October 12-14, 2001
This was a very special first-time event. Working with Sonny and Bill, and our excellent coordinator, Cindy Sinclair, was one of the highlights of the year. The setting couldn’t be better, the beautiful Drouillard House, about an hour west of Nashville. The stately mansion, the comfortable cabins, the lovely grounds, the top-notch food, the fall colors, all added to the magic. It really was a fall banjo retreat!
Bill and I collaborated well in advance to plan the teaching schedule. We set up ample time for us each to team-teach with Sonny, while allowing for beginner and intermediate levels of instruction, and attention to the fine points of Sonny’s style. The introductory section was devoted to meeting the teachers, where we all relished the chance to hear Sonny reminisce about his illustrious 50 years in the bluegrass business (starting at age 14 with Bill Monroe). Sonny is a thoughtful and witty person, as well as a legendary musician, so having a chance to be in an informal setting with him was a real treat.
Part of Sonny Osborne’s contribution to the banjo has been his legacy of tasteful and creative backup, and especially his ability to play expressively at slow tempos on an instrument not often noted for its subtlety. Just the week before, he had added another major chapter to that legacy by performing America The Beautiful, as moving banjo solo to open the International Bluegrass Awards Show in Louisville. The idea for that performance had been sparked by Bill Evans, and never before had a segment of the show had such an impact. Sonny described how he first played the melody very simply with little embellishment, and then, as the audience spontaneously began to sing the words, he switched into more of an accompaniment of that 2000+-person subdued choir. It was great to hear Sonny’s description then followed by his powerful rendition of that song, for us there in the room.
One thing I was especially interested to know about was how Sonny comes up with his tasty and sophisticated chordal ideas– in particular, whether they are informed by a knowledge of music theory. As he would show and describe various phrases, I noted that the ideas come from Sonny’s musical imagination, quite apart from knowing any formal labels for what he is doing. When I described a few of his ideas in music theory terms, that is, sixths, ninths, augmented chords, etc., he welcomed it, but wasn’t conversant with that language. When you’ve got a musical mind like his, it’s obviously not necessary to know the verbiage that goes with it, but he saw its value as a teaching tool, and liked my concept of “having a road map to the neck”.
A few words about Bill Evans. Here is a guy who is not only a top-level, creative player, but a thoroughly experienced, thoughtful teacher. He and I had a discussion facing off on opposite positions of an oft-discussed question, “Is it better to plant two right hand fingers on the head, or not?” I have long held that it’s not (though most people, myself included, do plant two fingers), but Bill made some good points in favor of trying to get beginning students to do that, if they can. He said that students who do train themselves to get comfortable with that position have good results. My lengthy list of pro players who “don’t” plant both fingers did make an impression on him, though. I think we both learned something in the discussion, a good example of how team teaching can be greater than the sum of the parts.
An unannounced highlight of the weekend was a visit from Frank Neat, one of the world’s foremost banjo gurus, the maker of both the Chief and Stanleytone banjos, and countless top-quality banjo necks. We had an hour-long question-and-answer session with Frank, and then while we broke into classes, Frank inspected and did set-up work on the banjos of all the attendees who wanted some time with him. Near the end of it, I put my own Granada in his hands, inviting him to make any suggestions. I was a bit relieved when after looking at it, he said he wouldn’t change anything. Hey, I like it too.
Saturday night we had a teacher concert where Joan and I performed, and I did some twin banjo stuff with Bill (Sonny had to work the Opry, though he came back later for the tail end of the jamming).
At the end of the weekend, Sonny, Bill, and I sat down with Cindy and shared our opinions that this had been a very enjoyable and successful time, worthy of repeating next year. At this point, it’s been tricky to try to nail down a time when all four of us plus the Drouillard House are all available, but we’re working on it. Stay tuned.