

That was last June. Ten months later, having flown into DC in the early afternoon, I’d decided that, jetlag or no, I was going to make it to that Thursday night session, just so I could prove to them that I did indeed own a violin. It takes place in O’Hurley’s General Store, which sells vintage gear like grandfather clocks and tiffany lamps and cast iron cookware without any sense that they’re not completely contemporary. It’s the perfect backdrop for old-timey music and they gather a decent crowd most weeks – a good 30 or so last night.

I attempted to sneak in and join them, to have a listen and get a feel, but even as I was quietly stowing my case underneath the chair in front I was spotted by the harpist, Genevieve. She recognised me immediately as that random British woman who had gatecrashed the session last year: “Don’t think you can bring that fiddle here and not play it…”

The vibe here is more mountain music than bluegrass – as well as Genevieve’s harp there’s a flute and not one but two hammered dulcimers in the circle. Holding one of those pairs of hammers (which always remind me of bottle openers) was Sam Rizzetta, who composed a huge proportion of the tunes in the group’s repertoire. Here's one of his waltzes.