Mandolin player Ben Winship was in England last month to teach at Sore Fingers and play a short tour with John Lowell, Leon Hunt and Dom Harrison. We asked him about his thoughts on British bluegrass and the plans for his own music camp to be held in the Rocky Mountains in August.
Ben taught one of the three mandolin classes at Sore Fingers and his impressions of the bluegrass camp held in the Cotswolds are very positive. “It was a blast. It was a lot of work, which was compounded by staying up too late picking every night,” he says. “The overall atmosphere was a great combination of being very relaxed and low key, but also very professional. All the staff were top notch.”
It was his first time teaching at Sore Fingers, but he has been involved in many other camps in the past. In fact, last year he started up his own, set in the idyllic Grand Targhee mountain resort near the Wyoming/Idaho border. The base for the camp, 8000ft up in the Tetons, allows students to partake in much more than the music with hiking, mountain biking and chair lift rides right on their doorstep. The Grand Targhee bluegrass festival immediately follows and has a spectacular line-up including the Sam Bush Band, the David Grisman Quintet and Yonder Mountain String Band.
The camp is held for 3 and a half days between August 7th – 10th, and features some impressive tutors including Mike Marshall on mandolin, Scott Nygaard on guitar, Brian Wicklund on fiddle and Tony Trishka on banjo. John Lowell will be teaching a songwriting course. “The teaching staff is awesome, as is the setting,” says Ben. The camp has been small-scale so far, but he has ambitions to change that in future. “Last year was the first year and we had 22 students. We hope to at least double that this year,” he says. “Because the camp is still in its infancy, we are only offering one teacher per instrument – I see that as a drawback. As a teacher, it’s really hard to teach a mixed ability class, so hopefully in the future we can offer more.”
So how will the Grand Targhee Bluegrass Camp compare to Sore Fingers? “We won’t be serving any yorkshire pudding and I don’t have as much hair or as cool an accent as John Wirtz,” he says. “Other than that, we will probably offer more elective workshops, but less overall class time as it is only 3 and a half days.” Ben will also be implementing some of the things he learnt from the British equivalent. “I am going to steal the one-on-one instruction idea from Sore Fingers. We won’t have scratch bands, but everyone will be encouraged to play in an ensemble.”
Ben is currently involved in several bands and collaborations. He is a member of the newgrass band Kane’s River, part of the acoustic trio Brother Mule with fiddler Brian Wicklund and bassist Eric Thorin and is one half of Growling Old Men, a mandolin and guitar duo with John Lowell. He is going to be busy over the coming months with quite a few projects in the works. “There’s a couple of CD projects – an old time CD with Thomas Sneed, a new Brother Mule CD planned for June and Fishing Music Volume II,” he tells us. “Also, lots of gigs and the festivals this summer, plus I’ll be teaching at my camp and the British Columbia bluegrass camp in late August.”
Of Ben’s bands, Growling Old Men are the most familiar to British audiences and they are becoming regular visitors to these shores. They toured briefly with English musicians Leon Hunt and Dom Harrison after Sore Fingers, and the same line-up played a few gigs in Britain in 2006 including Didmarton Bluegrass Festival. The band may well tour again soon either here or in the States. “It all fits together pretty easily when John and I play with Leon and Dom,” says Ben. “Hopefully we’ll do more of it on both sides of the pond. We’re talking about making a transatlantic recording soon and there are murmurs about another UK and/or Europe tour. We may do Didmarton again in 2008. I would also like to play over there with Brother Mule.”
Ben is impressed by the standard and popularity of bluegrass in the UK. “I can’t claim to be an authority on it, but I’d say bluegrass is alive and well in Great Britain. The 25 year ongoing gig in Leeds says a lot, as does the vitality of Sore Fingers,” he told us. “I met and heard a lot of great young players, so I’d say it’s not just an old people’s sport.”
Finally, asked to compare the British scene to that in the States he states simply, “We have better accents here for singing hillbilly music, but you have better beer.”