by Caroline Wright
(The following appeared in Bluegrass Now Magazine, May 2003 Issue,)
Welcome to State of the Union! Each month in this column, the spouses of various performers will share their opinions, insights, and philosophies about their roles in the world of bluegrass music.
Joan Wernick has probably thought a lot about how to make a successful marriage with a bluegrass musician. After all, she’s been married to the legendary Pete Wernick for almost three decades. She plays guitar and sings with Pete Wernick’s Live Five, and for the past 13 years, she and her husband have performed as a duet.
The Wernicks are admired by friends for their fruitful working relationship, and even more, for their deep commitment to each other. Joan’s dual existence as the spouse of a performer, and as a musician in her own right, affords her an intimate knowledge of life in the business.
“There’s a real need to talk about what families can do to strengthen themselves, because there is a unique set of pressures when someone’s in the public spotlight,” she says. “It’s no secret that a lot of marriages in the entertainment business end up in divorce.”
With a cunning born of experience, Joan discusses the challenges faced by the spouse who stays home. “It’s important to support the performing spouse, but not to the detriment of your self-esteem, or your commitment to your marriage. Be sure you tell them what your needs are, and some of your wants. You both should try to build an edifice that protects your union.”
Joan also knows, firsthand, the pressures of the road. “There’s monotony, boredom. You have to be on when you don’t feel on, sometimes. You might be sick.”
She is sympathetic, but she says it’s critical for musicians to be supportive of the significant people in their lives. “When you come home, you have to realize that your spouse has been single-parenting. And they have to realize that you’re exhausted. But you both have to take care of your responsibilities. On your deathbed, you’re not going to be thinking about applause; you’re going to be thinking about your family and its successes and failures.”
Commitment to family, and each other, has helped sustain the Wernick’s through all manner of adventures. One, in particular, would test the limits of most relationships. In 1989, while en route to an East Coast festival, the airplane they were in cart-wheeled through an Iowa cornfield after its hydraulic system failed. Joan, Pete and their son were among the 184 survivors; 112 others perished.
‘We’re in it for the long haul,” she says. “Peter and I are very good friends. We’ve certainly had our problems, but we’ve stuck it out. Of course, sometimes people can’t be in it for the long haul, for various reasons. But when you have a family, you’ve made a bigger commitment, and you have to pay attention to it. I am very blessed with a husband who realized that.”
Joan is quick to praise Hot Rize, Pete’s legendary former band, for respecting family time for its members. “Hot Rize would not go out on tour for more than three weeks. They wouldn’t take State Department tours, which last for six weeks, because that was just too long to be away.” Longer tours may be more profitable, but they keep families and spouses apart, sometimes at the expense of a marriage. “And I really do think that’s a tragedy. There are a lot of people whose hearts have been broken, a lot of kids who are in broken families, because people didn’t pay attention to these basic realities.”
Respect for a performer’s family is essential; even fans play a role here. “I’ve had people sit down by my husband, totally ignore me, and start talking about banjo licks. It’s okay to have that kind of bond, but if somebody’s wife is there, please include her in the conversation,” Joan gently suggests. “The children of performers shouldn’t be ignored in conversation. It’s wonderful that people come up and talk, but they should include the whole family. They might be surprised at the friendships that result!”