I grew up in Western Massachusetts, during the great folk revival of the 1960s. 150 miles from Boston and from New York City, I saw many of the era’s icons – Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, as well as the Kweskin Jug Band, John Hammond, and many others when I was a young teenager. Arlo Guthrie was in school nearby and he occasionally came to the local folk music society meetings. For most, the Beach Boys and then the Beatles were the idols, but I was besotted with Mississippi John Hurt and Dave van Ronk. And, maybe more important, I was unathletic, near-sighted, and shy; so, I had to have a guitar. Sometimes girls noticed. If you look at pictures of peace marches and Civil Rights rallies, there’s always a geeky white kid with a guitar. My role models.
Once I got out of college, I didn’t play as much, and over the years the guitar spent most of the time under a bed or in a closet. Picked occasionally. Listened mostly to jazz and swing-era music. Spent several years in graduate school, then spent about 25 years as a lawyer for a company. Remained married. Had two kids. Mowed the lawn.
In the early 2000’s, a cousin started nagging me about a place he had discovered, in Ohio. I was reluctant, not sure I was up to it, still busy with work and teenagers. By 2004, I was no longer needed to drive to, for example, soccer practice. Maybe my fingers itched. I don’t know. But I sucked up some courage and signed up for a workshop at the ranch. How bad could it be? It helped that my wife’s sister taught at OU and lived in Athens (at 8 Rardin. She’s recently retired from the Theater Dept.). So, with my wife holding my hand, I ventured forth.
Turned out to be in the middle of a hurricane. One camper, got stuck in water on the way from Athens to the Ranch, and lost his engine. The Ranch lost power and feet were soggy all weekend.
My first workshop was with Roy Bookbinder. We played many of the tunes of my youth, and I was suddenly, unexpectedly, deliriously happy, giddy even. I sucked it up to play at the Sunday afternoon student performance. There are no words to express how fearful I was, and how badly I played (a tune I’d played for decades). Hands tight and dripping with sweat. Didn’t matter. I was applauded as if I were Segovia. And I was surrounded by others having the same experience. It was intoxicating. Lots of adjectives, I know, but no exaggeration.
I’ve taken a variety of workshops since then, mostly in folk and blues styles; some songwriting and some jazz. It’s fun sometimes to step close to the edge; so, this Fall I’ll take an intro to lap steel. I now also play autoharp and mountain dulcimer. Probably wouldn’t have started these if not for the Ranch.
I’ve been back more than 20 times. I’ve stopped counting. At first I went mostly for the instruction. Now it’s at least as much for the vibe, and the camaraderie. It’s always like coming home. And, it’s a place where there’s such a reservoir of good will that you can have a civil conversation about anything, with people with whom you might violently disagree. That’s hard to find these days (for me, that’s the definition of a safe place – where you can say something stupid and learn and argue about it).
This is the special gift of FPR – a comfortable place to try something new, where they do always know your name from the first time you meet, where serendipity is expected (I was reintroduced to my daughter’s middle school basketball coach, and we have since performed together), where you can be away from the world, mostly, for a few days. It can be intense and tiring and simultaneously relaxing. I’ve been to other camps and workshops. They are good, too, but not the same.
This hasn’t changed in the thirteen years since my first workshop. The changes are incidental. Some workshops are better than others. Costs go up; chefs come and go; the store moves; the vibe remains. I now look forward to the student performance. Not as a time to flash skill (I remain a reasonably competent, intermediate player), but as a time to share a tune. I sing without fear. My fingers still get a little tight, but my hands no longer sweat much. That’s progress.
This story is part of a month-long multimedia series about the Athens music scene called “Sounds From the Hills: An Athens Music Project”