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Strung Together

Pete Wernick's banjo camp draws musicians together in a blaze of bluegrass

By Greg Glasgow, Camera Staff Writer

To the uninitiated, there's something magical and slightly shocking about roaming the halls of a Gunbarrel bed-and-breakfast and hearing the joyful sound of banjo music coming from a half dozen propped-open doors.

But the employees at the Sandy Point Inn are used to it by now. It's just Pete Wernick's annual banjo camp again -- a chance for 40 adults from around the world to come together and spend five days immersed in the instrument. It's a vacation, a master class and a social gathering wrapped into one. Wernick, who has run the camps in Boulder County since 1984, leads two sessions every January, one for 20 beginners and another for 20 intermediate and advanced players.

"Whether it's a baseball fantasy camp or a canoeing camp or whatever, (people) want to be around other people sharing their interests," says Wernick, a former member of pioneering Boulder bluegrass group Hot Rize." When I was coming along as a banjo player, I used to try to find people who would come over to my house and I'd say, 'Let's spend the whole day playing and listening to records and figuring it out.' I could never find anybody."

Luckily, for the 40 musicians a year who pay $275 for the five-day camp, Wernick has gotten better at finding banjo players who want to spend time learning to play. Over the years he has welcomed musicians from every state but Delaware and 15 foreign countries, including Japan, Finland and Australia. Some participants play in bands back home but most don't -- the banjo lies somewhere between a hobby and an obsession for many campers, who range in occupation from doctors and judges to architects and firemen.

"At home I'm a mail carrier -- that's what I do in my everyday life," says Bobbie Dundas, 37, one of the two female participants at January's intermediate/advanced camp. "But I love bluegrass, and I always have, I guess. People might think it's like hillbilly music or whatever, but it's not to me. It's music. It's like jazz or anything else. I wanted to come out here to get myself remotivated. I kind of lost my motivation and I though this would be a good place to start over."

Renewing commitment

Most campers are like Dundas, looking to renew their banjo commitment or go further with their playing. Each day begins with class instruction followed by small groups and one-on-ones with Wernick. Some students break into sets of three or four and go back to their rooms to practice jamming; others stay in the big room to watch the one-on-ones, hoping to glean something from the lesson even when they're on the sidelines.

"He (Wernick) showed me how much you can get out of your banjo -- tone, clarity, all that kind of stuff. How to accent notes so that you're actually almost talking," says Donna Poe, 51, a rancher from Callahan, Calif. "You get used to just playing and it sounds OK, and you never think to do more."

Wernick also teaches rehearsing techniques and other methods of improvement, focusing largely on the importance of playing with other people. The bluegrass jam session, he says, is the banjo player's best learning tool.

"In bluegrass, people are not going from completely memorized stuff. They're improvising a little bit, the way a basketball player doesn't know what he's going to do but he has enough skills to get through the situation," Wernick says. "When you're a piano player you sit down to written music and it says, 'Do exactly this,' and that's exactly what you do. In bluegrass you've got to learn it more like a language."

There are less technical aspects to the instruction as well -- Wernick spends a lot time lecturing on attitude, performance anxiety and how to practice; it's not all finger rolls and what to do to get from a C major chord to an A minor chord.

"I came out last year thinking, 'Oh, the magic is going to be in what Pete shows you.' And it really isn't," says Jeff Edgin, 43, a hospital information system salesman from Hamilton, Va. "It's more what he tells you, it's an attitude kind of thing. To try to verbalize any little bit of it would sound like a statement of the obvious: 'Practice that until you don't make any mistakes.' Which is kind of what he tells you, but when it's all wrapped up he makes you feel like you can be a better banjo player."

The big night

In the large upstairs room at Niwot's Left Hand Grange Hall two days later, the sound of 20 banjos playing 20 different songs simultaneously is something like the cacophonous buzzing of a swarm of particularly tuneful bees. Players have tucked themselves into every nook and cranny, practicing for the culmination of their week at banjo camp: a concert in front of their peers, the public and their professor. Each student picks one song on which to be featured -- they are backed by a group of the camp members who play banjo, guitar or bass.

A few days ago, the students all seemed nervous about this night, but an hour before the show they're relaxed, smiling and joking, milling around the room like eager high school theater students the night of the big play.

"Right now (I feel) pretty darn good, but we went through a pretty wide range of emotions (this week), from being excited about the whole thing to nervous about playing in front of a professional banjo player and instructor and others you know darn well are going to be better than you," says Perry Vose, 65, of Hamilton, Mont.

Nearly 80 people -- packing the house to standing-room-only capacity -- show up to watch. They are friends and relatives of campers, former campers, prospective campers, bluegrass fans and families who think $8 for a night of entertainment is a pretty good deal.

Wernick and his wife, Joan, open the show with Hank Williams' "Settin' the Woods on Fire," then the students begin to play. The songs range from high energy (Williams' "Jambalaya," with the audience joining in on the chorus) to contemplative (the gospel number "What a Friend We Have in Jesus"). The campers aren't perfect, but they're having fun, and that's what counts. As each person finishes his or her number and returns to the long wooden bench that runs along one side of the room, they get smiles and cheers and pats on the shoulder from their fellow banjo players. It's been only four days, but these musicians already are close friends.

"By this time in the week they've been in this little hothouse environment where no one is talking about or thinking about anything but banjo playing," Wernick says. "And now, when push comes to shove, are they going to be able to play their song well or not? There's a lot of nervous energy, but they're all working together, rooting like crazy for each other, and every little victory and defeat is shared by the group."

The show continues, with the traditional "Deep Elm Blues" -- lyrics modified slightly to include a verse about Wernick and the camp -- and Flatt and Scruggs' "I Wonder Where You Are Tonight." The most thunderous applause is for 38-year-old Graham Sones, a student from Minnesota, who duets with Wernick on "Tequila Mockingbird," a lightning-fast Wernick original. The show ends with a mass rendition -- 18 banjos, plus a rhythm section -- of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," the banjo workout featured in the 1967 film "Bonnie and Clyde." Nearly everyone gets a chance to solo, and by the end of the song the audience members are tapping their feet so loudly it sounds like a drumbeat.

The players all smile as the song comes to its conclusion -- they've made it. Tomorrow they'll watch a videotape of the concert and they'll laugh at their tiny mistakes and Wernick will point out the things they did wrong, but for now the night feels an awful lot like a victory. Make an audience clap, or laugh, or tap its feet, and you must be doing something right.

"The thing for me today, we were practicing in my room (at the Sandy Point), we were going to do 'Jambalaya,'" Vose says. "A couple of cleaning ladies went by and saw us there, and they stepped back just as we started to play, and they started dancing and swinging their arms, and I says, "Hey, somebody likes it,' They loved it! That brought me right up."