Swannanoa Gathering puts everyone, from amateur players to folk stars, on even footing

BAND CAMP: "You have superfriendly people who are welcoming, which is really helpful when you're learning," says NPR personality Bob Boilen of the annual Swannanoa Gathering. Boilen has attended; so has John Paul Jones. And the down-to-earth session leaders happen to be star musicians, too. Photo by Arlin Geyer

When Bob Boilen is in Swannanoa, he doesn’t open his computer. He doesn’t look at work. Rather, the host of both NPR‘s “All Songs Considered” and “Tiny Desk Concerts” likes to wander into the hills around Warren Wilson College with his Baby Taylor acoustic. He finds a serene spot in the woods, sits down and practices. Then, when he’s done, he walks back to the campus to rejoin the Swannanoa Gathering.

“The setting is simply just a stunning thing,” Boilen says. That’s not the only praise he has for Swannanoa Gathering, which turns 25 next year. The musicians, the sessions and the food are all excellent, too. He hasn’t been in about five years, but he’d like to return. It was something he and his son did together, and it may be in the cards again now that the younger Boilen has finished college. “It’s in the back of my mind,” Boilen says. “There’s no place like it.”

Swannanoa Gathering starts on Sunday, July 5, and runs through Saturday, Aug. 8. Its five weeks of instrument or genre-specific camps all take place under the broad umbrella of folk music. There’s fiddle week and guitar week, contemporary folk week and Celtic week. The session leaders are often nationally or internationally celebrated too: folk legend Tom Paxton will lead sessions at traditional song week, while singer Cathy Jordan of Irish traditional band Dervish will spend two weeks in Swannanoa. Banjo innovator and Compass Records founder Alison Brown emailed organizer Jim Magill directly, asking if she could run a session.

Swannanoa Gathering, as Brown put it, was on her bucket list.

“When I started this program 25 years ago, they gave me an office and a computer and a telephone and told me, ‘Good luck,'” Magill says. “Then the door closed, and I’m sitting in my office, saying, ‘What now?'” So the Swannanoa Gathering organizer made up a wish list, populating it with musicians from whom he’d personally want to take lessons. He reached out, explained the concept, and many of them said yes.

This kind of camp appeals to touring musicians on many levels, Magill says. So many of them are on the road constantly, forever driving up to venues to see that a close friend played that same room the night before, and that another friend will play there the next night. After years of this, many of them jump at the opportunity to stop driving for a week and actually catch up with old friends, rather than work the same venue circuit without seeing them.

“You don’t have to worry about where you’re going to sleep, you don’t have to worry about where you’re going to eat or what you’re going to eat,” Magill says. “All that’s taken care of, and you get to hang out with your peers.”

While Swannanoa Gathering consistently brings in players who are celebrated in their respective genres, it’s an intentionally egalitarian experience. While some of the session leaders may be multiple Grammy winners, it would be frowned upon to act like it. (Those who do, Magill says, don’t last.) Even some of the attendees are superstars — Led Zeppelin bassist John Baldwin, better known as John Paul Jones, attended old-time week one year. Magill was a little concerned people would be star-struck, but the old-time musicians treated the rock legend like he was just another player, Magill happily reports.

“You have the best musicians on the planet — in our case, Irish musicians,”  Boilen says. “You have super-friendly people who are welcoming, which is really helpful when you’re learning. I’m going to call myself on the lower end of the skill set.”  Yet he sat down at Swannanoa Gathering beside Celtic players he respects — he mentions Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill and John Doyle — and was made to feel welcome.

“Everybody was like, ‘Welcome to the fold,'” Boilen says.

“We are trying to dissolve the barrier between audience and performer,” Magill says. Some session leaders aren’t sure of how to teach, so he encourages them to just tell attendees how they learned to play the way they do. “That humanizes them and makes for a great sort of ‘we’re all learners’ atmosphere,” he says.

The end-of-week concerts reflect the same values. Musicians who typically sell out venues on their own share a revue, playing 15-minute sets reflecting the intimate nature of the workshops. And then they return to their regular lives. The touring musicians hit the asphalt again, and the attendees take what they’ve learned home.

For Boilen, that has meant inviting musicians he met in Swannanoa, like Hayes and Cahill, to play “Tiny Desk Concerts.” There are lots of musicians, too, whose work he has featured on “All Songs Considered.” While Swannanoa Gathering isn’t the only music camp he’s been to, Boilen says, it’s head and shoulders above the others by the strength of its weekly concerts, the quality of its venue, and the organization and welcoming nature of its workshops.

“You’d sit up and play in sessions until 1, 2 in the morning,” Boilen says. “I got to sleep in a dorm with my son. It was great.”

For Swannanoa Gathering info, session dates and costs, visit swangathering.com

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