Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Luthiers' Camp

I wasn't supposed to be in Colorado right now. I was supposed to be in Peru, making field recordings of traditional Amazonian shamanic music and ethnobotanical lore as part of my PhD research into Amazonian shamanism. A long string of disasters large and small, however, pushed me to re-think that plan. When I realized that I could be back in the states in time for the 2014 RockyGrass Festival, the deal was sealed. Yahoo! I was heading home! And this wasn't just any RockyGrass, but the first festival since the Great Flood of 2013 nearly destroyed the town of Lyons and put our beloved festival grounds under 4-10 feet of debris.

I lined up a three-day pass on the festivarian forum and called my friend Gretchen to tell her I was on my way. Gretchen's husband Bobby makes mandolins for a living (San Juan Mandolins), and Bobby is part of a group of luthiers who converge on Planet Bluegrass each summer to conduct an instrument-building workshop in the week leading up to the RockyGrass Festival. The luthiers and their families have been gracious in allowing me to camp with them in years past, and after several years of absence I was looking forward to reconnecting with some off the sweetest people I've ever had the privilege of knowing.

An added bonus of camping with the luthiers is that some of the best instruments on the planet—and some of the best pickers—show up in camp on a regular basis. That's what happened yesterday, while I was trying on party pants from Gretchen's new Funky Trunk Traveling Thrift Store. I came out of Gretchen's red tipi that doubles as a changing room, and there were a couple of new guys sitting down in the living room picking on a couple of mandolins. One of them stood up and introduced himself, shaking hands with the few of us who were sitting down to listen. "Hi, I'm Jon Randall."

Ahem. That would be Jon Randall Stewart, who had just gotten off the main stage from playing a set with John Jorgensen and Herb Pedersen. Jon Randall played with Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers on their Grammy-winning album Live at the Ryman. They happened to be on tour promoting that album during my first Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 1992, and his guitar licks have been burned into my brain ever since. I know of Herb Pedersen from an album he did way back in the day with Jerry Garcia, David Grisman and others called Bluegrass Reunion. Then in 1996, Pedersen showed up in Telluride to play a set that came to be called "A Very Special Bluegrass Reunion," featuring Pedersen, Peter Rowan and others, as a sort of memorial to Jerry after his passing.

Turns out the guy sitting across from Jon Randall wasn't Herb Pedersen but John Jorgensen himself. I hadn't heard of him before this festival, but he's clearly a master. See for yourself. If you're short on time, jump ahead to the third video for some real grace and beauty.

The white-bearded elf sitting to Jorgensen's left is Michael Hornick, the master luthier behind Shanti Guitars. Dan Roberts makes a few appearances, handing the musicians new instruments to try out. Dan is also a master luthier, formerly with Gibson Guitars and Santa Cruz Guitar Company, who has just branched out to start his own company, Daniel Roberts Stringworks.

I videoed these songs with a Canon G-12. For those of you who've been following the story, this is indeed the same Canon G-12 that broke in Costa Rica, dealing the final and fatal blow to my summer research expedition. The darn thing magically fixed itself upon arrival in San Francisco. Apparently, some things are just meant to be.

This first video starts with Jon and John tuning up on a couple of Bobby's mandolins and chatting with Gretchen (off camera) and Ellen (Michael's lovely partner, seated behind Jon). John mentions that the instrument he's just picked up has more "bark" than the one Jon Randall is holding, which belongs to Sam Bush and was a gift to him from Bobby, Gretchen and a bunch of Sam's musician friends—including, apparently, Jon Randall. "Oh yeah, I donated to that!" he says.

If anyone knows the names of the tunes in these first two videos, do tell. I should know them, but I don't. 

The banter is good, but the music is better. Truly amazing. "Georgia On My Mind," written by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell, 1930. 

It's a blessed life.

Changes: Final caption changed to reflect proper authorship, 8/3/2014 (thanks Dan Roberts).


  1. Georgia On My Mind was written by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell back in I think 1930. Willie did a great cover of course.

  2. Thanks for the heads up, Dan, and thanks for reading!