It goes without saying that bluegrass dobro titan Jerry Douglas is no stranger to the bandstand. Still, even Douglas had to admit that co-hosting a “Guitar Mash” at Nashville’s City Winery on April 7, 2018, alongside longtime Paul Simon musical director Mark Stewart, was a whole new way to approach the idea of an in-concert performance.
“This truly gets you beyond the usual dynamic of ‘us and them,’” says Douglas of the Guitar Mash format, in which the vast majority of audience members show up with their own acoustic guitars and are led through renditions of classic tunes by renowned songwriters and musicians, with an accent on what makes each song especially meaningful to the artists. “When I first saw Guitar Mash in New York,” says Douglas, “I came back inspired. I figured if we can bring that energy back to Nashville—where everyone owns a guitar!—and inspire people here, we can really grow this thing. It’s a great idea, and I’m grateful they asked me to co-host it.”
The idea for Guitar Mash was conceived by musician/producer Rebecca Weller in 2012, partly inspired by watching her teenage son begin to lose interest in the guitar after his fledgling band broke up. Without the social component, Weller observed, passion for music can quickly dissipate. She thus inaugurated what she called “urban campfires” as a vehicle for a more communal approach to live performances. And to “cultivate audience members as collaborators,” she brought Stewart into the fold to lead the events. What’s more, funds raised above the costs of putting on Guitar Mash events are put toward the group’s monthly Teen Songwriter Circles, held at NYU’s Music Experience Design Lab, largely benefiting under-served teens in the New York area and helping them tell their stories through creative songwriting workshops.
At the full-scale events in New York and at Nashville’s City Winery, the audience leaves not only having seen many of their favorite artists, but, in a sense, actually having played with them. Past guest stars at Guitar Mash events have included Joan Osborne, Joseph Arthur, David Broza, David Bromberg, and Kaki King, among others.
“Guitar Mash is really done perfectly,” says singer-songwriter Dar Williams. “Music for music’s sake and participation for participation’s sake are very valuable to the world.” In Nashville, the audience’s musical shamans included Keb’ Mo’, Mary Gauthier, John Oates, and session guitar great Brent Mason, with a crack live band featuring several of Music City’s top session cats—including bassist Viktor Krauss, drummer Larry Atamanuik, and pianist John Deaderick.
Lean On Me
“Y’know, I like to call the audience the ‘Big Band,’” says the animated Stewart, who functions as the audience’s de facto musical director and conductor during the performance. “Normally, an audience simply watches the band play, but in Guitar Mash, we’re all part of the band, and just like when I’m leading a band on tour, my job is to give all the musicians the information they need to be who they really are. That’s what a bandleader does; he gives permission to the people in the band to be themselves.”
During the event, a clutch of “Chord Coaches” from the nearby W.O. Smith Music School—among them Joe Andrews, touring guitarist with Old Crow Medicine Show; Nashville songwriter Mark Caviness; classical guitar player Katie Parcelli, a graduate of Blair School of Music; and respected producer/manager Tim McFadden—roams the hall offering tuning, picking, and voicing tips. To keep everyone on point, large-screen “confidence monitors” with chord charts are placed on either side of the stage, allowing participants to follow along with Mason on the chords to Merle Travis’ “Nine Pound Hammer,” a tune first taught to Mason by his father; with Gauthier on a memorable and politically pointed rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”; with Keb’ Mo’ on a barrelhouse reading of Jimmie Rodgers’ “That’s All Right”; and with John Oates on Mississippi John Hurt’s “My Creole Belle” and the Mann/Weill classic “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.”
Stewart began the afternoon by inviting everyone to join him in strumming the one-chord glory of “Proud Mary,” but there were plenty of teaching moments as well: Douglas explaining the chromatic walk-up sections of “Hey Joe”; John Oates pointing out the airy slash chords in “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”; Mason detailing how to position your fingers for a proper F#m/A chord; and Stewart introducing the partial high-E and B-string barre that forms the basis of the classic Chuck Berry lick on “Johnny B. Goode.” At one point, Douglas introduced the crowd to two young Nashville players, 10- and 13-year-old Uma and Giri Peters, who turned in a period-perfect rendition of the Mississippi Shieks’ “Sittin’ On Top of the World” and then “Lean On Me,” brandishing fiddles and mandolins with finesse and authenticity that belied their years.
The Fighter Still Remains
Closing the afternoon, Stewart and Douglas, side-by-side with all the guest artists, guided the assembly through a poignant take on the Simon & Garfunkel hit “The Boxer.” (Evidently, Stewart explained, Douglas had helped reshape the live version of the song some years ago when Simon invited him to join Stewart and the rest of the band in playing it on stage.) Buoyed by the sound of well over a hundred well-loved Taylors, Martins, Gibsons, Breedloves, Yamahas, and more, strumming in almost symphonic sync, the effect was to magnify the song’s lonely but redemptive core, and remind us of why it continues to have a place in the repertoires of so many developing players.
That said, some of the crowd at City Winery were able pickers and longtime players for whom Guitar Mash was a natural extension of the kind of regular campfire jams and living room hootenannies that tend to be overshadowed by the role of mass-market music, concert spectacle, and celebrity culture that often pervades our thinking about how music functions in our lives. Part of Guitar Mash’s vision and mission is clearly to restore the communal element that folk songs are such perfect vehicles for, and to offer an inclusive experience that breaks down the “fourth wall” in favor of an approach that tips its hat to one of folk music’s founding principles: As Mary Gauthier reminded us, “This land is your land, this land is my land.”
“Everyone is playing, and everyone is concentrating, just like we are onstage,” says Douglas. “And while there are a lot of people on a high level musically, there are a lot of people who are just learning to play, and that’s really who I’m after,” says Douglas. “I’d like someone who comes to Guitar Mash to walk away thinking, ‘Wow, I just played with Keb’ Mo’ and John Oates.’ Because that’s inspiring. Guitar Mash allows everyone in the audience to have this connection with the music and the band onstage. Like Mark says, it’s truly a bridge; just one solid piece from the stage to the audience.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.