It’s evening in the rolling, unspoiled hills of Tennessee. In an unassuming cabin miles from civilization, a bassist sets a syncopated pattern for a gathering of musicians to lean into. One boy who couldn’t have been older than sixteen blasts into a trombone, his body shaking to a groove held down only by a pink-haired drummer.
A guitarist, waiting his turn, jumps in and begins building off the melody. The place begins to rock, and in one corner Victor Wooten, five time Grammy winner, keeps the jam flowing. “That’s it! That’s it! Keep going! Keep listening to each other! Feel that!” Wooten shouts. “Do you feel that?”
The students smile and their instruments began to gel even more. It’s just another night at Wooten Woods Music and Nature Camp where strangers jam like longtime bandmates. Wooten, revered for his mastery of the bass not only as a solo artist but also as a member of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, started the camp in 2000. Every year from April to October, campers bring their instruments and their open minds out into the woods and get an education in musicianship.
As I look around at this collection of talent I wonder, how did I get here…
…From the airport, I drove along a single highway that threaded a tunnel of trees. A black crow here and there skittered upon a piece of road kill. Once in a while a truck blazed past. Billboards peppered the road but never enough to ensure confidence that you were heading in the right direction.
When I finally got off the highway I had to ease my way down a steep, sinuous dirt path. It stretched through acres of a towering emerald forest, past a painted sign that said, “You’re not lost, keep going.”
It began to drizzle, the clouds hung above like great gray brains. I felt lost. I kept going, attempting to shed my New York skin, the layers of neurosis.
Pulling my car up to another painted sign, I read: “Wooten Woods.” Imagine 160 acres of lush green land where birds twirl the air and lizards dart freely. And up ahead there was a sleepy-looking village that reaches back to the 19th century.
When I stepped out of the car that illusion, that idea of Tennessee I’d built up over the years, was now obliterated. There were cabins, a smoldering fire pit, ambrosial gardens, birdcalls, unadorned beauty and nature’s entrancing silence.
Walking toward the cabins, a half mile more up the hill, a white dog wandering along the grass stopped to inspect a nearby rock. She looked hungry. In the distance I could hear children. Lugging my bag further up the grassy incline I noticed a thin blonde woman approaching. She had glittery eyes and a quick smile.
“Hi, you must be Brian. I’m Holly. Victor’s wife. Welcome,” she said.
The rain now came in sheets. She offered me her umbrella and pulled a hood over her head.
As we walked toward the center of the camp, I could hear music emanating from the surrounding cabins: Drums, bass, guitar, vibes and brass.
“Listen, I’m going to get you all set, but then I have to go find my eight-year-old son. He’s been missing for over an hour. Should I be nervous?”
I smiled. “Does he usually do this?”
“He’ll turn up. There’s nothing to worry about. Here, let’s get you set up.”
Holly directed me to the cabin and within minutes I had my sleeping bag and travel gear stowed away under a cot. Outside, as I walked toward the center of the campsite, holding my umbrella, some people stopped me to say hello.
“I’m Colleen.” “Hi, I’m John.” “Nice to meet you. I’m Roy.”
They all seemed genuinely interested in greeting me, as if we were great friends already.
This was not New York.
From across the way, Victor Wooten now walked towards me. I recognized his dreadlocks, his muscular build. His steps were deliberate; a smile ran across his face.
“Hey, there,” he said. His voice was soft and confident. His eyes were childlike as he looked straight at me. “Glad you could make it.”
“Thanks. This place is beautiful.” I looked up, surrounded by the vastness of the forest, the sky.
We exchanged pleasantries for a moment before he declared it lunchtime and rang a large bell that swung overhead. The chime echoed throughout camp, sending a few birds scattering overhead. Inside five minutes, fifty campers congregated at “the Barn” bearing their instruments. Young and old they all moved swiftly, putting away their gear readying themselves for a pre-lunch music session.
The Barn is arranged for meals, but there’s also a large stage where everyone gathers to perform throughout the day. Wooten suddenly appeared on the stage strapping on a bass.
Fellow bandmates, both bassists, Anthony Wellington and Dave Welsch joined him for an impromptu jam. The crew at once tore into their instruments, creating unhinged harmonics, a buoyant punch, a circular sway. A language that mirrored the surrounding naturalistic atmosphere.
As the jam proceeded, Wooten spoke into a microphone, “Do you see how we’re all listening to each other. No one is overplaying or stepping on someone else’s part. This is musical courtesy. Respect what’s around you.” The groove rolled on as the assembly of students gawked in awe. You could see the inspiration rising in their faces.
“Just lose yourself in the music. Forget about you,” Wooten said, as he bopped to the beat. “Always listen to what’s happening around you.” His voice rang out like a prophet.
After the jam we broke for a meal prepared by Chef John Schopp, a culinary expert who designs creative dishes for stars like such as Muhammad Ali and Ted Nugent. That afternoon he’d prepared some Elvis Tacos, King Crimson Dahl and some pineapple tapioca. It was healthy fine dining and it was over that initial meal that I first spoke to a tableful of campers.
One young multi-instrumentalist with smart eyes said, “Like Victor says, music is in all of us. It’s like language. You learn it as a child, picking it up as you go. You just have to listen.”
A singer-songwriter from North Carolina added to the discussion, “I’ve never been around such supportive people. And I’ve never hugged so many people in my life. It just feels good. And it starts with Victor. He’s got this vibe about him.”
“Do you feel like you’re getting better?” I asked the group.
A girl with tight bleached curls interceded, “Of course, we play all day, all night.” She showed me a row of blisters on the inside of her hand. “This is proof, right! I didn’t stop playing until 1am last night. The jams are endless. And that’s been going on all week!”
Another man who’s only been playing bass for a couple of years lengthened the discussion, “It doesn’t matter if you can’t play that well either. I’m nowhere near an expert at my instrument.”
“Were you intimidated initially?” I asked.
“Yes! By everyone! But everyone here instantly makes you feel welcome. What’s to be afraid of? I mean, there’s this one woman who’s only played the bass for three days now and she’s out there giving it her all. This place drags the best out of you. I could live here if they allowed me to,” he said, laughing.
One of the campers then asked if he could take my finished plate. I was admittedly thrown off at first, but then humbled by his kindness. This was definitely not New York.
Then the bell struck again. “Rotations!” Welsch shouted. Lunch was over. “Go to your next rotation.”
The group gathered their instruments and headed off to their specific classes. Some had music theory classes. Others were stationed with Victor to study musical patterns, something he believes “can be found in nature.” The last group went off to a blindfolded nature walk.
I decided to join the nature walk led by Richard Cleveland, the founder and director of Earth School Western in Western, NC. He’s an experienced tracker who just the other day taught the campers how to build a fire with sticks and how to eat local plants (what others would call “weeds”) for nutrition.
Cleveland was lean and composed. His voice was easy as he led a group of fifteen deep into the forest. Patches of sunlight dappled the leafy ground.
When we arrived at the designated pathway, Cleveland explained to us that we were going to follow a piece of string tied to a series of trees while wearing a blindfold.
“The journey should take you about ten minutes,” he said. “Your other senses will be heightened in the process. Listen to what’s around you and relax as you go. The music of Mother Nature will guide you.”
The campers looked on with curiosity and some trepidation. I took off my shoes and socks and tied a blindfold around my eyes.
“Use the string as a guide, not a crutch,” he reminded us.
I walked, slowly, step after step, feeling the ground beneath me. There were pockets of wet leaves, warm branches and I thought I heard a snake slither by.
“Keep going,” I said to myself.
I could hear my breath and the soft footfalls of the other campers. We trudged forward, sightless but with confidence. I raised my hand to deflect oncoming branches that I couldn’t see, though I could feel them coming. Blood thudded in my ear. I was immersed in the world around me, free of what came before.
I listened. And listened…
That evening after another delicious meal and a class on reading music, everyone got out their instruments, trading off on an all-night jam session. The whole camp was there. Some people sat in the audience, clapping along, while others graced the stage fingering their instruments.
The jam wrapped up hours later and around 1am, Wooten and I sat in a small room where a drum set stood. His eight-year-old son (who was “found”) was sitting behind the kit.
“Dad, can I play the drums?” he asked.
“Only for a few minutes. People have to sleep soon.”
His boy picked up the sticks and began pounding away. There was no thinking, no overthinking. He just played.
I leaned into Victor, to raise my voice above the clatter, asking, “So what’s next? Where do you see Wooten Woods in ten years?”
“I’d like to see something happening here at the campsite every day. I want people to feel natural and creative all the time.”
“What about touring and making music? What about Victor Wooten?”
“I’m going to be fifty this year. I want to be by my family and here on Wooten Woods for at least the next few years. I want this place to grow. It’s a special place. I want to share this with everyone I know—and want them to share, too.”
Where was I?
I was at Wooten Woods, happily lost, happy to be here.
Midnight musings with Victor Wooten
Long Island Pulse: Do you remember your first exposure to music?
Victor Wooten: Believe it or not, we were living in Hawaii and I was two or three. My brothers would set up all different instruments and they left one little stool with a little toy plastic windup Mickey Mouse guitar waiting for me. I would sit around and strum along as they played. I was learning the language of music by mimicking them.
LIP: How did you learn how to play your instrument?
VW: The same way you learn how to speak English. It was natural. Ever since I was five years old, I was playing in a band with my brothers. They needed a bass player for the family band. So I was the bass player. I remember my brother Regi made my first two-string instrument for me and I would hit notes along to songs that I already knew. By five or six years old our band was playing night clubs, bars, everywhere. Music and life were interchangeable from the time of my earliest memories.
LIP: Do you still incorporate this “natural” approach to learning music?
VW: Sure, I use this same approach today. I’ve offered guidance to my kids using this method too. They all love to play music and have picked it up as if they were learning to speak. I also use the concepts at the camps I teach at. It’s amazing to see how people respond to this method of teaching. I mean, when you teach a kid how to speak English you don’t force them into the corner of the room and make them practice by themselves for hours at a time. And then if they get a word wrong you don’t scold them. No, instead we include children in our discussion, speak at their level, encourage them and they learn intuitively.
LIP: What happens when you don’t use this “natural” approach?
VW: So many people lose their love of music because they are forced to learn it that way. When you feel like you’re “wrong,” you’re not going to perform at your highest ability. I owe a lot to my brother Regi because I remember when I was younger he’d just teach me the parts to play for the shows. And some of those parts were really difficult, but his attitude was that you were “never doing anything wrong. Just have fun!”
LIP: You’ve been playing music for over forty years, what is the experience like now compared to when you were a kid?
VW: It’s very much the same. It’s all communicating to me. Though it’s constantly evolving, and I’m constantly looking to use new words, and you’ll always have more to say. I hear people all the time doing things on their instrument and I want to learn what they’re doing—especially the new younger players. They are creating new languages themselves and there’s so much to learn from them.
LIP: The music industry is constantly evolving. How do you as an artist adapt to the high-speed, high-tech world?
VW: It’s important to open your mind to see the broader picture. I’m wise enough to understand that technology is rapidly changing the industry, changing the languages we use to communicate and some people just get stuck in how things were. My mother, for instance, as sweet as she was, could not work a VCR her whole life. I don’t want to be that way. I want to be up-to-date with what’s around me, the ideas, the new languages, the new technologies.