Picknbow: Playing, listening, experiencing
It wasn’t exactly the Grand Ole Opry, the little stage at the old Murphey School in Durham, N.C. But everyone who walked up those stairs and into the (figurative) spotlight during Picknbow weekend last month felt a little like a star.
Now in its third year, Picknbow was launched by professional musician Danny Gotham of Carrboro, N.C., who had taught at music camps around the country but wanted to start one locally that avoided some of the pitfalls some camps develop, like the tendency to be cliquey or turn competitive.
“The obvious thing is I want everyone to learn something,” he said. “But there’s a couple other things that are really important to me. One is, I like the idea of feeling like we’re all in the same boat — the campers are there and the instructors are there and yes, we’re the instructors and yes they’re the campers, but ultimately music is music. I really want to create a feeling of community, and it’s clearly happening like that. People are all kind of there together.”
Over the course of a weekend (starting Friday evening and culminating in student performances on Sunday afternoon), about 30 students learn from Gotham and several other instructors as well as from each other. There’s no set schedule for workshops. During the first evening, the students introduce themselves and talk to the group about what they want to learn. Some are there to hone skills on an instrument they’ve played for years, and others are hoping to get started on an instrument they barely know how to hold yet. Many of the students bring more than one instrument. And almost everyone is there to learn a little more about singing, too. On the fly, the instructors find common threads in what students want to learn and announce workshop themes for the following day.
But just as much learning comes from outside the workshops. Lunchtime is deliberately long to give students the opportunity to practice just-acquired skills, talk to instructors one-on-one, jam a little with fellow students and instructors or just swap stories about music or life or anything at all.
On Saturday night, when the students’ fingers are aching from a full day of playing, the instructors give a performance to show the wide range of their talents. This year’s headliner, so to speak, was Craver Hicks Watson Newberry, a real-deal old-time quartet that can make you guffaw or sob from song to song. The group’s Joe Newberry was an instructor at this year’s Picknbow, one who made everyone there feel like a million bucks and sound better than they ever thought they could. The other instructors – banjo player Julie Elkins, fiddler Jane Peppler, mandolin and bouzouki player Bob Vasile, and Gotham on guitar – similarly taught with generous hearts, open minds and lightning-fast fingers.
A friend of mine went to his first Picknbow last year and loved it, so I decided to tag along this time, my fiddle and mandolin shoved in the back of my friend’s car along with his guitar and the banjo and guitar of Elkins, our carpool partner. In the half-hour drive from Raleigh, we talked about music – playing it, listening to it, experiencing it. And then, upon arriving at Picknbow at the Murphey School, we got right to work doing all three.
On Sunday, Picknbow ended with performances from the students, some solo, some in combinations of old friends and new. There was some nervousness in the room, most definitely, but you could also feel the support beaming out from the instructors and the students. Everyone made it through their songs, and everyone was smiling at the end.
As a newbie mandolin player and a longtime fiddle player who has plenty more to learn about bluegrass and old-time styles, I learned a lot of technical stuff at Picknbow that will help me in my playing. But more valuable was the thrill of making friends of strangers through singing and playing together and the reminder that music is a bond that ties people of all ages, experience levels and walks of life.
I’m willing to bet most No Depression readers probably play an instrument. Maybe not often, and maybe not well, but we’ve all picked up a guitar or sung along to a folk song or two, right? Having that experience, at no matter what level, helps us appreciate the music we celebrate here on a deeper level. Maybe we can’t sing quite like Alison Krauss or play guitar like David Rawlings, but we admire what they do because we KNOW how hard it is to really do it well.
If you have a chance to attend Picknbow or something like it in your neck of the woods, push yourself to do so. Not only does it make you a better player; it also makes you a better listener. You might think your favorite Americana/bluegrass/folk/old-time/whatever album can’t possibly sound any better to your ears, but with a new dose of perspective, it can.
Picknbow takes place in Durham, N.C., in late July. To find out more about it or to sign up for next year, contact Danny Gotham at steelstringer –at — gmail . com or visit the Picknbow Facebook group page.
Photos by Kevin G. Keister