Imagine sitting down in a circle with a group of strangers. Each person holds a guitar on their lap and suddenly, a unison of strumming begins. All of the chords blend together into one big, open, crazy, organized, chaotic jam. The music stops and Jefferson Airplane alumni, Jorma Kaukonen, comes over and explains the chord that he played and why he chose to play it. He looks around and says, “alright, everybody be quiet and play that one more time.”
That is one example of the way a class may be taught at Fur Peace Ranch. Located in Meigs County, Ohio, FPR offers a unique and immersive experience for guitar enthusiasts. The music camp was founded by Jorma and Vanessa Kaukonen in 1989 as “a ranch that grows guitar players.” Students at the camp stay in cabins, Friday through Sunday, immersing themselves in music. While the focus of the camp is guitar, there are also classes on lap steel guitar, mandolin, percussion and songwriting.
Jorma and Vanessa’s goal was to create a place where musicians could come together and surround themselves with music for several days and emerge with a newfound inspiration. Jorma says he wants to “demystify the process of playing music” for those who attend the camp. For students arriving around noon on a Friday and leaving Monday morning with classes scattered throughout the days, the process of demystifying music may come with ease. Guitar is the main language spoken at FPR.
“What happens when you’re here is that there’s nothing else to do except to talk about the music and geek out about the guitars,” Jorma says. “There’s just nothing to do but that and it’s an interesting community that people who don’t play don’t really get. But whatever you’re into when you’re surrounded by people that are into that thing and you’ve got an odd language that you all speak it’s a cool thing.”
When Jorma received a call from a friend in 1989, offering him a piece of land in Southeast OH, he jumped on the opportunity. He went down to take a look, and three days later he came back with the deed, Vanessa says. They bought 126 acres for $32,000, packed up and moved to Pomeroy.
“This was a divine moment that Jorma and I were not even smart enough to know about when he got that call,” Vanessa says. “We were packing up and having this big party and I was laughing and saying ‘we will grow guitar players’ and a friend of Jorma’s who was there said ‘oh, that’s a fur piece away from anywhere’ and after I finished laughing I thought ‘huh, Fur Peace Ranch, I have to live in that place … When I said that we were going to grow guitar players I didn’t really know what that meant. I thought that we were going to cut the trees down and make guitars or something.”
In the mid-90s, Jorma and Vanessa began thinking about what they should do with their piece of property. Vanessa, who is a civil engineer, created a design for the camp, got the loans to build it and opened Fur Peace Ranch in 1998. Vanessa explains that when they decided to create FPR, she and her sister enrolled in Tony Robbins’ 30-day course and got to work.
“I’ve never worked so hard in all my life,” Vanessa says. “People think you own your own business and you’re the new POTUS, but that’s not so. I work seven days a week and I love every minute of it.”
The ranch originally started with the kitchen, workshop building, library and the 17 cabins and bathhouse. Over the years, it has expanded to the Fur Peace Station theater, which offers more room for guests, the company store, the Psylodelic Gallery and their new restaurant, Pho Peace Restaurant.
Open on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, Pho Peace Restaurant offers a unique opportunity for Athens. The menu consists of three different types of Pho, tea, vegetables and smoothies. Not only did Jorma play a great role in the menu creation, but he continues to frequently play a role in the restaurant. Whenever there’s an opportunity, Jorma will come into Pho Peace Restaurant and perform for the guests.
“I always have a guitar in my hand,” Jorma says. “I never go an hour or so without a guitar in my hand. But that’s not really practicing. Even if I just go and sit and play for people who are eating soup, the fact that I have to play a whole song through, that is practicing and I need that.”
Every new session at FPR offers a new instructor. Teachers have ranged from Jorma Kaukonen himself to GE Smith, Arlo Guthrie, Marjorie Thompson and Jack Casady. Vanessa says she has a pretty good track record when it comes to picking instructors.
“Many of the instructors were boots on the ground musicians. These were guys and gals that were in the trenches and were the original folk heroes who wrote the songs and stood in the protest lines,” Vanessa says, “Every instructor works a little differently. I don’t tell my instructors what to teach. I trust that I’ve done my homework and I’ve chosen the right person.”
Finding these instructors was never too difficult for the coordinators.
“In the beginning I sort of shamed my friends into being instructors,” Jorma says. “But in the 20 years that we’ve been open, we have a really good reputation and we have people come to us. This is exciting for me too because I get a chance to meet people who I’ve never even heard of and that happens all the time. I’m always meeting new people.”
Each instructor has their own way of teaching their classes. For Jorma, teaching is a very important aspect of what he does at the ranch. His style of teaching is very anecdotal.
“I don’t teach theory because I didn’t learn it. I teach from tunes,” Jorma says. “Once you learn a song and there’s stuff contained in that song that will open other doors for you and that’s the way that I learn. Some of the teachers actually involve reading music, which I can do, but I’m not really good at it. Everybody just kind of does things in their own way.”
The classes at Fur Peace Ranch are very small, with no more than 12 people. Students may come from across the ocean, across the US or they may just be located an hour away. They may be white-collar employees, blue-collar or retirees. They may have heard about it because they were fans of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna or they may just want a more intimate musical learning experience. They may be returning for their 20th class or this may be their first time at the ranch. The only characteristic that matters is their passion for music.
“I’ll take a kid who is 14 years old for an adult camp if he comes with a guardian if they are good enough to fit in the class, and I’ve seen that,” Vanessa says. “The dynamic of seeing a 14-year-old kid who is a whip on guitar in a room full of 40-year-old guys that are struggling; everything changes. The language changes, the level of respect changes, it’s very cool. Where is it written that a 14-year-old kid has to hang out with 14-year-old kids? The friendships that have resulted, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Jorma notes that Fur Peace Ranch is not like applying for grad school. The talent level is varied, but they try to have people with similar skill levels in the same class. Workshop levels range from Level One (Beginners) to Level Four (Masters). While each level assists in making class selections best suited for the students’ ability, there may be a range of experience within each of the levels. Some classes may be offered for multiple levels.
“[The talent level] can be pretty varied,” Jorma says. “We’re not the Berkley School of Music. Nobody is going to get their knuckles slapped. We try to have people in the class be more in the same realm because it makes things easier. You’re not holding things back. But you never know. Sometimes you can get a guy in a level two class and realize that he’s really good.”
After classes and meals, students retire to their cabins, only to emerge moments later to sit around a campfire. Students and instructors circle around the fire to sing, play and talk. The next morning, they wake up and do it all again. On Saturday nights, the camp hosts a show featuring the instructors and students. The concerts take place at Fur Peace Station and broadcasts on the program, Live from Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch on WOUB radio. The concert schedule goes up in early November and 70 percent of the shows sell out within 15 minutes, Vanessa says.
Over the years, the camp has grown from a passion project consisting of fans and friends of Jefferson Airplane to an inclusive musical community. Even in a year full of political divisiveness, Jorma and Vanessa agree that the commonality of those involved coming together with the same passion has risen above any other ideals that students may have had. For the founders of Fur Peace and for those who become involved, their organized chaotic jams are a vehicle for unification and expression. The language they speak does not focus on current events and politics. It focuses on music.
“It’s about the music and it’s about what the music, especially the stuff from Jorma’s generation, does,” Vanessa says. “It was their opportunity. They come out of the 50s and they were so oppressed as young people. They found a platform to speak and to yell and to shout and say ‘you’re not going to do this anymore’ and they protested against the war and for free love and whatever else, and what came out of it was a disgusting drug culture… There was a lot wrong with the 60s and there’s a lot wrong with every generation but what we’ve been able to create here is a community without prejudice.”
Click on each of these photos for stories of students who have attended Fur Peace Ranch:
This story is part of a month-long multimedia series about the Athens music scene called “Sounds From the Hills: An Athens Music Project”