I don’t even know where to begin. But don’t worry – that won’t stop me from being my usual wordy self. Grab a sandwich and pull up a chair…
Since this was my first year, I was a little hesitant about attending the gathering. I came to the course and the forum in the wake of last year’s event, and it sounded so great that I was mightily tempted, but still I wasn’t too sure. It’s one thing to be a presence here on the board, where we can all type from the relative anonymity of our keyboards, and another to meet folks face to face, something I admit I’m not particularly good at. So there’s that bit of anxiety to overcome. Add to that the fact that you’re going to be in an environment that’s 100% built around an activity that, while you might love it dearly, you’re not exactly overly confident about struggling with in front of others. It’s not too much of a stretch at all to say that for me, it was a leap of faith to attend. In the end though there were three things that pushed me over the edge – the people here on the board being so warm and encouraging and enthusiastic (not the least of which is Steve – more on him later), the opportunity to have Greg do a follow-up on the neck reset and the other work he did on the M-38 back in April, and the news that Russ Barenberg was going to be teaching a workshop (I’ve been a big fan of his for many years). So, even though I couldn’t swing the time away from work to be there for the whole conference, I went ahead and headed for Nashville with my guitar and wife in tow.
We got to the hotel, checked in, put our bags in the room, and while my wife was off to do her own Nashville explorations, I headed down to McGavock to look around a bit and get ready for Rick Vito’s workshop. I was hanging around the tables in back, trying to figure out where to get my T-shirts, when the first friendly face I met was Eddie Nunn’s. You couldn’t have asked for a more warm welcome. That was followed up right away by Steve (Ascoli), who got me the shirts I’d ordered. I stashed them and the guitar at the side of the room, along with a dozen or so other cases, and got a seat.
Rick Vito’s class was amazing. I really had no ambition to play slide before, I just thought it would be an interesting way to spend 90 minutes or so. And it was. But it was so much more than that. He was so open and unassuming, to the point of projecting actual modesty, that you just couldn’t help but like him. And he actually made me think about getting a slide.
Then it was off to the group lesson with Steve. I was pretty nervous about this, as I’d signed myself up for one of the intermediate sessions, not knowing whether that was entirely appropriate or not, plus I was only moderately “prepared” to play anything. So I’m sitting there in the room, with 9 or 10 other folks, none of whom I knew yet. Everyone’s busy tuning and playing their own little things, and I’m beginning to get more nervous about the whole thing, wondering if I’d made a mistake in coming here. I couldn’t even enjoy looking around at all the nice guitars, I was so anxious. Then Steve comes in, walks up to me and introduces himself and thanks me for coming, and his warmth and his manner are so disarming that I started to feel a lot better. Still, I wasn’t sure what exactly was going to happen when the lesson started. And of course, I’m the first one he calls on to introduce myself and play something. So I stumble through a little fiddle tune (fortunately a slow one), and he and everyone else in the room were incredibly gracious and encouraging, that I actually felt good about it. Then he went on to the others in the group. Some played and some didn’t (I joked with Steve that if I’d known it was OK to decline, he wouldn’t have gotten anything out of me ;)), and when it was all over I’d had a blast, learned a few new things, and knew that I’d made some new friends.
Then I had an appointment with Greg for him to fine tune the work he did on the Martin, so I was off to his workroom. I’ve got to say meeting him in person was every bit like getting reacquainted with an old friend. Between his own personality, and the several 30- and 40-minute phone conversations we’d had earlier during the time he had the guitar, and having seen him in his video, it really was nothing at all like meeting someone new for the first time. I really felt like I’d known him for years. He was happy to see that the neck reset had settled in, allowing him to lower the action at the saddle a bit, and when he handed it back to me, it was like getting a new guitar all over again. Later on he fine-tuned the intonation by doing some judicious sanding of the top and sides of the saddle, to change the break point of the strings as they pass over it, and the guitar sings completely in tune now. I literally could not be any happier with the instrument. And he was just as enthusiastic talking about the work he did on it as he was when we first spoke and planned out the work. It was just so much fun and such a great treat to get to hear him go on about it.
Friday I was up and ready for the guitar calisthenics Steve led, then spent some time in the jam room/hospitality suite, playing around on some of the several “play me” loaner guitars that were scattered around the room. I have to say, coming into the conference late, after most of the folks had already met for the first time, I was hesitant to get over my shyness about playing with/in front of others, so a lot of my time in the jam room was spent watching and listening to others, and, as John (FloydFanatic) talked about in another thread, playing on my own. I need to get over that and just jump in with others. John, if you’re reading this, I’ll take you up on your offer to play together next year.
Steve’s improv master class was really interesting. He had all kinds of tips and tricks on note selection, that I’m sure I’d be great at it, if I was far enough along in the course to know what he was talking about. ;) Seriously though, it really was informative and fun, and I think I managed to lock away in my noggin a lot of what he said, for use later. Plus there’s always the possibility of a refresher next year.
Jack Pearson, like Rick Vito, was just so unassuming, charming and humorous in a real “aw, shucks” self-deprecating sort of way that he too, seemed like an old friend. He actually tried to remember where he left off from last year, so he’d know where to pick up. Someone in the crowd shouted out something about there being a lot of new folks in the crowd, so repeating things wouldn’t be a bad thing, and he was happy to oblige.
Phil Keaggy’s session was next (man, what a day, and it wasn’t over yet). He had a slightly different approach than Vito and Pearson, and didn’t offer as much technical information, preferring to play songs and intersperse them with a little bit of talk. But, like the others, he was happy to answer the many questions he was peppered with.
After that was the blues master jam, and after some stellar playing by Steve, Phil Keaggy came back on stage with a Les Paul and really played some blistering solos. I felt kind of bad for the students who had to go on stage after him, but those who did, did a fantastic job in their own rights. It was a ton of fun to get to watch and listen.
The evening closed out with Keaggy’s private concert, which was just magical, with him up on the small stage at the end of a relatively small hotel conference/ball room, with just us gathering folks and our spouses/partners in attendance. I had never seen Phil live before this day, and was amazed at what a bouncy, infectious performer he is. Forget about his musical and technical expertise, which are considerable – he just draws you in with his enthusiasm. Even his very rare mistakes, like occasionally getting lost in his loops, he makes fodder for his humor, and they just endear him even more to the audience. My wife and I ran into him a little later when we got off the elevator to go to dinner. He was on his way out of the hotel to head off wherever he was going next, and the opening of the elevator door caught his attention. He turned around and said hello, and I told him how much we had enjoyed his class and his concert, and he thanked me warmly, like it was really important to him that we’d had a good time.
Saturday morning Steve put us through his workouts again, and it was clear that not only was he making it harder the longer we were in the room, but each day was also a step or two more difficult over all than the previous day. He’s devilish. ;)
Russ Barenberg was next, and he was the one I was most interested in. I told some of the others in attendance that his style of playing, and his style of music, are what I would enjoy doing most with my guitar. The way he can take a simple country melody and fill it out with plain and embellished chord work, running bass lines and cross-picking, is just amazing to me. He had some really solid tips on how to approach songs so you can teach yourself to do that sort of thing. Even so, I think I’ll see if he has any method books of his own that are available to us mere mortals. ;) He also talked a bit, in response to an audience question, about the old Gibson he was playing, and about his pick technique to get the best tone out of it.
My Nashville session musician awareness pretty much started and stopped with James Burton, so I didn’t really know anything at all about Brent Mason going into the final masterclass. He and his brother Randy played some wonderful pieces, and he answered a lot of questions about playing, and about his “Steve Krenz” signature guitar. Randy, who accompanied him on a slot-head Tak acoustic was no slouch either, though he kept insisting he’s a drummer, not a guitar player. Frankly, I think the term “guitar player” means something completely different to Nashville folks like them, than it does to you and me.
The student showcase was next, starting with the ensembles, and progressing to the individual performers, and I was just blown away by all of these folks. The heart and guts they all showed in getting up there and laying it all out for us to see and hear, make them all heroes in my book. There was a pretty broad spectrum of music, and of abilities, but every single one of them deserves huge praise, and my hat is off to each and every one. Coming into this event as a first year participant, if anyone suggested to me that I should plan on taking part in the student showcase, I would have laughed at them. Heck, even right there at the conference, when Viet asked me a couple of times if I was playing, I laughed at him. But seeing what you all did, whether simple or complex, acoustic or electric, with or without vocals, I was so overwhelmed that I told Steve later that I would commit to playing next year. I hope now that he understands that I was drunk when I said that. ;) Of course, I may have put it in writing in the guest book – I don’t remember for sure. ;)
Steve’s jazz band played next, and they were great. They ripped through a rendition of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” followed by a tune I recognized but can’t name, and wrapped up the afternoon with a killer “Take the ‘A’ Train.” I was sad to see the crowd had thinned out a bit for this performance, because these guys were smokin’. But there was the big show at the Wild Horse coming up that evening, and folks were busy getting ready for that trip downtown, I’m sure.
And what a show it was. Like Steve alluded to in his daily update post, there was some confusion about the seating. I had expected there might be, when I noticed the two tickets Steve gave me had different table numbers, but he had said as long as we were in the right section, we could sit anywhere we wanted. I explained that to our waitress who had asked to see our ticket stubs, and she seemed OK with it, but a little later Big Burly Guy and a couple of other Wild Horse employees came around and started shifting people around. Fortunately Steve showed up to get it straightened out, and while my wife was off to the ladies’ room, Big Burly Guy came by our table and asked if we were part of the group. I told him yes, but that while my wife and I were sitting at this table, my ticket was for another table, and hers was for a different one still, and he said if I wanted to sit with my wife, it was OK. I though it mildly amusing that he offered the option to me. ;)
The show was great (as was the barbeque we had there for our dinner), with incredible acoustic guitarists and harp guitarists filling out the first half, but it was the second half that was literally electrifying. The whole show was done as a tribute to the legendary session guitarist James Burton, who’s played with just about everyone who’s anyone, from as far back as Elvis. Muriel Anderson had him come out on stage, along with Brent Mason (who Burton described as his hero) and Seymour Duncan, and as a surprise she also brought out Emmylou Harris and Vince Gill, who did a spontaneous duet of the old Louvin brothers classic “If I Could Only Win Your Love.” Gill was holding up fingers (I, IV and V, of course) to direct the bass player and any others who didn’t know the song, though it’s hard for me to believe they didn’t, or that they couldn’t have followed it anyway. And while he was doing that, Mason snuck a hand behind him to sabotage his signals, and then to hold up the two-fingered “horns” behind Gill’s head, which was a pretty long reach for him. :D
There were plenty of other fantastic guitarists there that night, many of whom I had never heard of or seen, but they were all incredible, and they all came out on stage for a monster jam at the end, which predictably was kind of cacophonous, but still a lot of fun. And to top it off I won a set of strings from GHS, one of the evening’s sponsors.
All that was left was the Sunday picnic, which despite the heat, was very nice, and the barbeque there was even better than it was at the Wild Horse. It was just a shame that more people couldn’t have stuck around for it, and that it was tinged a little bittersweet because of the farewells that were to follow.
While I can relate the events to you all who weren’t able to attend, there’s no way I can begin to describe the feelings. Was it fun? Yes. Was it full of learning opportunities and new and renewed friendships? Yes. Did we get to see and hear some phenomenally talented performers in pretty small and intimate settings? Yes. But the whole thing was so much more than that. My only regrets were that:
1) I couldn’t be there from the beginning.
2) I couldn’t get around to meet every single person there.
3) I didn’t kick myself in the rear to get involved in jam opportunities with fellow guitarists of every possible level of ability.
I intend to redress those issues next year. And to all those I did manage to meet this year, it was a genuine pleasure to meet you and enjoy your company and camaraderie. I won’t even try to name names, as I’m sure to leave someone out, and I don’t want to do that.
Let me end this incredibly long post with a word or two about the guy who made it all possible, our mentor and friend, Steve Krenz. Not only did he put so much hard work and loving care into this event, but he was there at every turn to offer friendship, support and encouragement to this motley group of ours that our mere thanks will never be enough. I’m not kidding – there was not a single moment when he was rushing around, off to set up this or tear down that, that he did not stop briefly, shake my hand, pat my back or just put a hand on my shoulder and ask if I was enjoying myself. I left Nashville feeling like I had a new best friend.
Thanks so much, Steve, and thanks to all the behind-the-scenes people who worked so hard, whether at Legacy, or the fellow students who helped with arrangements, manned tables, trudged equipment, etc. I feel like I owe you all a big party at my house. Probably not gonna happen, but I still feel like I owe it. ;)
My Gathering experience (long post)
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