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First Russian American Bluegrass festival - for the record!

Posted by MrNatch3L on Thursday, July 15, 2010

 I promised in my post about Dr. Banjo coming to Russia that I'd blog the back story. Here it is.

Back in the fall of 2009, my wife and I were having dinner and comparing notes on our respective work days as usual. My wife is the founding chief editor of a chain of St. Petersburg community newspapers (she recently stepped down to pursue an interesting new project... that's another story). In this capacity she was often invited to various things hosted by various consulates here. Over the years she got to know the press secretary at the U.S. consulate pretty well. On this particular day last fall, she told me that this person had called her with an odd question. It seemed that the Public Affairs office was slated for some additional budget in 2010 for putting on cultural events, and the press secretary asked my wife, "What do you think we should do with the money?" To which my wife, wondering why on earth they were calling her, said she'd think about it and get back.

"So," she says to me. "Your government wants to spend some of your compatriots' taxes on a cultural event that promotes American culture. I promised to call back tomorrow and I have no clue. Do you have any ideas?"

I thought about it long and hard. For maybe 1 second. Before I said...

"St. Petersburg's first Bluegrass festival!"

Sez the missus, "You would say that. I should have known!"

So there you have it folks, for the record. Whatever happens after, it was my crazy idea! If it flies I'm the Hero, if it flops I'm the Goat.

So next day she calls the press secretary back, who is Russian and was only vaguely aware of the existence of Bluegrass. But she promised to pass it on to her boss, the Public Affairs Officer. Well, it turned out that he loved the idea. It was right up the alley as far as the mission to promote American culture, it was totally new for them, something different from the usual jazz festival, and nothing like it had ever been done around here before. And he actually knew the difference between Bluegrass and Country. So I got asked to write up a short conceptual proposal for how it would work, who they might get to perform, etc. 

In thinking about that, I knew right off that we weren't going to have a Telluride, or a Bean Blossom, or a Merlefest (at least not yet!) Uncle Sam didn't have quite that kind of cash, but there was some budget, and I wanted to see if they could get someone very well known in the Bluegrass world who was not only a top-flight performer, but also could teach some classes to the embryonic Bluegrass community that's just budding in Russia. I thought to focus on banjo because there seemed to be more banjo players doing Bluegrass here than say fiddle or guitar players. Well, when I thought in those terms, one name, and one name only sprang to mind: Peter Wernick... Dr. Banjo.

Next stop was and I found that Peter seemed quite open to being contacted thru his site. Since it would be a summer event, and Peter does camps and workshops in summer, I didn't really hold out much hope for getting him personally, but I thought he might be able to recommend someone who'd fill the performer-teacher bill. So I dropped him an email, introduced myself, pointed him to my BHO profile, told him what as afoot and asked what he thought.

To his everlasting credit, Pete didn't just pass me off as a complete kook. :-D He responded with a very nice email and was very enthusiastic about the possibility of visiting and performing and teaching in Russia. Apparently he has some family whose origins are Russian. So I virtually introduced him the the folks at the Consulate and let them have at it. Eventually they struck a deal for the Peter and Joan duet (Dr. & Nurse Banjo). 

I also thought the festival should include a Russian Bluegrass band. I was pretty clueless about that. But it turned out Peter had been contacted by a Russian band called Country Saloon, and I sent the consular folks after them. Unfortunately, they weren't available, so I sent the organizers to my local banjo buddy Nikita (he who was ripping into Bela Fleck tunes after his first year playing banjo!) He's in the Bluegrass group on the Russian equivalent of Facebook. He steered them to 2 bands, one from around St. Petersburg and one from Obninsk. I'm looking forward to meeting and hearing them.

In January I had to drop out for a while due to the passing of my parents within 3 months of each other. By the time I was able to get back in the saddle again, I learned that the consular folks had got hold of some more budget for the event, and that Pete and Joan would be bringing over a young fiddler they work with frequently, named Justin Hoffenberg. So we were going to have an American trio. Cool, but...

If you have a look at this video, you will understand that I misspent a period of my youth playing bass in The Kokomo Bros,  a newgrass band out of Indiana. (I played professionally of and on for a number of years after that.) Consequently, I was thinking that oh, the Russian bands will have bass but the American band won't. But hey... I did it once, maybe I could add the bottom end and give these folks over here a taste of a full-complement American Bluegrass band? Well, I didn't know how Peter would take to such a suggestion, so with no small amount of trepidation, I sent him some links to my playing with the Bros and said if I could get MP3s of their tunes to woodshed ahead, perhaps I could back up the trio on bass... giving  him the option to back out of it if he feel's I'm not up to snuff. Well, so, Justin sent me recordings of one of their rehearsals and I've been dusting off the old bass chops and woodshedding every day. If I can pass muster, it will be a really exciting thing to back up the likes of Pete and Joan Wernick. We'll see how it goes. 

So there you have the back story... for the record!


2 comments on “First Russian American Bluegrass festival - for the record!”

Oalbrets Says:
Thursday, July 15, 2010 @5:33:41 PM

Thats really cool Robert and a mighty fine job. Good Luck.

MrNatch3L Says:
Saturday, July 24, 2010 @12:44:05 PM

Just a quick follow-up: the woodshedding paid off and I did in fact back Pete, Joan, and Justin at 4 live shows during the jamboree. See the photo album!

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