John Laswell on ROMP Instrument Workshops

Jun 1, 2012

Owensboro welcomes thousands of bluegrass and folk music enthusiasts later this month for the River of Music Party- or ROMP. Artists like Vince Gill, Old Crow Medicine Show and The Carolina Chocolate Drops headline the three day event. 

While entertaining, the event is also a bit educational for budding artists. It includes workshops with professional musicians. Rose Krzton-Presson spoke with the ROMP workshop coordinator John Laswell about how the workshops come together, what you can expect, and some of this year's highlights.


Tell me a little about how these ROMP instrument workshops are going to work.

Usually every year it’s kind of the same. Different faces, same concept. You know, what instruments are being played? Based on those instruments, we're going to get the best players I can find. Back when I first started, I was always assuming workshops would help people learn how to play. We sometimes get into that realm. But Pete Wernick and I talked and he said, ‘John, it’s not practical to have a bunch of musicians up there and people there at all different levels and really do instruction.’ Yes, people can learn some things because they can see the players play up close and even ask a question. But it’s not like a lesson like you would normally see where everybody gets to a certain point, ‘Everybody put your finger right here. Place your hand like this.’ I think if you play an instrument and get to one of your workshops, I think you’ll find it really entertaining. Not because of anything I did, but because these guys really are great.

You’ve been doing the workshops for the International Bluegrass Music Association in Nashville for quite some time. How did you become the coordinator for the IBMA and for ROMP for these instrument workshops? How did you get into this?

The first time I saw a workshop was the Kentucky Fried Chicken Festival which was a major festival in Louisville. I went up there and it was all the who’s who of mandolin playing mandolin at one time. A guy named Buck White, Sam Bush (who’s still one the biggest names in the business), David Grisman, Roland White, and his brother Clarence. It was just like, ‘Wow! Look at all of that.’ I stopped and thought, ‘Hey, why don’t all the festivals I go to have that?’ So I called Pete Wernick and said, ‘I’m thinking about doing workshops and I was wondering if you could help me because I know you’re the president of IBMA.’ He gave me a lot of input: ‘Well, this guy is more of a traditional player. That’s good, but now we need somebody a little bit more on the contemporary side.’ He knew the personalities- who might get along, where there might be some conflict. Just all kind of insights into the industry as to who does what and why. I’ve done the IBMA workshops now for 23 years. They’re moving to North Carolina next year, and this year will be my last for IBMA. I approached Gabrielle [Gray] and I saw that [ROMP] had a little something going on with workshops; and I said, ‘Can I do yours?’ That's my hometown, Owensboro and I'd really like to do that. It's kind of a nice way to continue doing that without driving far away.

What are some of the workshops that you’re anticipating for this year at ROMP? Like I’m especially looking forward to Sammy Shelor and I saw Scott Moore’s last year and his was great. I loved his workshop.

That particular one would be a good one because Sammy Shelor won an award that Steve Martin (the actor/comedian) presented to him for Banjo Player of the Year and he got a check for $50,000 from Steve Martin on Letterman. Sammy is going to be back with his band. But there’s another guy that I’ve really grown to appreciate him. His name is Greg Liszt. The typical way to play a banjo is to have a thumb and an index and a middle finger; and those three pick different notes at different times using roll patterns. For whatever reason, Greg decided to add another finger to the mix. I’m looking forward to his explanation as to why he does that because I’ll be sure to ask that. But he’s the only guy I’ve ever seen that does that. He’s in a group called The Deadly Gentlemen and The Deadly Gentlemen… any workshop they’re in is going to be another one I’m really going to be wanting to see.

ROMP will be in Owensboro’s Yellow Creek Park the last weekend of June. For a complete workshop schedule, click here.

This is the first in a series of conversations about this year's workshops at ROMP. Keep checking back and tuning in the hear talks with participating artists.