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All about the GrassRoots Festival, happening annually in Trumansburg, NY.

GrassRoots Culture Camp offers intimate experience for students

Culture Camp
Students gather for a scrubboard class in the Dance Tent at GrassRoots Culture Camp

Want to learn how to play old-time guitar? Curious about clawhammer banjo? Eager to dance the Texas Two-Step? Intrigued by accordion?

You can learn about all of those things, and much more, at the fifth annual GrassRoots Culture Camp, which returns this month after a two-year, pandemic-induced hiatus.

Held July 17-20 at the Trumansburg Fairgrounds, the longtime site of the Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance (July 21-24), GrassRoots Culture Camp offers an immersive, intimate setting featuring an array of music and dance workshops led by local, regional, and national artists – many of whom have performed at GrassRoots.

“It’s an inspiring environment, a unique opportunity to get close up with some very experienced musicians, and it’s very social,” said Tara Nevins, Culture Camp co-coordinator and co-founding member of Donna The Buffalo.

Instructors include members of Western Centuries, Los Texmaniacs, Miss Tess and the Talkbacks, the Horse Flies, Richie and Rosie, the Daiquiri Queens, Donna the Buffalo, and other rootsy bands from around the country. Regional musicians such as Aaron Lipp, Bobby Henrie, Hank Roberts, and Jeff Claus also will teach classes, and legendary bluegrass singer-songwriter Peter Rowan will lead a workshop titled “The Songs and Stories.”

Peter Rowan (credit Amanda Rowan).jpg
Amanda Rowan
Peter Rowan

“It’s pretty special that Peter Rowan is coming – I don't think he normally does this kind of thing,” Nevins said. “He’ll be talking about his amazing songs and the stories behind them, and it’s a unique opportunity for people to get to hear that.”

Students can get instruction in everything from guitar, fiddle, bass, and pedal steel to clogging, Cajun accordion, cello, visual arts, and harmony singing in the camp’s eight “classrooms.”

Among this year’s classes are: “Songs of the Carter Family,” with Beverly Smith; “Beginning Clawhammer Banjo,” with Richie Stearns; “Cajun Rhythm Guitar,” with Miriam McCracken; “How to Communicate with Your Drummer,” with Matty Myer; and “The Business of Getting Your Band Out There,” with Mollie Farr. And Donna The Buffalo’s Jeb Puryear will lead a daily songwriting circle in the Cabaret Hall, with veteran GrassRoots performers offering advice and examples from their own careers.

Jeb Puryear of Donna The Buffalo teaches a class at the 2018 Culture Camp.

The instructors have enjoyed their Culture Camp experience in previous years.

“Culture Camp has always been super fun – low key and personal with great instructors from far and wide,” said Judy Hyman, formerly of the Horse Flies, who’s returning to teach in 2022. “This year looks to be the best one yet. There'll be so much to explore on many instruments, singing, songwriting, and more. But of course, my lens is through old-time fiddle. In addition to my class, Rosie Newton is teaching one, and Nokosee Fields of Western Centuries – not to be missed and coming from afar – as well.”

Past attendees also have enjoyed their time at the camp. Jeffrey Schriber, who splits his time between Odessa, N.Y., and South Florida, has attended every Culture Camp to date.

"My Culture Camp participation was a combination of learning, experiencing, and interacting with people up close and feeling the joy of what they do and bring to GrassRoots,” said Schriber. “It's truly rewarding."

“Culture Camp was a major life experience for me,” added Nilu Jimenez-Ross, from Palm Harbor, Fla., who’s coming back this year. “I was able to work and jam with professionals, such as Jeb Puryear. At my level of playing as an adult learner, I never thought that I would have had that opportunity. I received individualized instruction from the very talented Joey Arcuri of Driftwood. I don't think I've put down my upright bass since. I look forward to Culture Camp to rejuvenate the inspiration and motivation for another whole year.”

Nilu Jimenez-Ross, of Palm Harbor, Fla., shown at the 2018 Culture Camp.

Dancing and Dining

Culture Camp will once again present a series of nightly dances, which are also open to the public, held in the Dance Tent at 8:30 p.m. Here's the lineup:

  • Sunday, July 17: Honky-tonk dance with Western Centuries, from Seattle and Nashville
  • Monday, July 18: Cajun dance with The Daquiri Queens, from Lafayette, La.
  • Tuesday, July 19: Tex-Mex Conjunto dance with Los Texmaniacs and special guest Peter Rowan
  • Wednesday, July 20: Zydeco dance with Preston Frank (from Soileau, La.) and Donna the Buffalo

“The dances are not as crowded as they are at GrassRoots, and a lot of people have liked that,” Nevins noted.
Themed dance workshops led by experienced instructors before each night’s dance will get campers ready to two-step in an authentic fashion.

Each dance night will feature a similarly themed dinner, in some cases cooked by the musicians themselves who are performing that night. The dinners are also open to the public, but only in conjunction with purchasing a dance ticket. (In other words, you can buy a ticket to just the dance, or the dance and dinner, but not just the dinner.)

One other special thing about this year’s Culture Camp: at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 20, attendees will gather in the Cabaret Hall for a square dance that will celebrate the lives of Mac Benford, Courtney Granger, John Vanderhayden, and Jim Miller – past Culture Camp instructors and GrassRoots performers who have passed away since the last camp in 2019.

“We’ve decided to stop everything else in the camp, and just have a big square dance for an hour,” Nevins said. “We’ll get tons of musicians on stage, and Beverly Smith, who was formerly in The Heartbeats, will call the dances, and everyone is invited to bring a drink of their choice. With the camp on hiatus the past two years, we’ll finally have a chance to celebrate them.”

It will be a particularly poignant event for Nevins, who was formerly married to Miller, her longtime bandmate in Donna The Buffalo who passed away suddenly earlier this year while on tour with Western Centuries.

“We were together for a long time, and we remained really good friends,” Nevins said. “He was always the life of the party, with amazing energy and love for music and an amazing voice. He was so excited about having Western Centuries come here for Culture Camp, and for me now, knowing that he doesn’t get to come, it takes a little bit out of it for me in a personal way. But in the big picture, it’s still gonna be a great time this year.”

Rosie Newton (second from left) leads an old-time fiddle class at the 2018 Culture Camp.

That celebration will draw on the communal spirit that has blossomed at past Culture Camps.

“You’re learning, but it’s so much fun while you’re having this intimate experience through meeting people over the four days of the camp during the classes, dinners, and dances,” Nevins said. “It’s definitely a party, but it’s educational and it’s very inspirational.”

And it also provides the perfect setup for the rest of the week: GrassRoots itself.

“Culture Camp is such a beautiful way to ease into the excitement of the music festival,” Jimenez-Ross said, “the feeding of my soul through music, education, arts, culture, and friends that have become family.”

If You Go

What: 5th annual GrassRoots Culture Camp

When: July 17-20, 2022

Where: Trumansburg Fairgrounds, Trumansburg, N.Y.

Tickets: Culture Camp: $155 for four-day pass ($65 for age 15 and younger); $50 for one-day pass. Dinner and Dances: $40 for both, $15 for just the dance each night. (Prices increase on July 15.)



Attendees queue up for dinner at the 2018 Culture Camp.

Jim Catalano covers the Finger Lakes music scene for WITH (90.1 FM in Ithaca, WITHradio.org) and its affiliates.