(The following appeared in Bluegrass Music Profiles Magazine, Jan/Feb 2005 Issue)
I have a doctorate in sociology from Columbia University in 1973 and that was gonna be my career, but the music stuff was bubbling along the whole time and kind of blossomed into what looked like I could make into a career. I made the move out of sociology, but I was already Dr. Peter Wernick and somehow or another I just got people calling me Dr. Banjo. When I see Sam Bush he says, ‘Ahh, the good doctor.’ People would sometimes rather call me Dr. Banjo than Pete and I’ll answer to either happily.” — Pete Wernick
BMP: Where were you born and raised and where do you live now?
PETE: I was born in New York City and I live in Niwot, Colorado near Boulder. I’ve been in the same house since 1976. My wife Joan’s from Colorado originally and I just wanted to move to a place that I’d probably feel comfortable about living for the rest of my life. Colorado had a beautiful climate and beautiful place to live, but it had a good music scene and I knew that there’d be enough good musicians there so I could find the people I wanted to play with. It wasn’t long at all before I met the people who eventually became Hot Rize. Even after Hot Rize I now have people in Pete Wernick and Flexigrass, which is entirely Colorado musicians, and these are people who have a background in jazz and other kinds of music that are really interested in playing this cross that we do like the early jazz and bluegrass.
BMP: You also still perform with Hot Rize.
PETE: Actually, a lot of people don’t realize it because we don’t play that much together anymore. We were full-time for 12 years and it ended in 1990 and the same band would occasionally regroup for a tour or some festival dates throughout the ‘90s. Then our guitar player, Charles Sawtelle, came down with leukemia and before the end of the ‘90s he died – having had a bone marrow transplant which complicated his health problems. After he died we didn’t do any Hot Rize for a few years and we didn’t exactly even know what to do, but we put out an album based on some of our best recordings and when the record came out in 2002 we decided to go out and do some performing. Bryan Sutton was our first pick for a guitar player and he was glad to do it so we’ve played about a half dozen gigs a year since then. It’s really nice to get the guys back together again. Me and Tim O’Brien and Nick Forster have been playing together since the seventies and we have a lot of time logged together so it’s great to get back to living that life to some degree.
BMP: Besides Pete Wernick and Flexigrass are you in any other groups?
PETE: The one working the most this year is Pete and Joan Wernick, a duet with my wife. We’ve actually played and sung music together for more than 30 years off and on, but since 1990 we’ve been performing locally mostly as a duet then in the last several years we started taking festival work and traveling. We had our 30-year anniversary June 29th, 2004. She’s a wonderful singer. Some people might not realize that she’s the same person that in the seventies was known as Nondi Leonard. We harmonize, she sings lead and she has a great knack for choosing really good material that suits her. When she finds a good song she can really get the meaning across in her singing and she plays a very good rhythm guitar. And we feature my instrumentals and if a person likes the banjo they get to hear a banjo take all the solos in a whole set of music and play all the backup so it’s a big challenge.
BMP: Tell me about your jam camps.
PETE: I believe I’m the first person to ever do a music camp in bluegrass starting back in 1980 in Oregon. I was asked to be a part of a summer studies program that involved week-long classes and they decided they wanted a banjo class and asked me, which led to me hosting my own in Colorado, which I’ve been doing since 1984. That was my entire focus as a teacher until I started realizing how many people were just not getting the right kind of instruction to just be able to play simple music together. So many banjo people, and other instruments too, were being taught to play solos before they were taught how to play simple music with other people which is much, much, much more easier – and three muches should be hopefully enough to convince people. You can’t play solo in a jam session until you’re quite well trained to do so. It’s so much easier to learn chords on your instrument and learn how to play simple rhythms and use the chords to accompany singing. Even if you don’t know the words to songs there’s songbooks and you take a song you know more or less how it goes and follow the chords and you’re playing music. There’s a gigantic number of players that would like to play, or at one time or another were trying to play, and gave up, or they’re just starting now and they’re interested in it but any time they go to a jam session it looks way too difficult for them to get and a lot of people run into this discouragement and feel like they’re just not suited to play an instrument. They think it’s some genius person that’s lucky enough to do this. So we take those kind of nervous closet players and we make quite a point of showing those people what it takes to make that happen in their lives – not just at our camp but when they go home how to find people who are kind of in the closet and push’em out there. It’s wonderful what has happened in the wake of our camps. It’s changed a lot of people’s lives. It’s a real thrill for the both of us to teach these people and bring them into a lifestyle that’s one of the finest things there is on earth – the people you meet at the bluegrass festivals.
BMP: What are your future plans?
PETE: I’m especially interested in spreading my teaching ideas. I think bluegrass teaching is not really doing as good of a job as I’d like to see them do. Too much of the teaching is based on what classical music has always done, which is just print music out on paper and give it to the person to memorize and that is not how bluegrass music is learned. It never has been. It’s just a possible tool for a person to learn how they really are going to learn it, which is mostly by ear. You have to develop some ear skills, which anybody can develop, but a lot of times they don’t try because they fall back on paper. I’m really trying to get people to play simple music first and start developing rhythm and ear skills and then tabulature has a role. I’m 58 and I have a lot left in me and that’s one of the things I will probably spend the rest of my life on so that more people can learn bluegrass and not get frustrated. There’s more people who have tried to play bluegrass and have given up than there are people who are actually playing bluegrass now and that is very sad to me to think that many people had this desire that got quashed and very often it’s because a teacher steered them in a direction where they must have become frustrated and didn’t realize how they were being steered away from something that is rather easy to get started with and provide hours and days and weekends and years and lifetimes of fun. It’s not fair to throw the hard stuff at’em on the first pitch. You should toss’em a ball underhanded and have’em hit a single before you start throwing fast balls at’em. Eventually I think everybody will realize this but I’d rather see it happen as soon as possible – so that’s my plans for the future.