Sunday, April 30, 2000

Guitarists learn to pick in a 'spiritual' place

Fur Peace in Meigs County, founded by Rock Hall of Famer Jorma Kaukonen, thrills players' souls

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MEIGS COUNTY, Ohio — Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jorma Kaukonen is in the middle of one of his trademark songs. Fingerpicking “Hesitation Blues,” he masterfully moves from minor to major chords, percussive rhythm to single notes.

[photo] Roy Book Binder, left, works with students at the Fur Peace Ranch.
(Michael Snyder photo)
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        “Could you do that again, slower?” comes a voice from the crowd.

        “Sure,” says the smiling guitar hero. He repeats the previous musical phrase, as 14 eager guitarists try to play along.

        Welcome to Fur Peace Ranch in the rolling hills of Southeastern Ohio, where computer consultants, chefs, engineers and health-food store managers rub guitar picks with rock legends.

        Since opening Fur Peace in 1997, Jorma (The “J” is pronounced like a “Y”) Kaukonen, 59, and his wife and manager Vanessa Lillian, 38, have hosted hundreds of guitar students from as far away as Italy and Hong Kong. They come to learn from their idols in unprecedentedly intimate, face-to-face settings.

        Most of this weekend's students are white, male professionals in their 30s and 40s. At first, it seems like a guitarist's version of a sports fantasy camp.

        “It's even better than that,” says Ed Showman, 48, of Columbus. “An old guy like me, you go to a fantasy baseball camp, you're not gonna go out and play major-league baseball after you leave. It's all just a pipe dream. But if you come here and you learn what they're teaching you, and then you go home and you practice and you work on it, you can go out and play this stuff for audiences. So you can make your fantasy come true.”

        It's Easter weekend, the first Fur Peace workshop of 2000. Along with Mr. Kaukonen, the teachers this time are ragtime-blues guitarist Roy Book Binder and bassist Jack Casady, another rock hall of famer. His musical partnership with Mr. Kaukonen goes back to high school bands in the Washington, D.C., area and includes the Jefferson Airplane (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, class of '96) and Hot Tuna.

        Around 40 students have paid $650 for four days of classes and a concert by those teachers. Tuition includes accommodations in one of the spartan cabins (laid out, like the rest of the camp, according to principles of feng shui, the ancient art of placement) and meals.

        The food is one of the biggest surprises, because Fur Peace doesn't serve typical camp fare. Friday's dinner was, fittingly, hot tuna — seared filets baked in a dill/white wine sauce, accompanied by Yukon Gold mashed potatoes baked in phyllo pastry and honey-caraway carrots.

        That white wine sauce is the only alcohol students will see all weekend. Jorma and Vanessa have been sober since before opening Fur Peace, and the camp is a zero-tolerance, drug- and alcohol-free facility.

        No one minds. More than half the students this weekend have been to at least one workshop here before.

        Some “repeat offenders,” as they're known at the camp, have been back as many as half a dozen times. They, together with ads in guitar magazines, newspaper and magazine articles, word of mouth and the camp's Web page ( keep Fur Peace Ranch busy. Only 15 spots remain unfilled for this year's 13 remaining workshops.

        One of the first-timers is Tom Lee, 47, of Hyde Park, who's taking the bass workshop. A part-time professional musician, he plays in the Heeters, a Cincinnati blues band.

Standard workshops are $625; with preferred seating at Saturday night concerts, $650. Youth programs are $425. Couples weekends are $1,000 per couple. The playing member of the couple takes the guitar workshops while the non-playing member is treated to massage, yoga classes and other activities.
Returning students from the previous year (“repeat offenders”) receive a 10 percent discount for one workshop.
To contact Fur Peace Ranch:
Phone: (740) 992-6228; e-mail:; write: Fur Peace Ranch, Box 389, Pomeroy, OH 45769.
Fur Peace Ranch can be found on the Web at:
        This weekend, he'll get his money's worth. Mr. Lee is one of only three bass students in Mr. Casady's class, held at the A-frame recording studio that's a five-minute walk from the main buildings, on a path that winds through woods and wildflowers. With such a small class, Mr. Lee gets three days of virtually private lessons from one of the most respected electric bassists in rock music.

        “In the early '70s, when I was learning to play, there were six guys I stole licks from, and one of them I was sitting across from all day,” he says happily at Saturday dinner.

        But it can be daunting not only meeting your idol, but playing right in front of him. “Jack's been one of my bass heroes for more than 30 years,” says Chuck Findley, 48, another first-timer and the other Cincinnatian at the workshop. “It took me the first full day to calm down.”

        Rounding out the bass class is Ann Grupo, 27, of Cleveland. The sole female student at the opening weekend, it's her third annual workshop with Mr. Casady. It took her a long time to get over her shyness, she admits, but she'll be back next year.

        “And every year after that,” she says happily. “This is so good for me, musically, mentally, spiritually.”

        Opening weekend's three teachers have very different, but complimentary, styles. Mr. Casady uses the recording studio equipment to play songs he has recorded with Mr. Kaukonen, then drops out the bass so students can play along.

        He's a non-nonsense teacher. “No playing!” he snaps when Mr. Lee noodles a bit during Ms. Grupo's turn.

        The stern taskmaster loves teaching. “You see the light bulb go off over their heads,” says Mr. Casady, 56. “You see little things like that and nothing makes you feel better. I'm more excited every time I do this.”

        Mr. Book Binder's classes, held in the library/gift shop cabin, are the most laid-back of the three and a bit less complex than Mr. Kaukonen's. Among other tunes, both guitarists teach “Hesitation Blues,” a W.C. Handy classic arranged by the late guitar virtuoso the Rev. Gary Davis, an early idol of both guitarists. Mr. Book Binder's approach is more traditional, his wry stories of traveling as “lead boy” to the blind Rev. Davis just as entertaining as his guitar playing.

        Mr. Kaukonen, teaching in the workshop/performance building, puts his own rock spin on traditional blues and teaches some of his original, acoustic blues-rock songs and instrumentals. His students tend to be hard-core Kaukonen fans. For them, the camp is a visual treat as well, because the walls of all public buildings are covered with vintage posters, photos and other Kaukonen/Airplane/Hot Tuna memorabilia.

        This workshop includes a Saturday night concert by the weekend's all-star faculty in the 80-person capacity workshop/performance hall. Both that building and the library/gift shop have huge porches designed for jam sessions.

        Concerts are open to the public, drawing from nearby Athens and Columbus. Demand is greater than supply and seating is limited, with the first two rows reserved for students. A 250-seat performance building planned to open in 2001.

        Saturday's concert adds another dimension to the learning process, as performers put together some of the same songs they've spent the past two days breaking down phrase by phrase for students. Seeing Mr. Casady and Mr. Kaukonen play together is another lesson, as students see the sort of musical interaction that comes from more than 40 years of collaboration.

        But Fur Peace campers say some of the best teachers are each other. The easy-going Mr. Kaukonen sets the tone with his total lack of rock-star attitude. During classes, the more advanced students constantly help others put together unusual chord fingerings or get just the right phrasing of a particular run.

        “You learn as much from the other players as you do from the teachers,” says Rick Neistat, 40, of Denver, who's the camp with his brother Mark, 43, of Chicago. It's the second year for both.

        “It's not just the camaraderie of the musicians, there's something else that happens here. This is a spiritual place,” Ms. Lillian says.

        She and Mr. Kaukonen moved to the area from Woodstock, N.Y., in 1990, a year after they were married. They bought a 60-acre farm in Harrisonville, and when an old friend was selling 119 acres eight miles away, they bought it, too.

        Ms. Lillian and her sister Ginger Stake were soon laying plans for Fur Peace Ranch. A friend suggested the name, with its wordplay and reference to the camp's remoteness. “It's a fur peace from anywhere,” reads one of the T-shirts for sale in the gift shop.

        “This whole Ohio Valley, all the way to Cincinnati, it's one of the world's best-kept secrets,” says Ms. Lillian, a former civil engineer who grew up in New England. “No one knows how beautiful it is here.”

        Student cooperation and camaraderie peaks on Sunday afternoon, as they combine in twos and threes for performances at the concert workshop. These are hobbyists, not professionals, so although it's not mandatory, most take advantage of the opportunity to get stage experience. And stage fright experience, because they'll be performing in front of Mr. Kaukonen, Mr. Casady and Mr. Book Binder. A steady buzz of nervous, pre-show adrenaline throbs around the camp all Sunday morning.

        “That's what brings out you, playing in front of people. That's the process,” Mr. Casady says. “I tell them we're all shy, we're all introverted. We all started playing the guitar off in some closed room after school. Even if you started later in life, the idea is that it (music) is a form of expression and to get that inner-self out. And that's why it's important to come around and do the performance.”

        After 15-hour days totally immersed in guitar and bass with their lifelong musical idols, campers readily agree with Ms. Lillian's assertion that Fur Peace Ranch is “a spiritual place.” Again and again, they testify of lives being changed, of personal transformation, of being “on fire” for the music. No one wants to go home Monday.

        “I will definitely come back again,” says “repeat offender” Peter Krulder, 44, a chef from Aspen, Colo., in his second workshop at Fur Peace.

        He stands on the porch of the library holding his black jumbo Gibson guitar, squinting in the morning sunlight as he gets ready for Sunday's performance.

        “The camaraderie, the closeness, the being with people who are into the same thing I'm into. There's never anything I've ever been to like it. It's good for my health, good for my music.”

- Guitarists learn to pick in a 'spiritual' place
        Kaukonen's music flowed from Yellow Springs
       Fur Peace Ranch 2000 Workshop Schedule

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