Less Is More

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I think the fundamental problem is this. The more confident I get with my playing, the more I want show off. I have this narcissistic need to make some kind of grand personal statement when I’m playing. The result generally winds up sounding like crap! Recently I was practicing for a gig with a really talented singer songwriter. Her music is intelligent, powerful and well crafted. When I got home and listened to a recording of our session, I was horrified. I wasn’t playing to her singing at all. I was stomping all over the music. Instead of listening, I was trying to prove that I could play the fiddle. I spent the next two days carefully studying her CDs. I made notes on where to play and more importantly, where not to play. I stuck close to the melody and tried to focused on supporting the singer and song. In great big block letters at the top of the page I wrote “DON’T OVER PLAY”! The result worked. The gig went well. I could tell she was more relaxed, I allowed her talent to really shine and she made us both look good!

“Don’t Over Play”: I think I might just tattoo that to the back of my right hand so every time I bring my bow arm up it’s right in my face.

About Music Camps

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In the last decade, music camps have sprung up all over the place. From Balkan to Bluegrass, whatever style or instrument you want to pursue, chances are good there’s a camp dedicated to learning it. A lot of music festivals host music camps the week before the festival. Camps can be a blast and a great learning experience. Here are four reasons why I think music camps are worth the time and money.

1. You get to fully immerse yourself in music

Many years ago, after I started playing banjo, I went to The American Banjo camp. I was really nervous about going. I hadn’t played much with other people. Most of my playing was done late at night, with nobody around (my family had banished the banjo from the house by that point). I wasn’t even sure if I could call myself “a real banjo player”. The camp  fixed that in a hurry. I got a lot of great instruction and positive feedback that boosted my confidence level significantly. When I was catching my flight home, I happen to go through security with the legendary Eddie Adcock, who had been teaching at the camp. It was so cool to be hoofing it through the airport, joking with Eddie and both of us packing our banjos. I came home finally feeling like real a banjo player.

2. You get to hang out with real musicians.

To me, people who have spent their whole lives dedicated to learning a craft are wizards. They have magic abilities. They can do things that are impossible for us average mortals to do. To be in close proximity to that magic I find amazing. When you attend a music camp you get to be up close an personal with real masters. You can watch what they do, ask them questions and you get to see what they are like when they are not on-stage; a glimpse of the person who lives behind the wizardry. This really fascinates me. To hear their stories and to learn what it’s like to be a working musician. You also experience how they relate to each other. One of the coolest things for me about the Targhee Music Camp was seeing how much love there was between the musicians. Most of them had worked together for decades. The brilliant, young  fiddle player, Brittany Hass described it to me this way. “I literally grew up with a lot of these people. We are like family and this camp is our reunion”. To be part of that family reunion was pretty special.

Having lunch with Sierra Hull

3. You get to meet your heroes.

I signed up for the Targhee Music Camp for three reasons: Darol Anger, Brittney Hass and Danny Barns. Just to spend a week hanging out with my heroes and meeting the likes of Darrell Scott and Sierra Hull was worth the price of admission. Sierra Hull sang harmony with me on the song Another Night. It never sounded so good, before or since.

4. You get to hear “the secret music”.

One of the amazing instructor jams in the Targhee Bar

I left before the festival started but did not care one bit. I felt like the music I heard at the camp was as good, if not better than what I would have heard at the show. Every night the instructors played together in this little bar. They did solo performances or, they  would assemble different configuration and play whatever they wanted to play in that moment. It was spontaneous, exciting and at times, very moving, ( Glen Cambell past away that week of the camp so they played a wrenchingly beautiful version of Gentle On My Mind). Danny Barns calls this “the secret music”. The stuff that happens between musicians when they are off stage. He says it’s his favorite part of going to festivals:

” The “secret music.” this is really my favorite part. see, there’s all this stuff that artists jam and play around on when no audience is there. it’s a really cool repertoire. that’s the funnest bit for me, the jamming.”


Here are links to some cool camps you might want to check out.


Rocky Grass Academy – End of July

For the week before the RockyGrass festival begins, immerse yourself as an active participant in the world of bluegrass. From small classes with world-class professional musicians, to sessions on group jamming, vocal coaching, songwriting, one-on-one instruction, and a variety of electives including practice techniques, writing instrumentals, accompaniment, improvisation, and music history. Evenings feature band scrambles, BBQs, and plenty of jamming for novice through advanced ability levels. Many Academy students return year after year, creating long-term relationships with fellow musicians from all over the world.


Targhee Music Camp – Mid August

Imagine an afternoon in the Tetons. A head full of new tunes, rubbing elbows with your musical heroes, a community of new friends, outstanding views and great food. Free time to jam, rehearse or hike. Sounds like the prescription for sanity in this crazy world. Sounds like the syllabus for the annual Targhee Music Camp!


Happens in November near Petaluma CA


This camp is for people who like traditional American music: largely bluegrass and oldtime, also often including swing, Celtic, Cajun, and country. All ages are welcome, and core classes are offered in instrume


Spend an inspiring, challenging, and thrilling week with others who share your passion for bluegrass and old-time music! Each August we’re proud to host NimbleFingers Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Workshop in Sorrento, BC—about 5 hours from Vancouver and 7 hours by car from Calgary. Now in our 26th year, we provide a fun, friendly and non-competitive environment for everyone from beginners to advanced players, with ample opportunity for group learning, electives, organized jam sessions, and tons of other spontaneous activities.


This is Joe Craven’s camp that happens end of July in the Sierras. It’s really popular. Fun for families and fills up fast.

RiverTunes ~ Roots Music & Creativity Camp ~ honors traditions and celebrates innovations in Acoustic Roots Music and Creative Living through individual growth and community spirit. Whether you aspire to perform, want to jam with friends, or simply and comfortably share songs with a loved one, our mission and passion is to help you do it!



Lark Camp is legendary. It happens in Mendocino in Late July. It’s a wildly eclectic mix of music and dance workshops.

Imagine idyllic days & nights in the magical redwood forest filled with all the music, dance, and good times you could possibly stand, and that’s kind of close to what Lark Camp World Music & Dance Celebration is like. You are free to take as many or as few of the workshops offered as you like; jam sessions 24 hours a day, big dances every evening. Plenty of good food, new friends, and musical stimulation. Truly a unique total immersion into the joys of nature, music, song and dance. Many workshops for the professional as well as the beginner! An adult and family event.



Spend a long weekend away from everyday life’s toil and cares with nothing to do but learn about the 5-string banjo or fiddle or guitar or . . . from world-famous teachers! ABC features four levels of instruction in bluegrass banjo and four levels of instruction in old-time banjo, as well as a full-time guitar track and a full-time fiddle track!

The World According To Danny Barnes

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Me with Danny Barnes and Darrell Scott all wearing our “Barns” hats

Lumpy beanpole and dirt.

Don’t get your feelings hurt

Buy me some wine

And some good old turpentine

And get yourself a healthy little squirt”

–Chorus from Lumpy Beanpole and Dirt, Danny Barnes

Many years ago, when I first picked up the banjo, my friend Scotty Cooper gave me a Bad Livers CD and said, “you need to hear this guy”.  The song Little Bitty Town changed my life. Something about Danny Barns’ music resonated with me in a powerful way. I think it has to do with the way he elevates the invisible, forgotten, loser in life to a kind of mythical status. It was Danny Barne’s music that inspired me to start writing my own songs. He made it ok for me to explore my own, sometimes weird view on life.  Danny is a musician’s musician. He is deeply respected, not only for his song writing and masterful banjo playing, but also for the sheer, intellectual intensity he brings to thinking about music. I took a song writing workshop with him and was astounded when he began by saying, in his soft spoken, Texas, good-old-boy drawl ,” I don’t if any of y’all have read anything by the French Deconstructionists, but those guys really were a big influence on me”. I suppose, the pathway from French Deconstructionism to Lumpy Beanpole and Dirt, is clear if you know about such things but I’m sure Danny would be the first to say, “who cares”?

If you are a banjo player, I strongly recommend signing up for Danny Barnes’ Peghead Nation course. Even if you are not a banjo player, I would watch the Peghead intro video and go check out his website. You will learn a lot.

Danny’s Barnes Peghead Nation Intro Video 

Danny Barnes website 

Here’s a live version of Little Bitty Town. It pretty much sums it all up.  

And finally, here is a very entertaining story about the real life character that inspired the song Turpentine Willie.  This will give a little insight into where Danny comes from.   Click Here 

How To Sing With Others

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Here is an incredibly entertaining and instructive lesson in harmony singing from three masters who have been singing together for a long time.  Singer-song writers Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz join virtuoso mandolinist, singer, and composer Chris Thile of Punch Brothers for How to Sing with Others, an open master class and workshop on vocal and string performance.

Click Here to Watch The Video 

Play Songs You Love

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My First Album

I hated folk and bluegrass as a kid. I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s with older siblings who were really into the whole folk revival thing, but I found old folk ballads to be corny and boring. The Beatles were cool and I appreciated Dylan, but the first album I ever forked over my own money for was The Jackson Five’s ABC. From a very early age, I loved soul, funk, blues and jazz, which is kind of weird because I grew up in the very white suburbs of Portland. My appreciation for Bluegrass and Americana music only came late in life, and it came as the direct result of my desire to play in jam circles.

My hero, Sly Stone

When I started working on building a repertoire for jamming, however, I naturally gravitated to the songs I loved. One late night while plunking away on my banjo, I started toying around with trying to adapt the chords for Sly And The Family Stone’s Family affair to the banjo. I discovered that if I tweaked the tuning, I could get this cool, sort of Slyish tone. It really wasn’t anything like Sly’s version, but somehow it worked. The banjo gave it this old-time twist that fit the mood of that fantastic original version. I started experimenting with other songs I loved: Marvin Gaye’s Grapevine, The Temptations, Just My Imagination – some songs worked some songs did not. Songs that “worked” were the ones that could be reduced to more of a “boom chuck” rhythm. Why? Because the determining factor for what “works” and what doesn’t is whether other people can easily follow along and jam on it. When I’m working up a song, I don’t think so much about performance, I think about jamability: will this song be something that the circle can really sink its collective teeth into? If a song has too many fancy chords or is just too rhythmically complex, its a “jam buster”. I don’t spend a lot or time working on songs that will be jam busters because what’s the point if nobody can play it with you? While I do love to bring my funky tunes into the mix, I also spend a lot of time working on the traditional songs because that is really the language of acoustic jam circles. If you know a few Bill Monroe tunes or some Bluegrass standards like Old Home Place, Nine Pound Hammer or I’ll Fly Away, you can show up to any jam, anywhere and have songs ready go that people will know. Plus, you can be confident that you will know a lot of the songs, or at least the chord structures of songs, that other people might call.

Some Circles are more serious about tradition then others

In certain Bluegrass or Old-time circles, be aware that it might not be cool to bring contemporary pop music into mix. The purists don’t like that. Before you jump into a circle,  you want get a feel for the vibe and sensibilities of the players. That said, when it comes to leading a song and really getting others on-board, it really helps to love that song. For me, the songs that really work are the ones that singers feel into with their heart and soul. This might be a beautiful traditional song like I’ll Fly Away, but it could also be a tune by Aretha Franklin, The Beatles, Grateful Dead or Beyonce. The music we grow up with carries powerful resonance and meaning. This is true for every generation. It would be crazy not to include songs that inspire us just because they are not part of the traditional repertoire. When you are packing your song bag, go with the tunes you love. Songs that are just plain fun to sing and play aren’t bad either.

A Musical Life

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Camp Tequila Mockingbird Spring Strawberry Music Festival 2011

I am part of an amazing musical tribe. That is, without a doubt, the greatest benefit of learning to play an instrument and jamming with others. Music connects people in a powerful way – always has, always will. Many years ago, at a chilly Spring Strawberry Music Festival, I discovered Camp Tequila Mockingbird – a long running gathering of musical festival goers from Santa Cruz. The Tequila Mockingbird jam circle changed my life. It connected me to what would evolve into my community and put me on a path to becoming the kind of musician I always wanted to be. Nancy Friedland and Alan Moses are two extraordinary people that were part of that Tequila Mockingbird camp. Nancy plays mandolin and

Nancy and Alan gearing up to go late into the night

Alan accordion. Their deep love of music and each other has been a great inspiration to me over the years. Nancy writes a wonderfully insightful blog about her experience as a relatively new transplant from Santa Barbara to Portland. She recently wrote a piece that really captures the challenges and the joy of becoming a competent musician and “putting it out there”. This line really struck home with me. “No amount of technique will substitute for the magic that happens when you let yourself connect”. Amen to that!

I really encourage you to check Nancy’s blog  Go to A Musical Life