The Swannanoa Gathering: A magical place; a place of music, of collaboration, of love, and of truth. The 2016 Gathering was my 12th consecutive, and it was also my best. Wait, what is he talking about? What is the Swannanoa Gathering?
The Swannanoa Gathering is a folk-arts music camp that holds seven curriculums that run over a period of five weeks during the summer at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa NC; just east of Asheville. It celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. The camps begin with Traditional Song Week, then Celtic Week, then Old-Time Week, then Guitar Week and Contemporary Folk Week (these two programs run concurrently), and it closes with Mando & Banjo Week and Fiddle Week (also running concurrently).
I have attended the Guitar Week/Contemporary Folk week duo every year since 2005. Every year that I go, my world is filled with amazing music, incredible camaraderie, and the most intensive learning I’ve ever experienced. A camper can take up to four courses, each of which runs 75 minutes a day for five days. In between the classes and meals are seminars, demonstrations, and exhibits. At Guitar Week, there are several high end custom luthiers displaying their wares; this year we enjoyed the exquisite guitars of John Slobod, Gerald Sheppard, Michael Bashkin, and Dave McCubbin. Dream Guitars of Weaverville brought a vast selection of their renowned inventory as well. At night, both faculties perform concerts, the students perform as well, and the jamming goes on all night long. The slogan of the Gathering is "The worst part about the Gathering is that there are only 24 hours in the day and 3 of them are wasted sleeping!"
My week this year was the most magical of the lot to date; a significant thing because each year I leave thinking “it can’t possible get any better than this!” but then it does. I’d like to relate some of the experiences I had. First, friend and fellow Gatherer Jim Moran messaged me on Facebook for my phone number the day before camp began. That facilitated a conversation and a HUGE opportunity with Grammy® winning songwriter and CMA/ACM Song of the Year honorees Jon Vezner and Don Henry, who asked me to accompany them on bass during their sets at the Contemporary Folk Week faculty concert, even before camp began!
I was sent a pair of tracks to learn, and in the course of rehearsing with these lovable lunatics; the call grew to four songs, including the song that won the aforementioned awards for them; “Where’ve You Been”? The other three songs were newer tracks on upcoming releases from the pair. During one of the rehearsals, a young lady entered the room and started singing a third harmony part. Against our collective judgement <kidding>, she was drafted into service for the show too. Who would it be but Grammy® winning country (and now folk) artist Kathy Mattea! (She and Vezner are married, as it happens).
During one of our rehearsals, Jon asked his friend, Grammy® Lifetime Achievement Award winner and folk songwriting icon Tom Paxton to come and listen to one of the new tunes we were working on. As the song is magnificent, Tom was understandably moved. When Jon and I sat down for sound check on Wednesday the day of the show, Paxton was onstage, saw me, and pointed me out and asked if I wanted to play bass for him and his accompanist Robin Bullock for their set too!
The night of the show, it got several notches better. The entire faculty got together for a show-closing Tom Paxton number, and I played for that too. An amazing lineup of people singing to a warm, engaged, and extremely appreciative crowd. The group included Robin Bullock, Danny Ellis, Amy Speace, 14-time Boston Music Award winner Ellis Paul, Swannanoa Gathering founder Jim Magill, the mighty and ineffable Cliff Eberhardt, Independent Music Award, Americana Music Association Award, GLAMA award winner and Grammy® nominee Mary Gauthier, Kennedy Center Artist-in-Residence Pete Kennedy, the aforementioned Tom Paxton, Don Henry, Kathy Mattea, and Jon Vezner; Siobhan Quinn & Michael Bowers, Grammy® winner and Kennedy Center Artists-in-Residence Al Petteway & Amy White, Louise Mosrie, Ray Chesna, and two-time Grammy® winner and 10-time nominee Janis Ian!
The concert was filmed by PBS and is being edited down to a 90-minute presentation that will air on PBS stations throughout North Carolina, and will be on PBS.org for worldwide consumption very soon after you read this...
The next day in one of my classes, I was asked “Was that the best night of your life or what?” I replied “Well, I’m 51 years old. I have a wife and a 12 year old daughter, both of whom I love more than anything. But yes, that was the best night of my life!
WLOS TV (Asheville ABC affiliate) news item on the Gathering, (story and video) - lots of great footage, I’m in it briefly a couple of times -