So I finally got back to the Strawberry Music Festival this fall, after being away too long. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy or earth-shattering here; it will probably look a fair amount like your family reunion photo album.
Assuming, of course, that your family reunions include a Celtic band doing “Shady Grove” at 1:00am providing music for a dozen 20-year-olds to do the Electric Slide in the camp road. Fire it up in a separate tab so you can listen while you read:
The jam in Koala had just broken up and I was headed over to the bath house to have a wee. It’s only a 50-yard walk, so we could hear the music out in the road as soon as our jam broke up. As I got closer, I saw the band rocking under a streetlight. Guitar, banjo, bodrain, percussion box, and maybe more in the dark. I later learned that the dancers were just wandering around Camp Mather and wherever they found a rocking jam, they started dancing.
The other pretty cool feature of this Strawberry was that some of our adult campers are now more free to hang out and visit/pick with us because their kids have become more independent. Kids who used to be in strollers or needed pretty much constant attention now come to their parents: “Hey Mom – can I go to the lake?” It’s pretty fun watching the parents themselves learn to detach. “The lake? Um, who’s going with you?” “Me and Sadie and Ellie and Rory.” “Um, okay.” [inflection trending upward, as in "Okay, I guess I think wow this is weird."] Sometimes those requests come mid-jam:
Watch at 0:40 as Jennifer, who is singing harmony, gets a request from daughter, Darden. The last time I was in Strawberry, Darden rarely left her parents’ pants legs, much less the camp. This year, her favorite line was “<Parent,> can I go to the playground?”
And of Wendy and Jennifer I must say a bit more. Both are parents of tweens who are deeply connected to the music that we play all the time in camp. Wendy was a fiddle contest winner since she was a kid; she grew up at the Strawberry festival and fidde contests.  Jennifer, on the other hand, was a listener and lover at an expert level for decades. She was a bluegrass DJ on a local college radio station (KFJC if you’re keeping score at home) for something like 20 years before giving up the gig recently. Thus we were delighted, though not surprised, when Jennifer announced that she was taking up the fiddle. It was like an expert boat captain declaring that she was going swimming for the first time.
With less need to look after their kids, both Wendy and Jennifer spent more time playing fiddle and as much as I missed having their kids around, I sure enjoyed the addition to the music. Thus, with great pride, I offer what I believe is Jennifer’s Interwebs fiddle debut, though certainly not Wendy’s:
I also need to note Dave Courchaine, the guitar player in the video. Dave is a neighbor of ours at Strawberry and the bluegrass song he doesn’t know isn’t worth singing. He also steps up to play rhythm guitar for the beginning fiddle classes that Wendy teaches in her camp every morning.  I threw Moonshiner, a fairly esoteric tune  at Dave on Saturday. “Hey – that’s a great tune, let’s do that.” I never get to play it because nobody knows it, but of course Dave did. So I got to play Moonshiner with my friends and it was great. Thanks, Dave.
And mostly because it will make me happy to see their picture, here’s one of Julay Brooks and Tom Diamant. They are the dynamic duo of picking – if they’re in the house, you’re 2/3 of the way to a three-person jam. Three people is critical mass and tends to bring in more; the next thing you know, a full-fledged uncontrolled jam has broken out. Tom and Julay are, like Dave Courchaine, walking encyclopedias of bluegrass music (though Julay teaches classical piano for a living). They also provided the music at our son David’s wedding – a guitar/mandolin/voices duet that brought “oohs” of joy to all present.
I need also to mention Lisa “Kween of Koala” Burns, the founder and Queen of Kamp Koala. I’d have a picture of her, but for the last few years, she’s been on the staff of Hog Radio, which is the FM radio station that broadcasts all over the festival. She’s got a real two-way walkie-talkie and a badge and all that stuff. So we rarely see her, unfortunately. However, she has brought a couple of her bass students into the camp so we always have a bass player around, which is a nice touch. I’ll tell you what – here’s an older picture of LisaB, before she got her new haircut:
Anyway, while the festival officially ends on Monday (Labor Day), a lot of people were headed out Sunday afternoon/evening. Some to get two nights of sleep in their own bed before work on Tuesday, some to beat the Monday traffic, whatever. So it was sadly decided that Sunday afternoon we’d take down the garage tent that serves as the official center of Kamp Koala throughout the festival – wouldn’t be enough people around Monday morning to do it.
But before that sad event, we were gonna have one more picking session. “All-gospel” it was decided and we rolled out the bluegrass gospel like a proper Sunday gathering should. But Queen LisaB decreed that the last song we’d play would be Steam Powered Aereo Plain, a John Hartford classic that is the Kamp Koala anthem. It was brought to us by Rodger Phillips, who… man, I don’t even know where to start.
Ten years ago, when I was a newbie at Kamp Koala, I was just starting to play the dobro. And “badly” is far too generous a term for how I played it. So I’d stand way in the back corner of the jams playing as quietly as I could. If anybody would look at me to take a “break” (essentially a solo for one verse), I’d either shake my head no or (better yet) not make eye contact. I was successful at this for maybe a festival and a half. Then one day, I was standing there in the back of the circle, happily looking down at my dobro and playing quietly. And suddenly looking back up at me was Rodger, who had bent his 6’5″ frame over and was peering up at me, silently saying “You’re going to take a solo, now.” I did, and it was awful, but that’s not the point. Rodger, who is a professional banjo player, has spent the last ten years making me, my sons, and many others welcome into the jams at Koala; I will never ever be able to properly thank or repay him.
This is Rodger at his happiest:
Anyway, told you all that to tell you this: we started playing Steam Powered Aereo Plain, and it was bouncing along just as it should, though you could sense a kind of sadness around the circle. This was the last tune for a while. Maybe a significant while. And we got toward the end of the piece, and played through the last chords with the required ritardando. But then a weird thing happened: Rodger got to the penultimate chord – a dominant “D”, and stopped. He said “We’re just going to leave this one unfinished. We’ll know where to pick up when we get back.”
And all of us realized that meant we were getting back together, because we had to finish the song. And you know – sing, eat, visit, drink, and do all that other stuff that comes with it. And to a musician, not one of us played that final “G” chord. We put our instruments in their cases and commenced to break down the garage tent, thinking that before we knew it, we’d be standing on that same general patch of dirt, putting the garage tent up, hugging our friends hello, and getting on with picking. 
Before we tore the tent down, we gathered for a group photo – such as you could do, given that many of the kids were off at the lake. This is my Strawberry family, the 2012 version:
 To this day, Wendy can’t (or won’t) play Gold Rush, a fiddle tune warhorse. It brings back her memories of wearing “western cowgirl” dresses and doing the clichéd knee-dip that happens at one of the tune’s chord changes. I bet she has an involuntary contraction in her knee when that change comes around.
 You can set your watch at Kamp Koala when you hear “Angelina Baker” on a dozen fiddles next door. It’s 9:00am as reliably as Big Ben.
 While there are plenty of versions of the song on YouTube, I couldn’t find the upbeat bluegrass version of the song that Peter Rowan has recorded.
 Some years ago, I found a “Life is Good” baseball cap at Mast General Store in Asheville. It had a bano player on it. So I bought it for Roger, inscribing in laundry marker under the bill, “Are we going to talk, or are we going to pick?” He sometimes wears that hat and we can always reference it when the talking threatens to interfere with the picking.