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GrassRoots Culture Camp returns to Trumansburg Fairgrounds

The 29th annual Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance will take place at the Trumansburg Fairgrounds July 18-21. But the preceding four days will see the return of the annual GrassRoots Culture Camp, which will mark its fourth year of offering intimate workshops, dances and dinners to roots-music lovers from all over the country.

Culture Camp coordinator Tara Nevins, a co-founder of GrassRoots host band Donna the Buffalo, says there are several ways to participate in the camp.

“The way we set it up is that Culture Camp can work in many different ways,” she explained. “You can come for the whole thing – enroll in the camp, do the dinners and dances, and be part of the camp community for four days. You can then stay and roll into the festival. Or if you’re local, and just want to come for one day for the workshops, we have daily prices that also include the dinner and dance. Or you can just come to the dinners and dances, which are open to everyone, together or separately. So it can work in many ways to meet people’s desires and needs.”

Hands-on learning

Culture Camp workshops run from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday-Wednesday. Nevins has recruited another stellar roster of talented instructors, including Jeb Puryear, Hank Roberts, Judy Hyman, Claire Byrne, Jeff Claus, Jim Miller, Rick Good, Aaron Lipp, Bobby Henrie, Miss Tess, and many others – most of them will be performing, or have performed, at the GrassRoots Festival.

Judy Hyman teaches fiddle at the 2016 Culture Camp.

“I try to switch up some instructors each year because I think it’s important to offer different influences and approaches for the people who come,” Nevins said. “But there are some teachers I keep bringing back every year, because people know them locally or their classes are very well attended and people get a lot from them. I like some consistency, too, so it’s a combination of the two.

And Nevins has continued to add new workshops, including “Everything You Want to Know About Drums for Drummers and Non-Drummer,” taught by Nashville-based Matt Meyer.

“It’s basically about how to communicate with your drummer: How do you choose a groove, and how do you speak that language to convey that groove?” explained Nevins. “He’ll also ask people to bring in songs to figure out how what grooves to put to them. That’s for all levels.”

Meyer also will help lead the new “Honky Tonk and Country Band Lab,” with bassist Miss Tess, guitarist Jim Miller, and vocalist Kelli Jones teaching their respective parts.

“Matt’s going to bring in some country songs and play them for everyone, and the group will learn them exactly – the guitar, bass, vocal, drum parts,” Nevins explained. “It’s a great concept and it will just progress as the week goes on. It’s for all levels – you can just play simple parts if you’re a beginner.”

There are also several classes for kids that teach clogging, percussion, singing and more. And, new this year, dance instructor Rodney Sutton will teach the “Passionate about Possums” workshop on Tuesday afternoon. “He has a thing about possums – he actually owns a dead possum, and collects clothing with possums, so I’m excited about that,” Nevins said.

There are also morning yoga workshops, daily songwriting workshops hosted by Donna the Buffalo’s Jeb Puryear, and daily themed dance workshops to complement each night’s show. New this year is a daily happy hour at 5:30 p.m., which will offer Cajun and old-time jams at which campers can meet and mingle. And to further those connections, Nevins said they’ll have nametags for the attendees.

“I’ve seen this work wonderfully in helping folks get acquainted with each other,” she said. “It’s hard to remember names when meeting a group in a setting like this and the name tags allow for that connection between everyone to happen easily. It makes a difference and goes a long way in helping create the community vibe.”

Music and more

For each of the four nights, Nevins has booked a band that won’t be playing at GrassRoots to play in the Dance Tent at 8:30 p.m.

Sunday’s Honky Tonk Night will feature Nashville’s Miss Tess and the Talkbacks joined by special guests Kelli Jones, Oliver Bates Craven and Jim Miller. Monday’s Cajun Night will feature members of Feufollet from Lafayette, La., joined by various guests. Tuesday’s Swing Night will welcome Western New York favorites Bobby Henrie and the Goners, and Wednesday’s Zydeco Night will feature GrassRoots staple Preston Frank from Solieu, La., backed by Donna the Buffalo.

The dances will follow a special themed dinner at 6:30 p.m. to match the evening’s music. This year’s chefs include Meredith Falkner of Ports Café in Geneva, N.Y.; Cynthia Frazzini (who’s played GrassRoots with The Believers) of Nashville, Tenn.; Word of Mouth Catering of Trumansburg; and one more to be announced.

“Sometimes we’ve had some of the bands do the cooking, but we’re not doing that this year,” Nevins said. “It was too stressful on them, playing and cooking on the same day.”

Culture Camp dinners and dances are open to the public; you don’t need to take workshops to attend. Tickets at the gate are $15 per night for each dance; $40 for both the dance and dinner.

Richie Stearns (at right in red tanktop) teaches clawhammer banjo at Culture Camp.

Four years of fun

Culture Camp originally launched at the Virginia Key GrassRoots Festival in Miami a couple of years before coming to Trumansburg. Nevins explained the impetus behind the camp.

“Myself and Jeb and others have been playing old-time music for years, so we’ve known about these camps for a long time,” she said. “Some of them are attached to a festival, and some stand on their own.

“It actually was Jonas Puryear – Jeb’s son -- who said in Miami that year, ‘I think one of those camps would be good for GrassRoots.’ So we decided to try it – Jonas actually came up with the name ‘Culture Camp’ after we tossed around different names – and we said ‘Let’s do it.’

“We started in Virginia Key for two years, but it was hard to do it there because we were starting a new festival, too. So then we thought it was a no-brainer to do it in Trumansburg.”

Nevins is excited about this year’s camp.

“I felt that last year, the third year, something finally started to click,” she said. “It takes time to jell. Last year, I don’t know if the word had been spreading, or if it was the instructors who were there, but the combination the chemistry just started feeling like it was an event that was really jelling. So I’m excited to see if that’s going to continue this year.”

While she acknowledged that running Culture Camp takes a lot of time and energy – sometimes to the detriment of her own musical career – she said it’s worth the effort.

“I feel like I’m putting together a puzzle and creating a cool picture,” Nevins said. “It’s really fun for me to watch it unfold and see how everyone meets each other, who’s jamming with whom, and who’s forming new relationships. It’s very educational, very intimate, but it also really is kind of a party.”

To learn more about Culture Camp, visit