Questions that don’t apply to any other categories.

This is from Tom Spencer, from Michigan. He’s been a “regular” at my Bluegrass Jam Camp at Merlefest, and has compiled jamming highlights of each camp, for distribution to the campers. This year, the great Jens Kruger, now of Wilkesboro, NC, visited us again and picked a few numbers with me and Joan, and Joan and I picked with our very talented “lovely assistant”, Scott Freeman of Galax, VA. Tom asks this considerate question: Several decent recordings were made of you, Joan, Scott, and Jens (various combinations), and I know a lot of the Jam Campers would like to hear one or two of those. I suspect, however, that as a professional, you’d prefer not to have amateur recordings circulated. I’ve always operated on that assumption, but thought it would be a good idea to double-check. Am I on the right track?

Yes, Tom, you’re on the right track to be thinking about that. Seems like anything recorded (certainly including jam sessions including) are put into what essential amount to file sharing networks, and then “the cat is out of the bag”.

Every professional needs an orientation whether to resist this (thus denying permission for the original recording to be made, or going clearly on record against file sharing). I don’t know Jens’ position on that, but mine is to take the passive route, and just not worry about stuff like people not buying my real records, or poor performances getting circulated. An artist now must realize that like it or not, almost anything played in public, or where there are people with recorders, that it might get around.

Since fighting for the alternative amounts to a losing battle, I’ve just accepted that there is a new reality in place, and not resist. I do like people showing enough consideration to ask whether I mind their recording me, with the understanding it will probably “get around”. And when I think about it, if somehow this whole reality were something I could personally make the call on, I’m not even sure what I would say. There are some well-known good reasons why music should get around, regardless of the negatives mentioned above. In any case, it’s really a moot point (anyone who recorded us could already be circulating them), so have at it. I think it is appropriate to ask Jens what you asked me, and see if he oks it too. Be prepared for any answer, since Jens is a deep thinker and that might lead anywhere!

Wishing you the best, Tom,


Rob: I was reviewing the appendix of the banjo book you wrote, about Jimmy Martin recordings. The section mentions an instrumental album by Jimmy Martin as being a good source of easy banjo tunes. Would you by any chance recall the name of that album? I’d like to see if I could obtain it to study from.

That was an LP record on MCA called Big and Country Instrumentals, that I’m not sure has been reissued on CD format. The only way I know to get all those cuts (mostly with J.D. Crowe, some great Bill Emerson ) would be to buy the entire Bear Family Records Jimmy Martin box set covering the best years of his career. I believe it’s 6 CDs plus a large booklet about Jimmy and the material, for about $100 from County Sales.

Rob: I’ve been listening to a fair amount of Jimmy Martin, including the recent CD with old recordings from Mike Seegers collection, and am intrigued by how effective his presentation and arrangements are in getting that Southern, country feel across. I think there are some things a Yankee-picker like me can learn from Jimmy’s approach.

Well said. Jimmy Martin is without a doubt a major influence on banjo players, having helped J.D. Crowe form his Scruggs-based style in the 50s, that has remained a vital part of Jimmy’s trademark band sound. His musical prescriptions for banjo leads and backup have, through J.D., Emerson, Tom Adams, Doyle Lawson, Alan Munde, and many Sunny Mt. Boys alumni, influenced almost all pro banjo players today: the smooth, strong, even volume, evenly spaced notes, focus on melody, rhythmic backup on mid-tempo songs — all of that we get thanks in large part to Jimmy’s insistence on them with his band.

Jimmy’s material, much of it written by longtime band member Paul Williams, is also a staple in bluegrass jams, another good reason to save up for the set.

Thanks for writing.


Mark from Texas writes: Dear Pete, I am wondering if there is any chance you could tell me the history of the tune “Armadillo Breakdown”? Being here in Texas, the armadillo is basically our state critter, and not only that, is a fascinating critter.

I have heard the Armadillo tune performed in various ways, from solo guitar to solo fiddle to banjo to full bluegrass style band. But I have never met anyone who knows the actual history of the tune and who composed it. One person told me he thought perhaps you composed the tune? So, having heard your marvelous work for years I decided to get online and track you down with Google. And I ended up a Can you tell me anything about the Armadillo tune?

Dear Mark,

Thanks for writing. It’s flattering to me that this is of interest to you.

The authorship is no mystery. I don’t know of any time it’s been recorded or in print and not been attributed to me. It’s in ASCAP’s database, etc. I even registered the copyright with the Copyright Office in the early 70s when we first recorded it. These are the usual tracking systems set up for those purposes.

I hope it won’t disappoint you if I tell you the honest truth, which is, as a lifetime New Yorker (either NY City or Ithaca, NY where I composed the tune), I used to think of the armadillo as a comedy animal. Never had seen one (still haven’t, strange but true, though I’ve now been in different parts of Texas, many times), and thought they looked funny in pictures and just thought the word sounded funny. As another example, in my Bluegrass Banjo instruction book, when I needed to supply verses for She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain, I put in there, “She will kiss an armadillo when she comes…”

So that’s where the name came from, a guy in his early 20s at a loss for a name for one of his first original tunes, thinking of a “funny” name, and that’s IT.

If you are interested in how the tune itself came about, it was a spinoff of the steel guitar tune Remington Ride, which was done on the banjo by Don Reno. I added the bridge using the simple but slightly unique chord progression of F G F D (assuming the key of G), and that was that. A very simple tune. Its long life I attribute to how darned easy it is to learn, while still being just a bit off the beaten track, and using the attractive sound of the F to D chord change.

That may be more lengthy than you imagined was the “real story”, as well as more boring, but there it is, the unvarnished truth. Nothing to do with Texas, or even armadillos, unfortunately.

But I still like to play it and improvise on it, since I still like the chord progression. I hope you enjoy it too. I have never heard it as a solo fiddle or guitar piece, but I’d like to.

Thanks for writing,

Pete Wernick

Banjo Camper Terry G. from Georgia writes: I would like to ask for a few words of wisdom from you on a business I am in the planning process on. I am looking at developing a culture center on a twenty acre site on a river here in Georgia. I was so impressed with the family friendly entertainment at Merlefest that I see a vision of what could be.

How difficult is it to get acts of a high caliber to come to a new venue ? What are the pitfalls of the booking process ? What makes venue a place where the great acts want to play? I could go on with many more questions. We are just in the planning and land acquisition stage right now. Our main goal is to create a place were family friendly entertainment is enjoyed and the southern culture is preserved for those New Yorkers to come have a laugh and a good time. You know that whole redneck thing.

Hi Terry,

I think it could a great thing, and it’s opening a large can of worms. We’re talking everything from county permits and hiring sound company, and getting liability insurance and dealing with ASCAP and BMI, all the way down to managing a mailing list, hiring security, doing printads, flyers, maybe radio promo, rounding up volunteers and the like. Mucho stuffo.

Now that I’ve scared you, you may want to take a deep breath and reconsider! But if you are one of those bluegrass NUTS that make our world turn, I’d be glad to talk about the specific questions you ask. It’s a big enough job, it really involves a year-round set of activities. I’ve not done it myself, but know a fair amount about it, and my hat’s off to those who do it, because on top of the work itself, there is the financial commitment and risk. Most festivals take 2-3-4 years before a profit is seen, so the investors have to keep ponying up before they see anything.

Good bluegrass headliners can be hired for $5-10K per day. Good “known” acts get less, and the best of local acts get maybe 1K tops, because they are mostly looking to be included for the good exposure, and just being included. They can also help tremendously with local promotion, as they can be like festival ambassadors. A band or two that does that well would be great to get in your camp. The booking process is always a bit of a dance, but even including a bit of haggling, the process needn’t take long if you are ready to commit to spending the $. Agents are not likely to relate to an inexperienced event presenter who’s iffy about what he wants. I mean, they’d make suggestions, but as agents, they’re likely to not give necessarily the most realistic picture from *your* point of view. They serve event producers, but they *work* for the acts, first and foremost.

The venue should have shade near the stage, a good pickin-friendly parking area, RV space for sure, hookups a la campgrounds if at all possible (not necessary, but a good selling point). Real running water-type bathrooms (showers a big and rare plus) will make a pretty big difference to a fair proportion of people, though as with Merlefest, portojohns are the industry standard. Never skimp on sound (tragic flaw for some festivals), and hire a company that knows **bluegrass** (!!!) not just rock or country.

The acts themselves might really like a festival that is comfortable to be at (though most will have their own portable comforts on their buses). Backstage food of any sort is a nicety, and a way of getting a decent dinner without having to go buy it at the food concessions is a stress reliever for an artist who is just hungry and doesn’t want to mix with fans until later. Then if you’re just nice and accommodating and pay as per the contract, they’ll be happy to play there. Big crowds mean a lot to artists for all the obvious reasons, certainly including record sales (which you can facilitate by providing tables in a shaded, lit-at-night area in a good location).

That gives you a taste of the wacky world of bluegrass festival presenting. Not for the faint of heart, and most definitely a team effort. Building the team is a major factor.

My biggest recommendation to you is that you start your education by attending the IBMA World of Bluegrass convention in Nashville the last week of October. Get information at Attending the weekday (business) part is much more important than the weekend (festival) part. A lot of experienced event producers will be there, and some panels and events are geared especially to them. That’s where you can learn, and more important, network with others in the business, and they will be the main people you’ll learn from.

I think if you have a beautiful location that people would enjoy, that’s a great start. If you really think you can deal with all the other pieces of the puzzle, go ahead and jump in. If it weren’t for people like that, I have no idea where bluegrass would be today.

Best of luck!


Marion writes: As I approach the next “season” of my life with my homeschooled son turning 16, I find myself wondering what’s next for me in the world of work. If I want to follow my passion, I think of BG music (even more specifically: BG gospel)……Of course most musicians have day jobs to be able to do what they love. But I thought maybe there’s something in the work world that I could do that’s tangential at least. Don’t want to burden you with bg career counseling, just wondering if you have any quick thoughts on how I might pursue such a fantasy?? Thanks Pete!

Many musicians work in music stores (sales, repair, etc.), recording studios, with production companies that produce music events (sound, lights, recording, LOTS of odd jobs). There are booking agencies, photography people, radio and TV people… That should give you a start!

Consider your skills and where you might fit in. Be aware that “access to musicians” and especially, work in the public eye are sometimes thought of as desirable to the degree that people are often happy to do some jobs (like public radio deejay) for nothing or next-to. So not all of the jobs you might find would pay well.

Hope that helps.


We also saw performances of Hot Rize when we were in Dayton. Were you one of the Trail Blazers with Red Knuckles?

You’re thinking of Waldo Otto, with whom I’m sometimes confused.


Jersey Jim writes: Hey Pete, I’ve been a campfire guitar strummer for years but never really tried to advance. (Same old stuff). What I been good at or even better than good is the harmonica. I been playing harp for 30 years and have adapted to sitting in with a lot of different styles of music Blues, folk and bluegrass mostly.

What I have experienced as a harp player is I get mixed emotions from different festivals at night time jams. Sometimes I am very much welcomed (especially if they recognize me ) and other times I can’t get a break to same my life, so I move on. I’ve even seen where musicians will pack it up and move on when I enter a circle, with caution that is. I’m thinking of taking up the banjo, just so I have more musicians I can play and work with. But I was curious to hear your view point on his delicate subject and do you have any suggestions on were/how I can inprove. So I ask you, Pete, Is the harmonica a bluegrass instrument?

Thanks for your input, hope to meet you soon.

Dear J.J.,

You’ve asked a very interesting question here. The short answer is what you’ve already observed: “Yes or no, depending.”

Longer answer, depending on “what”?

Most people don’t like fast harmonica playing in bluegrass. It’s very hard to do, and sounds very hard to do, but I personally don’t usually like it, and all the “huffing and puffing” as I think of it, distracts from the pure sounds of the picked and bowed instruments. Flatt & Scruggs and Jim & Jesse both experimented with harmonica players, some of the best in fact, but many fans didn’t like it, and with those two high-profile experiments, most people consider the case closed.

However, on slower, wistful tunes, I think a harmonica can add a beautiful, evocative feel that is not at all foreign to the sounds and emotions of bluegrass.

I am a bit biased here, because my dad played harmonica. After rejecting him as a music partner as a teenager (par for the course, I guess), I later “rediscovered” him, and had many happy times making music with just banjo and harmonica. We even did a little bit of recording that I’d like to release someday.

In jam sessions, I’m always willing to give a harmonica player a turn, just to see what they can do. If they can handle the music well (even in huff/puff style) I’ll think of them as welcome, because in a jam, when it doubt it’s better to be inclusive — usually, at least.

So I’m just underscoring your experience and the conclusions you’ve already drawn:

  1. Some people will like it, some won’t.
  2. Choose where you’re welcome, and leave where you’re not.
  3. To be more generally welcome, bring and be able to play another, more wanted instrument.

Here’s a further suggestion:

  1. Choose your situations carefully. Don’t bring out the harmonica until a slower song comes along, then do your thing, with good tone and feeling, no histrionics. That will create a great first impression and good reaction. Then put it back away until the next opportunity where you know it will go over well. Don’t start “chancing” using it on more questionable songs (especially faster ones) unless you really think it will work. Like a lot of things, a small portion will go over a lot better than a large portion.

Happy harping!


In response to discussion on the banjo-L discussion list regarding hearing chord changes:

I’ve been looking in on the talk about hearing chord changes. Some interesting, though not too exacting ideas:

JUST playing the 1 chord. Listen hard for when it sounds “right” and when it’s “not right”.

There’s a new “feel” to the tune with each chord change. Learn the 1, 4 & 5 chords for each key you’re likely to play in. Listen for the feel of the changes. If a tune were a car, the 1 would be cruising, the 4 would be an uplifting surge and the 5 would be the brakes. A horse? 1 is a steady, comfortable jog, 4 is surging to a canter, 5 is slowing up.

I’ve not noticed anyone pointing to some of the more helpful clues I’ve noticed over the years:

  1. Chords almost always change right on the first beat of a measure. Otherwise, on the second beat.
  2. 5 chord is almost ALWAYS the next to last chord, and most last lines of verses and choruses go 1/5/1, with the return to 1 being on the last syllable. That is “default”, with (long) 5/1 and 4/5/1 being other common choices, though 1/5/1 is by far the most typical.
  3. This is a biggie: Chord changes are not just arbitrary, or “voodoo”, or just based on “feel”. The simple truth is that when a chord changes it’s because:

An important melody note (started at the top of a measure, and often held) is not compatible with the sound of the previous chord. Why is it incompatible? Because it is not a member of the previous chord. Chords consist of 3 notes, and most important notes of most melodies are actually members of the active chord at any given time.


When you sing “This land is YOUR land” in the key of G, try to keep playing the G on YOUR. You really don’t want to stay on G, as the C note of the melody violates the G chord. However, it does fit right in with a C chord.

Or try singing Happy Birthday in G. When you get to the first YOU, try to keep playing the G. It just sounds wrong. C doesn’t sound better but D sounds fine. Why? Because the melody (F# on the word YOU) is a member of the D chord. When you play the chord, that note, the melody, is one of the component sounds.

These are not isolated cases. They are examples of an unwritten rule:

Almost every important melody note is a member of the chord that’s active at that time.

Note, I’m not talking about the quick notes for words like “is” or “the” that happen between beats. I’m referring to the important notes, that typically fall on the beats.

Try it, you’ll see it works. This knowledge makes two important things easier:

  1. When you know the chords, it’s easier to find many melody notes, as it narrows the choices.
  2. If you can find the melody notes on your instrument, it helps you find the correct chords.

A very useful and telling exercise:

Sing Happy Birthday to You in G. This is a 3 chord song, 1, 4, 5, G C and D.

Figure out the chords yourself, trial and error.

You’ll note an exception to the above rule (the first syllable of the birthday person’s name lands on a note outside the active chord, though the next syllable lands on a member of the chord). But you’ll see, hearing the chord changes is quite possible. Just put up with a bit of trial and error.

After a while, when you can guess where a melody is going, note-wise, you’ll have an instinct for which chord matches up to that next note, and find yourself making “lucky” correct guesses. That is your ear and mind digesting the method described above, on the unconscious level.

Hearing chord changes is a really useful jam skill, though until it develops, make sure you have a good view of the guitar player’s left hand!


Matt from Boulder, CO writes: Thanks for your promotion of the closet pickers. Everything that you are trying to accomplish is much needed and right on the mark.

My son, Gabe, is 9 and has been taking mandolin lessons in Boulder for coming on 3 years now. After Rockygrass this year, he says that he wants to be in mandolin contest next year. An honorable goal!!! He has been using mostly the suzuki books, as well as some folk song sheets, in his lessons with a local violinist/mandolinist. My questions:

While his instructor has been great, I sometimes think that I should steer Gabe toward an instructor that will teach him more along the lines of the music he is really interested in, bluegrass. Should I stick with the current instructor to continue with Gabe learning the basics or steer him at this point toward another instructor?

Nice to hear about Gabe. I hope to hear him play one of these days.

I think musicians should follow what they most immediately want to do. Music at its purest is a pure “pleasure” thing, and the “work” factor in my opinion is not necessary to bring in until the player realizes that that will increase the pleasure (by making more and better music possible, with more and better players).

So for instance, I don’t teach scales, but actual songs that end up using the same notes anyway. I get people to find things by ear, because that is definitely a bluegrass skill, and the more someone tries to do it, the better they get. There are types of knowledge that are worth spending time to learn, because they unlock possibilities (such as where to find melody notes, what flavors different chord components bring out, etc.), all for the sake of enriching the music. Once a player realizes how helpful that knowledge will be, the motivation to learn it is there, and they can start utilizing it immediately. That makes it feel less like “work”. I think a 9-year old already has enough “school” in his life where he has to learn things that may not be interesting. Music should be a respite. If a musician loves music, it shows throughout his/her playing.

Gabe has enjoyed “jamming” with others in the campgrounds of the festivals. While his hootspa is there to approach the groups, his experience and ability to participate is limited. Is there a worthwhile children’s jam group or an opportunity that you know of for him to play with other kids both to grow in this and have fun?

He would be quite welcome to attend one of my jam camps. He could also get his feet wet by working with my jam videos, which present a large amount of standard repertoire and offer different play along possibilities. Details on those are also on the web site. He would certainly benefit from some jamming instruction, and the jamming situation would help him see what skills he needs to develop to be a better jammer, which is essentially a better musician.

What other suggestions do you have to best prepare him for the contest next year?

With his teacher, select up to 6 pieces that would challenge him AND impress the judges, and then work carefully on every part that is not up to snuff (clear, smooth, and rhythmic, with proper emphasis in the proper places). A year of doing that would accomplish a great deal for his technique, and help establish patterns that would serve him well for the rest of his life. This is something like the path Chris Thile was on as a child. For him, one of the cool results was that he started winning serious prize money when he was only 10 or 12 (and not just because he was cute). He developed a lot of musical momentum during that time, and it hasn’t stopped yet.

A great thing about a young kid learning to perform (under what adults think of as pressure) is that they become somewhat immune to pressure. Chris Thile’s dad said when I produced his first record, that he actually plays better under pressure.

Sounds like there’s a lot of fun down the line, but it’s already fun!


Marion writes: I’m wondering if any of you know a good resource for where I can find out if certain bluegrass songs are in the ‘public domain.’ My understanding is that you really can only record public domain songs. Otherwise you must get permission from the song’s author.


It’s not that “you can record only public domain songs”, but that public domain songs (and your own originals) are the only ones you can make recordings of, to SELL to people, without having to pay anything.

Current statutory rate is 9.1 cents per recording printed (intended for sale) — in other words, not as sold, but as printed. So if you print 500 for sale, at that point you owe $45.50 to each copyright holder. A common way to research ownership is to look up the song on They even facilitate online payment.

It can be hard to determine if an old song is actually P.D. or has a valid copyright claim (for example, many compositions labeled “A.P. Carter” are not actually his compositions, but songs with unknown origins, that he claimed to own — in keeping with practices of the time). Many songs that are actually P.D. have a variety of people claiming authorship and/or ownership on works they put out. Those claims are rarely contested, and sometimes unnecessarily treated as valid. The law and precedent are a bit fuzzy, and to complicate things, copyright law has recently changed to allow a valid copyright to last longer than it used to. I believe it’s now 75 years after the death of the composer.

All of the above muddies the legal landscape and all the while, it’s not at all uncommon for people to not follow the law to the letter, with no legal consequences. In general, however, I’m pleased to report that any song fairly recently written, with unambiguous authorship, is normally paid on quite properly, at least for recordings. There is a lot of illegal printing of words in songbooks and published on the internet, but rarely is there legal action.

Practical advice: If you see a song you know is old, that’s sometimes referred to as P.D. (look on album covers and in songbooks), and sometimes as being supposedly written by someone, it’s very often actually P.D., and VERY unlikely to cause legal action in any case.

But exactly how to find out for sure that a particular song is P.D. is not an easy matter. If enough money is involved, it could easily end up in court.

You can find some more info about copyrights and such in my book How to Make a Band Work. Watch out, though, since the law has changed, and can change some more.

Pete Wernick

Joe, former banjo camper from Alabama writes: I have tennis elbow (epicondylitis) right elbow, caused by “power walking”. Been to orthopedic surgeon, therapy, etc. No benefit.  Bottom line- don’t use right arm.  Specifically, don’t play banjo.  I have been off (6 weeks) and on again (6 weeks) twice with no significant change.  You have any experience with this or suggestions for other investigation? Other experts? Remember, I’m retired OB-Gyn.


I’m very sorry to hear of your affliction, which must be quite a bummer. I applaud you for checking all the resources you have, including me, though I can only tell you a little that’s not pretty obvious.

I’ve been amazed at the wonders of ibuprofen, which has helped me out of quite a few inflammations. But that’s kinda obvious.

Then stuff like acupuncture and other pain-related measures should all be known to you.

One bit to think about — “losing” a limb doesn’t have to change your view of yourself as a creative person who wants to make music. Making music can be done with what you *can* use, such as your voice and your left hand. A way to think about this is: While waiting for your right arm/hand to recover, you can be building your left hand abilities, your voice, and your musicality overall. Those will be benefits quite apart from your right hand recovery, and will multiply their benefit as your right hand improves.

Please keep me posted how things go.


Pete Wernick answers a written in question about recent touring with Hot Rize.