Jammers on Stage

History of Merlefest Jam Camp

by Pete Wernick — February 1, 2012

I was recently asked to recall the history of my Jam Camp for the Merlefest program. I’d never put it in one place before, so I thought I’d share it here. Thanks to jam camper Ted Lehmann for many of the photos.

Pete and Campers Prep for Stage

I performed at the second Merlefest, 1989, (and haven’t missed one since). At the 1990 festival B. Townes asked if I would host one of my banjo camps the next year, so our first Merlefest camp was in 1991, in the backstage room of the original Watson Stage. In time, it drew students from around the country and even overseas. I would stay in a trailer by the old Creekside Stage and enjoy the pre-festival solitude of those early days.

Jam Campers on Cabin Stage

We soon outgrew the small backstage room and relocated to the Walker Center. Early on, we started a tradition of the campers coming right from the end of camp to the Cabin Stage to play a number or two for the Thursday crowd. This was (and still is) both fun and scary, as most have no performing experience, and would have major stage fright! There were seasoned players too, including Cody Kilby (now with Ricky Skaggs), at age 11 already picking like a pro.

Pete Picking with Jam Group

By 1999 I had begun teaching bluegrass jamming on all instruments, not just banjos. With B.'s OK, my banjo camp became the world’s first bluegrass jam camp! Numbers grew, and I took on assistants including Andy Owens and Joan Wernick, who with our son past school age, could now come from Colorado. Joan and I have been hosting the camp and performing at Merlefest ever since.

Pete Teaching a Class

In 2006, with the camp pushing the Walker Center’s limits, B. told me of a beautiful new Y property called Camp Harrison at Herring Ridge -- up in Boomer 10 miles away. The folks there offered a large meeting hall and a great layout of cabins where campers could stay, eat together, and jam at all hours, even by a campfire by the lake at night! We grabbed the opportunity.

Jamming on Porch

In 2012, our sixth year at Camp Harrison, we’ve had as many as 60 folks attend, with some of the area’s top musician/teachers assisting us. So many students return each year, we added a higher level track to keep them challenged. Some campers have gone from novice level to professional performing!

Practicing Harmony

The jam camp born at Merlefest in 1999 became the template for dozens of jam camps I've hosted nationwide. Hundreds of Merlefesters have attended our camps. One of our first scholarship students, from Australia, started jam camps there based on our model. In 2010 I began certifying teachers to teach jamming by the methods developed at Merlefest, and now Wernick Method bluegrass jam classes are in 22 states plus Australia and Canada. It all goes back to B's original invitation over 20 years ago. I'm grateful!

Merlefest Group Shot