Asheville native Bryan Sutton has been anticipating his inaugural Blue Ridge Guitar Camp for years.
“It’s been in the works since 2018,” says the Grammy Award-winning musician and nine-time International Bluegrass Music Association Guitar Player of the Year. “We had things up and ready to go in 2020 but had to shut it down because of the pandemic.”
Now, two years later, Sutton’s wait is finally over. On Wednesday, June 1, he’ll launch the camp’s five-day gathering at Brevard Music Center, 349 Andante Lane.
According to the Nashville-based star, some of the inspiration behind the camp came from events organized by like-minded musician friends, including the Steep Canyon Rangers-hosted Mountain Song Festival, as well as Béla Fleck’s Blue Ridge Banjo Camp.
“One of my main goals is to shake things up,” Sutton says. “We want to try some new programming that’s not like what folks have experienced at other camps.”
Joining Sutton will be four other highly regarded masters of the six-string instrument — Michael Daves, Grant Gordy, David Grier and Courtney Hartman.
“I want folks to experience conversation outside of normal guitar education,” Sutton says.
Blue Ridge Guitar Camp isn’t so much about learning to play new music, he continues. Rather, “It’s about a new way to look at playing and a healthier way [for guitarists] to examine what they’re already doing.”
Strength in numbers
When it came to selecting the camp’s instructors, Sutton says he was intentional in bringing together a group of artists with unique strengths.
“Grant Gordy is a great improviser who has stretched the boundaries of bluegrass and jazz guitar,” he explains. “So his lane is more about discovering that improvisational voice.”
Meanwhile, Daves brings a “wealth of knowledge of bluegrass traditions, rhythm playing and singing.”
Grier, whom Sutton considers “a master of repertoire,” will focus on crosspicking, which Sutton describes as “a subgenre of flatpicking.” And Hartman will emphasize “artistry, musicianship and playing with others,” Sutton explains.
For his part, Sutton’s instruction will explore mechanics and fundamentals.
Inevitably, the five instructors’ presentations will intersect at various points. “But a student can expect a different conversation with each instructor,” Sutton promises. “And everybody [who attends] is going to see every instructor.”
The camp will also feature guest speakers. Master luthier Dana Bourgeois is among those on the list. His talk will take participants through the actual guitar-making process.
Meanwhile, Dr. Josh Turknett, a neurologist and author of The Laws of Brainjo: The Art & Science of Molding a Musical Mind will examine the intersection of musicianship and the human brain.
Time to celebrate
The camp will be capped by Bryan Sutton’s North Carolina Guitar Celebration, Saturday, June 4, at 7:30 p.m., at Brevard Music Center’s Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium. The revue-style concert extravaganza is also part of this year’s White Squirrel Festival. The ticketed event will feature Sutton, his fellow instructors and other stars. Available to the public, ticket prices range $24-$67.
Among those scheduled to appear are celebrated dobro player and 14-time Grammy winner Jerry Douglas and Grammy-winning musician Dom Flemons, formerly of Carolina Chocolate Drops. Sutton’s pals Woody Platt and Nicky Sanders of Brevard-based Steep Canyon Rangers will perform as well, along with several other award-winning musicians.
The celebration is envisioned as a variety show, carrying on the proud tradition of historic revues like the Grand Ole Opry and Louisiana Hayride.
“There will be a few different setups,” Sutton explains. The main stage will feature larger ensembles, while additional smaller stages will showcase solo performers and “intimate little trios with singers and players around a couple of mics.”
Sutton expects the celebration to be a nonstop flurry of activity. “There will be people on the side of the stage, ready to go” while other acts are performing, he says. “There will continually be a variety of things happening. My role is to host and curate and to have fun.”
Campers will likely also be involved in the celebration. “My goal is to plug them into the show,” Sutton says. “And there will certainly be a big finale where we’ll try to get as many people on stage as we can, playing a big bluegrass jam.”
The musical host says the show, as well as the Blue Ridge Guitar Camp, are designed to occupy the sweet spot between laid-back and intensive. “I’ve toyed with the question, ‘Should we call this a camp at all?’” Sutton says. “It’s more like an experience, or a summit.”
Looking ahead, Sutton’s vision for the annual gathering is to create a place where players can come to relax, build community and challenge themselves and their playing skills.
“There’s a lot going on in this camp that reflects how I’ve learned,” Sutton says. “And how I continue to learn.”
WHAT: Bryan Sutton’s North Carolina Guitar Celebration
WHEN: Saturday, June 4, 7:30 p.m., avl.mx/bln
WHERE: Brevard Music Center, 349 Andante Lane