Friday, July 21, 2017

Bluegrass: Funnier Than It Sounds by Rick Cornish - Book Review

Rick Cornish is bluegrass music's resident cartoonist. For years he has posted his cartoons on the California Bluegrass Association website and in Bluegrass Today, the go-to news source for bluegrass music. Now he has published a collection, which will become a treasured bathroom or tabletop piece for those of us who like a laugh with our bluegrass music.  Funnier Than It Sounds, illustrated by Donna Miklika and edited by Nanci Bolas, is written from the perspective of someone who loves bluegrass, knows its foibles and conflicts, and looks at it with gentle good humor. Much like Rick Cornish himself, who doesn't need to shout when he can speak quietly while keeping his pen sharp, the cartoons point in humor-filled ways to how bluegrass affects relationships, careers, and daily lives.

Often the bluegrass community may take itself and its music a bit too seriously. We worry about being seen as hillbilly music with hay bales sitting around the stage having adherents with a jug of moonshine sitting beside them. We long for serious consideration as serious music. And, of course, the stereotype and the scholarship are both elements of the music we love. So are the arguments about what constitutes bluegrass music. Nevertheless, what brings bluegrass people together, making them into a large, cohesive, and, sometime, argumentative community is their love of toe tapping music growing from Appalachia and reaching out to the world. Bluegrass continues as a music played by some of the best musicians in the world while it remains accessible enough to be played, sung, and enjoyed by those picking up their instruments for almost the first time.

Rick Cornish, before and after a career in educational planning and as a software entrepreneur, has always been a writer and humorist, as well as a bluegrass picker and volunteer for the California Bluegrass Association. He has written and published a collection of short stories and is working on another. He began cartooning when a friend challenged him to pen thirty cartoons in a month, and he realized that cartoons were simply extremely short short stories. He's been more than ably assisted by illustrator Donna Miklika and editor Nanci Bolas.

Rick Cornish

Many of these cartoons were first published in Bluegrass Today and on the California Bluegrass Association web site, for which I thank them, since their publication means I don't have to cut the pages out of my copy of this book to post a few of them. Bluegrass: Funnier Than It Sounds by Rick Cornish with illustrations by Donna Miklica and edited by Nanci Bolas is available from for $14.99. That works out to about 1¢ per smile/giggle/laugh. I was sent a copy of the book by the author and wrote a blurb for it.

Please remember that if you wish to order a book linked to in my writing, the embedded links take you to , paying me a small commission which goes towards continuing to support this blog and our travels. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Bluegrass in Siberia!

Greetings readers! Come August 10th, I will be beginning a 30 hour journey to Kyzyl, Tuva, located on the Russian/Mongolian border deep in Southern Siberia. The People's Republic of Tuva is, in fact, the geographic center of Asia. While in Tuva, I will be performing bluegrass, conducting research and competing in the 2017 Xöömei in the Center of Asia Festival. This year's festival is dedicated to the memory of the late Kongar-ool Ondar. Readers here familiar with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones will recognize Ondar's name as he frequently collaborated with Fleck. Fleck has also collaborated with another ensemble from Tuva, Alash. Ted Lehmann has graciously invited me to send in posts from each day of the festival as well as other bluegrass collaborations that may spontaneously occur.

At this point, some of you might be wondering, who I am. Well, my name is Damon Postle, I'm originally from Everett, Washington [just north of Seattle] a banjo player, throat singer, music educator and music education PhD student at the University of Georgia's Hugh Hodgson School of Music. My PhD studies revolve around teaching and training future music educators in folk music from all corners of the globe including bluegrass.

I'll close this post by saying traveling to this part of the world is not cheap and I would be remiss to thank my wife Megan for her unwavering support, both financial and emotional. I also need to thank major professor, Dr. Skip Taylor, PhD at the University of Georgia who helped not only with finding travel grants, but his constant support of my work at the university.

As they say in Tuva, "Shu-de!!!" [literally "Giddy-up!!!"]. I am excited to send in posts from the road. Until then, Tuva or bust!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Pete Wernick Jam Camp at Silver Bay - 2017

Silver Bay

The Silver Bay YMCA Conference and Family Retreat Center, located on the edge of the small hamlet of Silver Bay along an otherwise isolated section of Lake George, in the Adirondack Mountains of New York,  provides a ideal venue for a Pete Wernick Jam Camp. Founded as a lake resort in 1902 and bought by the YMCA in 1904, the complex contains buildings typical of Adirondack resort architecture from the beginnings of the last century. The full featured, yet simple, resort offers quiet, many jamming and practice locations, and a large auditorium suitable for group meetings and performances. What a place for Pete Wernick, internationally known as Dr. Banjo to hold, perhaps, one of the largest and most ambitious of his well-known Jam Camps!

Pete Wernick - Dr. Banjo

Pete Wernick has been a force in bluegrass music since he was in high school in New York City, when he hosted a bluegrass radio program on WKCR-FM, a non commercial student run radio station hosted by Columbia University, where he earned a Ph.D. in sociology. Here's a recording of Pete interviewing banjo pioneer Don Reno at the first multi-day bluegrass festival, held in Fincastle, VA in 1965. In 1978 Pete, along with Tim O'Brien, Charles Sawtelle, and Mike Scap, soon replaced by Nick Forster, formed Hot Rize, a ground breaking and popular bluegrass band which toured full-time until 1990, just before Sawtelle, sadly, died.  The band still makes reunion performances with Bryan Sutton in the guitar slot. In addition, Pete was a founding member of the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), serving as its president from 1986 until 2001. 

Pete has been hosting music camps since 1980. Over the years they have evolved and spread across the nation and around the world, with a number of Wernick certified instructors offering camps at festivals and in a variety of non-festival locations. You can find the locations of camps and classes here. Pete is also the author of a couple of important books as well as having produced a number of instructional videos covering bluegrass banjo and jamming. He has been, along with his wife Joan, a tireless crusader for bluegrass for the masses. His approach is heavily grounded in music for and by the people, although he also offers band camps and coaching for professional bands seeking to improve. His web site, at is extremely useful, filled with history, free learning materials, information about camps, and more.

Hot Rize - Just Like You - 1987

We drove over to Silver Bay for a day visit, arriving as the morning meeting was assembling. Pete's Jam Camps generally follow a pattern of large group meetings. Sometimes large group instruction or presentations on the history and background of bluegrass are delivered as well as general information for the good of all. At Silver Bay, the meeting place was a large and beautiful all wood auditorium holding up to 700 people, which swallowed the Jam Camp, but still provided a good center for meetings.

Morning Meeting in the Auditorium

Typically, at a Wernick Jam Camp, the various jams, often grouped by relative skill level or choice, move to places where they can practice their skills under the guidance of staff members. At Silver Bay, many quiet, secluded places, both indoor and out, provide a setting where people can experiment and extend their skills, while the staff faciltators, all bluegrass professionals who both teach and perform, provide support and help.

Bob Amos with a Group

Pete Wernick in front of the Main Building

Jam Group in a Quiet Space

On the Boathouse Porch with Ellen Carlson

After a delicious buffet lunch in the Silver Bay dining room, the entire Jam Camp, both staff and attendees, turned out for a group photo in front of the Auditorium.

Photo Album
Here's a Link to a Google Photo Album. 
The pictures are free for your personal use. 
If you use them online, please give me a photo credit

Jam Camp Class Picture

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance - Book Review

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (Harper Collins, 2016, $12.59/15.99) has been on the NY Times Best Seller List for forty-nine weeks, and at the time of this writing, stands at number two. This touching, revealing, warm, sad, and inspiring memoir, written by a Yale Law School graduate whose childhood was spent in the hills of eastern Kentucky and the migrated community of Middletown, OH, opens many sores while explaining in the most human and personal terms possible the pain and misunderstanding that harms working class and poor white Americans in the Hheartlands. Throughout this tale Vance sometimes mentions findings of academic studies and other research, using them to support or introduce his own poignant experiences, but, most of all, this is the story of one man's ability to persevere in an environment where success such as he has experienced is rare, and , according to him psychically costly as well as economically expensive.

Living within a home with serial father figures coming and going and an alcoholic, drug addicted mother, he attributes the source of his core values to life in rural Jackson, Kentucky in the hills and hollers of Appalachia with his Mamaw and any number of uncles and cousins. He describes on academic paper in which the authors suggest that “hillbillies learn from an early age to deal with uncomfortable truths by avoiding them, or by pretending better truths exist, a characteristic of bluegrass music, too. Vance refuses to look the others way.

Vance tracks the two major migrations from Appalachia to the industrial mid-west, particularly Middletown, OH, which were mirrored in the South, mid-South and New England, the depression era migrations and the post-WWII migration of returning veterans. He examines how the regions prospered and then died off with the decline of America industrial might, leaving abandoned neighborhoods, unemployment, and drug dependency behind, attributing this to both bad government policies and globalism.

Vance consistently refers to himself and his family as being poor and then at other times being “working class.” Joan C. Williams, in White Working Class seems to make a clear distinction between the two while Vance vacillates. He talks about “his people,” Kentucky migrants to southern Ohio, as often living off the dole, not working, and being plagued by drugs and violence, yet also talks about an uncle who escapes to the middle class, and his mother who, despite being an addict, was a nurse who was able to work a good deal of the time. He glories, however, in his extended family, his many uncles who provide him with male role models in both positive and negative ways. At times he seems remarkably judgmental, while at others, forgiving.

As Vance matures through adolescence, he begins to see the disjointures between both liberal and conservative points of view. He sees many of the government programs as well meaning but ineffective while the conservative solutions were disciplinary and draconian. In his reading of sociology, while in high school, he began to realize that the situation of black people described in his readings about black America contained the same dilemmas as did the lives and existence of the white working poor from Appalachia. “Our Elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.” (144) He's writing about religion, work, and family when he observes the deep “cognitive dissonance between the world we see and the values we preach.” (147)

As Vance prepares to attend Yale Law School he explains in touching, no-holds-barred language why a person like him, growing up in poverty, bedeviled by the rigors of having a drug addicted mother living with multiple husbands, and seemingly inured to violence and loss could reject the attractions of both the left and the right. These chapters, presented within the context of an actual life lived in poverty and difficulty, if not despair, bring so many working class and poor white men, especially, to accept so much patently untrue or misleading material in seeking to understand who they are, why they got that way, and how difficult it is to extricate oneself. In short, Vance asserts, it's easier for many to blame “the other” than it is to do the hard analysis of one's own choices, accept the verdict, and get to work to change things. What sets J.D. Vance apart is his ongoing optimism, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Interestingly, Hillbilly Elegy can also stand as a “How To” book for those seeking to find their own way to a different place in both the workplace and in society. For instance, the non-verbal behavioral cues of social class are significantly different than the behaviors that pass for progressing in working class employment and social environments. Vance shows himself always to be exceptionally alert to what's going on around him. As he gains in self confidence, his ability to ask questions of those he trusts increases. He's also a very fast learner. Nevertheless he owns to deep feelings of abandoning the culture from which he comes while yearning to become part of that with which he's not, yet, thoroughly familiar. However, the struggle is neither easy nor always successful.

J.D. Vance

Throughout Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, Vance scatters data and information from relevant sociological and psychological writing to illuminate the points he makes, to give them a solid theoretical context. Such use of accurate research information never seems intrusive or fault-finding. Rather, it seeks to help a reader generalize from the highly personal revelation of the pain and confusion of Vance's childhood. It helps the reader gain understanding and perspective without ever excusing either those who raised him or his own mis-understandings, missed paths, and possibly botched relationships. He bravely opens the scars on his psyche, examines them, faces their consequences, and comes out the other side a stronger and better person. His painstaking honesty with the reader and his courage are never in doubt. This is not a book for the reader to quarrel with. Rather, it requires being good listeners, seeking to find the truths as they apply to them. Some would prescribe better, more effective programs. Others view the problems of poverty and drug addiction as the fault of the victim. While, ultimately, Vance looks towards personal responsibility for life, he fully understands the necessity for a compassionate government and individual acceptance of responsibility working together to make progress possible for all. I bought the book and read it on my Kindle app.  

Monday, July 10, 2017

Podunk Bluegrass/Music Festival 2017: August 10 - 13, 2017

The Podunk Bluegrass Music Festival will run from August 10 - 13, 2017 at the Hebron Lions Club Fairgrounds in Hebron, CT. Since moving to Hebron three years ago, Podunk seems to have settled in, learned to use the grounds available to it, and re-established itself among New England festivals after a slump of several years. While it still hasn't quite solved the problem (or capitalized on the opportunity) of presenting a bluegrass festival and an associated Americana strand simultaneously on the same grounds, it continue to seek to integrate these reflections of roots music while attracting new fans. This will be Roger Moss's last year as Executive Director of the festival, as his new job in Morganton, WV as the time and travel has become a burden. He will be much  missed for both his organization and vision. 

Shady Hill in Front of Main Stage

Podunk has a reputation for introducing and supporting new, sometimes cutting edge, and almost always interesting bands to New England and beyond. Winner of the 2010 IBMA Event of the Year, the festival continues to provide a proving ground for the new and to give its audience the best of  well-established national bands. Through its band competition, song writing contest, and encouragement of bands not always widely known at their first appearance at Podunk, the festival has been both a proving ground and a showcase for new bands while featuring some of the top touring bands, too. Podunk is known for the variety and quality of its field jamming.

Band Competition - Thursday

The band competition at Podunk has consistently presented bands that have gone on to higher achievement. With the band competition beginning at 5:30 on Thursday afternoon, you should make sure to make your way down to the stage to enjoy bands you might not have seen. If you want to be able to say, "I saw them, and recognized their talent before the hit it big," this is your chance. The Band Competition is sponsored by Telefunken, Judging is by industry professionals who provide a feedback session for each band. 

Mama's Marmelade

Mamma's Marmelade is a progressive bluegrass band from Amherst, MA which uses traditional bluegrass instruments to explore from old time and classic bluegrass through blues, and gypsy grass. Their schedule for this summer has them in band contests, in addition to Podunk, at Thomas Point and performing at Fresh Grass. 
High Strung Reunion

High Strung Reunion is a bluegrass band which claims descent from the origins of bluegrass while dipping into contemporary bluegrass and bluegrassed versions taken from popular music. They'll also be competing at Thomas Point Beach and are regularly on the schedule at the Cantab Lounge in Boston. They're a Massachusetts-based band.

The Korey Brodsky Band

Korey Brodsky is well known in the region as a hot picker at jams. Here, he'll be appearing fronting his own band. He's been working hard on his instrument and accepting the challenges of the jam circle for several years. This should be a good next step for him. 

Beg, Steal, or Borrow

Beg, Steal or Borrow takes on a big challenge when they refer to themselves as "Vermont's Tribute to Old and In the Way." Them's big shoes to fill! A Vermont-based band, they'll be showcasing at IBMA in September.

Main Stage Lineup
Rhonda Vincent & the Rage (Sa)

Rhonda Vincent & the Rage return to Podunk after several years' absence. She brings, as always her very strong show, augmented during the past year or so by her daughter, Sally Berry, on backup vocals and rhythm guitar. Rhonda can be relied, supported with one of the strongest groups of side musicians, each a master of his or her instrument, can be counted on for a varied show, even if you've seen her the week before. Building her sets from the audience response while insuring a range of tones and colors, each show becomes a gem in its own right. 

Josh Williams

Gibson Brothers (SA)

Unsurprisingly, The Gibson Brothers new CD In the Ground sits at the top of the Bluegrass Unlimited album charts, the ninth consecutive album of theirs to reach these heights. This achievement in combination with their stage performances, which showcase the two brothers for their brother harmonies, brilliant song writing, humor, and the overall quality of their band. The band has reached the second round of the nomination process for IBMA awards in almost every category this year. Actual nomination will be announced in late August or early September. Meanwhile, here's a chance to see Upstate New York's contribution to bluegrass music. 

Boxcars (FR)

Adam Steffey has been the most highly recognized mandolin player during the past decade or so, having won the IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year award eleven times since the turn of the century. Every young mandolin player has been deeply influenced by his play. Meanwhile, Ron Stewart may be the only instrumentalist to have been recognized on two instruments, banjo and fiddle. Other members of the band are in demand as session players, always a strong indicator of musicianship. While The Boxcars demeanor is low key, their music is sharp and clear. 

Ron Stewart

Becky Buller (Sa)

After years of toiling in the vineyards as a valuable side musician, Becky Buller stepped up a couple of years ago to front her own band. Last year, at the IBMA awards shows, she walked away with three trophies, Emerging Artist of the Year, Recorded Event of the Year, and Songwriter of the Year. As a triple threat artist, Buller has come into her own. She's asserted her mastery and increasingly comes across as a person who has mastered her fears, learning to lead her band while charming her audience. 

Surly Gentlemen (Fr)

The Surly Gentlemen is a fresh, new band composed of two veteran performers Clay Hess and Tim Shelton, along with Clay's son Brennan. Clay Hess continue to front his own band while undertaking this new and interesting project. Tim Shelton's band, New Found Road, was a sensation in the early 2000's as first a strong gospel band and later moving into the world of progressive bluegrass as personnel and musical priorities changed. Tim can currently be heard on the Tim Shelton Podcast and seen with this band.  

David Parmley & Cardinal Tradition (Sa)

Composed of solid bluegrass veterans and featuring David Parmley singing material from the well-remembered California band The Bluegrass Cardinals, for which he was lead singer. David Parmley & The Cardinal Tradition has been applauded for its renditions of traditional second generation standards. 

Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike (F)

Based in Bell Buckle, TN, Valerie Smith has reconstituted Liberty Pike, building it using a group of Washington/Baltimore musicians who, working together, have put together a solid CD and toured harder than she has in several years. With bass great Tom Gray insuring an advanced rhythm section, Val can showcase the flexibility and quality of her voice and her musical range. I missed  their live show last year at IBMA, so I'm looking forward this one on Friday. 

Barefoot Movement (SA & Su)

The Barefoot Movement is a Nashville-based band whose bare feet suggest some Hillbilly roots, while their music offers a good deal more. Their touring schedule finds them at bluegrass, folk, and Americana festivals, suggesting a broad appeal that must help in today's competitive environment. The band has a lot of fun on the stage, communicating their joy in making music to their audiences. 

Mile Twelve (Sa)

We haven't seen Mile Twelve since they added a much needed mandolin player to their mix, but it never hurts to fill out a bluegrass band's sound. We've been watching Mile Twelve for a while and very much like what's been happening as they develop confidence and a larger catalog to go with their evident instrumental and vocal skills. 

Chasing Blue (Fr)

Chasing Blue is a Boston-based band with its roots at Berklee College of Music. They're lively and first rate musicians.

The Sound Booth - Rosewood Sound

Acoustic Stage

This is the third year of having an Acoustic Stage presenting and showcasing, mostly, Connecticut acoustic bands from what has become known as Americana, including bluegrass. Moving this stage to location with greater visibility helped to increase the audience last year, but I thought too few of the audience from the Main Stage made the effort to wander up to the Acoustic Stage to check out the music. Podunk has always been known as a festival which tries out ideas and takes risk to present new talent. The Acoustic Stage deserves support as a worthy effort to continue and extend this practice. While none of the bands is familiar to me, I've put a picture and a link to each of the bands performing there on Friday and Saturday. Wander up to the Acoustic Stage a few times and take in a couple of sets. You'll be surprised and the breadth and depth of talent found there. 

Open Mic/Jam


Benny Mikula – Kids Show

Heather Fay
Photo by Keavan Christine

Give the Acoustic Stage a look. Click on the links above to see videos they've posted, if you wish to preview their work. You may be surprised and pleased. 


Workshops: Podunk is well known for its workshops, held in the Better Living Building, which often offer a chance to chat with performers or hear a few songs sung more informally. The workshop schedule, as of this writing, has not been posted yet, but it will be here.

Allison Brown Workshop

Del McCoury Band Workshop

Kids Academy: The Podunk Bluegrass Kids Academy will once again be conducted by members of the Rhode Island Bluegrass Alliance after their very successful effort last year. Young musicians from beginners to more experienced and advanced players spend a few hours a day with experienced bluegrass musicians and teachers working up and rehearsing a program to be delivered as part of Sunday's show.

Kids Academy Practice Session

...and In Performance

Bluegrass University: The Podunk Bluegrass University, directed by Tony Watt, is designed to offer beginner/Intermediate learning in small group settings. There is an additional charge of $35/person for this three hour intensive musical experience with some of New England's most experienced bluegrass performers and teachers. There will be a meet & greet at 1:00 PM in the Workshop Building. Students will then disperse to various locations for their sessions.

Family Fun Activities: A program of supervised art and play oriented activities are held during each day of the festival. The final schedule is not yet posted, but here's a sample of the activities.

Song Writers Competition: By the time the festival roles around, the song writer's competition is, essentially over, since the deadline for submitting songs for consideration is in May. According to Bluegrass Today, "For 2017, the finalists are Kevin T. Hale from Brentwood, TN who has two songs in the final round (Angels from Apple’achia and Are There Hillbilly Bands In Heaven), and Mike Swartzentruber from Centerburg, OH (Angels Would Carry Me Home)" who will compete as finalists on Saturday. Nevertheless, bands in the band competition all work up their own version of the winning song, thus assuring that all competing bands will sing at least one common song. 

The Details


The Podunk Bluegrass Festival is held on the Hebron Lions Fairgrounds in Hebron, CT. Located at 347 Gilead RD, Hebron, CT. Click here to see an expanded view

Camping : The Lion's Club fairgrounds offers over 600 campsites with a number of camping options from water/electric sites to rough camping on a hill behind the rest room/shower complex which provides shaded camping with a delightful view of the grounds. Other sites can be found inside covered sheds providing some shelter from the weather. You can reserve sites here or claim them on a first come first served basis. The grounds are open for camping on Thursday through Sunday, with early arrival available on Wednesday. Here's detailed camping information. The Hilton Garden Inn in Glastonbury offers a special rate during the festival. There are other accommodations nearby. 


Tickets: You can choose from a number of ticketing options here and order tickets online here. You can also pay by mail here by downloading and printing the form. The possibilities range from single day tickets to a four day VIP ticket including meals in the hospitality room and access to artists. You can choose a ticket package that most meets your needs for attending this festival.

Vendors: A number of food and craft vendors have booths and food trucks on Vendors Row. Reasonable food alternatives and interesting arts and crafts are available there. Performing Artist merchandise is available in the Swine Barn to the left of the main stage at the foot of Vendors Row. Musicians will be available to sell CD's. t-shirts, and other souvenirs as well as sign autographs and chat with fans. 

Along Vendor's Row

The T-Shirt Guy

How to Get to Podunk Bluegrass Festival
Click on the Map Below, Input Your Location in the O
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See you there!