Roanoke Bluegrass Weekend – an instructor’s view

The following is a contribution from Kip Martin, a semi-regular guest contributor to Bluegrass Today.

I first became involved with the Roanoke Bluegrass Weekend a few years ago when flatpick guitarist extraordinaire Richard Bennett was on staff. I”d just toured Europe with Richard, Jimmy Gaudreau, and Mike Auldridge and was caught up in a whirlwind of gigs all over the country, recording, meeting people, and learning how to play very challenging, jazz-tinged, bluegrass-oriented music. I looked at RBW as a fun break where I could meet people, spend time jamming, and just relaxing. As a bass player, my only duties were to support the esteemed staff in ensembles in the classes, jam with anyone and everyone needing a bassist, and to provide support for the staff of legendary performers and renowned instructors. I worked for free, figuring it was good for my career, and that it gave me a chance to give back the bluegrass community that had been treating me so well. I expected I would relax and kick back a bit.

I was not prepared for what was to be one of the finest musical experiences of my life and is now my favorite single bluegrass event every year. Relaxing weekend? I think I slept about 4 hours the entire time!

Let me explain what makes the Roanoke Bluegrass Weekend so special. And by special, I mean that no matter who I am playing with, I make certain that weekend is left open for my annual trip to Roanoke. Roanoke Bluegrass Weekend offers three important benefits that no other bluegrass instructional event can offer.

First, you will not see a more accomplished staff. In the past, Roanoke Bluegrass Weekend has featured legends as classroom teachers such as J.D. Crowe, Alan Bibey, Herschel Sizemore, Kenny Smith, Randy Kohrs, Bobby Hicks, and Dr. Pete Wernick. Other luminaries have included Ron Stewart, Alan Shelton, Bill Evans, Wyatt Rice, and so many other bluegrass stars that have shaped and influenced the sound of Bluegrass over the years. No other bluegrass “school” features such a highly acclaimed faculty.

Secondly, the coordinators for the event don”t simply hire high end performers, but they look for great bluegrass musicians who work well with students. Bill Evans, for example, is both a well-known and accomplished player, AND a highly successful teacher. Playing bluegrass at a professional level does not guarantee teaching skills. Good teachers are engaging, fun to be with, and know how to communicate what they are doing to students. Teaching is a skill and the coordinators of the event take this into consideration when staffing the event each year.

Finally, the Roanoke Bluegrass Weekend is EXCITING! It is a well-planned event featuring much more than classes and instruction. The coordinators have a huge concert on Saturday night featuring unique combinations of players”?where else will you find J.D. Crowe on stage with Jimmy Haley, Randy Kohrs, and Herschel Sizemore (and maybe me on bass!)? Where else will you find John Carlini and Kenny Smith trading solos on stage?

Throughout the day, breakout classes are held with other staff members so that everyone gets a chance to work on what they”ve learned in class. Staff members mentor the students in small groups which allows for one-on-one instruction. After the day”s classes and session, everyone eats and takes a breather. Then the jams begin. Students then get real-world experience trying out ideas and experimenting with concepts learned in the classes, break outs, and through mentoring. It”s not uncommon for a young person from Ohio, a Veterinarian from Maryland, and a housewife from Philadelphia to end up in a jam with Ron Stewart, Jack Lawrence, or Randy Kohrs. Bill Evans kept teaching and mentoring into the wee hours. I find myself staying up until dawn several nights each weekend, picking and hanging out with great players and great people from all over the country.

I can”t stress enough how well the event is coordinated. There is never a lull, and there”s always plenty to do. Vendors such as Gibson, Huber Banjos, and Randy Wood set up shop with an array of fine instruments and accessories. A huge selection of instructional videos are available. Ron Shuffler brings his traveling medicine show of fine basses and witty banter to most weekends. and did I mention the food? Well, I usually fall off my diet every year.

Of course, I am on staff and am biased in my assessment of the weekend, but I only recommend things I believe in. I have a busy schedule and before I go off and put my day job in jeopardy, leave my girlfriend for a long weekend, or cancel a recording or performing date, it had better be for something rewarding and FUN! These days, I have a lot on my plate, but I save room each year for a great desert”my participation in the Roanoke Bluegrass Weekend every November.

For more information, see the RBW web site. Dates this year are November 10, 11, and 12th.

Kip Martin

Roanoke Bluegrass Weekend is co-hosted by one of the authors of Bluegrass Today. Kip’s comments were unsolicited, and are published at his request as one of our Guest Contributors.