After our pre-Gathering party introduction last week, this week’s episode is a guest blog by a Newbie to our world – Tony Barnard, who came all the way from London even though he didn’t yet have his harp guitar (he’s expecting his custom Stephen Sedgwick any week now…).

Before he showed up, I didn’t know him other than through selling him some CDs and answering a couple of emails, nor did I remember that he was a professional 6-string jazz guitarist in the U.K.  Sharing the adventures of our misspent youths in hard rock bands (what we could remember at least), I knew I had found a kindred spirit, and a new member of our extended HGG family.  I’m also extremely gratified that he took the time to share his own passion of the event with us.  Here’s Tony’s unsolicited report (complete with all those unnecessary “u’s” and other odd English spellings):

Mooresville North Carolina USA, 23rd -25rd OCTOBER 2015
by Tony Barnard

The Harp Guitar Gathering! An event, that in my mind’s eye, was filled with magic and mystery, peopled by musicians of unrivaled skill and artistry; able to transport their listener to realms previously unimagined. Plucking miniature symphonies of heart rending emotion, whether, wistfully, melancholic to jubilant, from phantasmagorical instruments straight from the land of Faerie, the like of which most people have never seen or heard before.

Being my first Harp Guitar Gathering I was understandably a bit nervous, as the only person I really knew was Gregg Miner, and that was only through the odd emailing session, so I could hardly call him a friend (yet). Still it was nice to know that I did actually know somebody however ephemerally. On the flight to Charlotte from London I was very excited and also getting more nervous that I didn’t bring a harp guitar, as luthier Stephen Sedgwick has about 4 more weeks to go working on mine. Gregg had told me that it didn’t matter as there were usually lots of instruments to play, but having never experienced a gathering I was still full of trepidation, (which is hard to get these days).

I arrived at the airport and looked to see if anybody was there to pick me up. In a sort of last minute email to our host, Randall Sprinkle, I was hoping his son Noah would pick me up. I didn’t find anybody with a sign, nor did I hear any pages with my name involved, so I caught a taxi to the hotel in Mooresville. As soon as I had I checked in and put my luggage down in my room than the phone rang and it was Jaci Rohr (Gregg’s wife) wondering where I was. She and Gregg had discovered that Noah was at the airport and I had missed him in what will go down in history as the great Charlotte airport farce. As they were on their way to the hotel from the airport, they picked me up and took me straight to the beautiful house of our host Randall Sprinkle and his wife Jane. I was welcomed at the hotel by Jaci and Gregg in the most delightful and friendly way, immediately putting me at ease.

I was very jet lagged, nervous and felt like a complete outsider, but the show must go on, so I followed Gregg and Jaci up the porch steps and into the house, where I was given the most warm and friendly reception by Jane and Randall Sprinkle and the first person I met in the hallway was none other than Stephen Bennett! I was very taken with this but managed, as most musicians do, to hide my urge to jump up and down and say ”You’re Stephen Bennett!”

Calm kept, we had a lovely little chat and when I said I didn’t have a harp guitar with me, to my everlasting delight and pride, Stephen offered me a “spare” Dyer he happened to have with him for the whole weekend. I was truly blown away by his act of generosity, trust and kindness. That night was very memorable for me; I met Paul Price, Frank Doucette, Nancy Bennett, Steve and Vickie Farmer, Tony and Dave Powell, Tony Karol, Bruce and Cindi Labadie, Benoit Meulle-Stef, Steve Silva, Joe and Linda Morgan and Randall Sprinkle of course. I heard some magical playing, and I got to play a few different harp guitars. I was in heaven!

Everybody there was so friendly and treated me like an old friend from the word go. Nancy Bennett said to me at one point “you’re one of the family now” and I really felt it.

In the beginning I was afraid that no one would talk to me, or understand my Aussie accent, but no, I seemed to have suddenly acquired a room full of new friends, who were all fascinating, interesting, intelligent people , and to top that off, they all either played the harp guitar, made harp guitars, or had an interest in harp guitars … what more could I ask for? I had a ten foot smile all night and the jet lag vanished in a puff of “Wow! I’m actually here-ness!”

We said our farewells around 11 pm and headed back to the hotel, where even more harp guitarists had arrived and there was much hello-ing, hugging, hand shaking, smiling, and milling going on. I, being an Aussie, decided to have a beer at the bar (not that being an Aussie is much of an excuse!). To quell my excitement, and the excuse I gave myself was “to help me get some sleep.” I had a lovely time chatting to Paul Price about our mutual friend Stephen Sedgwick, and London in general (which is where I’m living at the moment) and met Mike Doolin, one of my luthier heroes, and so many other people my head was swimming with names and guitars!

There was harp guitar playing going on everywhere in the hotel foyer, luthiers discussing various techniques (and joking about) and laughs aplenty. I eventually went to bed late, and woke about 4 hours later…. (cursed jet lag rears its ugly head) and met even more harp guitarists.

That first day was amazing. I was completely blown away by the sincerity, honesty and pure love of these marvellous instruments that everybody there had. I spent the day in a sort of semi dreamlike state. I saw so many wonderful instruments my head was spinning.

That evening, at the welcome dinner I met even more guitarists and brilliant makers (and let’s face it , without the luthiers , we wouldn’t be here!) and got to hear wonderful music from many players at the open mike. What affected me most of all was the total lack of critique and judgement of any player, just enjoyment and appreciation, no matter what level of musicianship was displayed. I have been a professional guitarist for some 41 years, played all over and with .. blah blah blah! But when my turn came around, I looked up, and realised that practically everyone in the room was a harp guitarist, and some pretty big names amongst them. I found myself in a state of unnatural nervousness, and fumbled my way through a piece, happy to have played it on Stephen’s guitar. As an extra bonus I also got to meet two more of my favourite harp guitarists, Andy Wahlberg and Muriel Anderson, and hear them play. It was all a bit surreal and marvellous in the extreme.

The next day was intense. 9 am till about 10.30 pm of fabulous harp guitar playing, a bit of a jam session in the grounds of the venue with Paul Price, a fascinating luthier’s panel, Phil DeGruy, The Zingaresca duo, Muriel and Andy, Stephen Bennett, Don Alder, Musically Yours, Randall and Jane Sprinkle’s trio which was a wonderful experience. The best bit of the day for me though was actually getting to be on stage at the end for the traditional “The Water is wide” and I got to be in the photo (can’t wait for a copy); selfish I know, but a bit of a dream come true.

The last day was even more wonderful and my tiny mind was starting to crumble under the weight of the sheer joy I was experiencing. This joy, by the way, had nothing to do with the fact that I didn’t have to drive my kids anywhere for the whole weekend, it was that in all my life, I have never experienced a weekend like it. Unique!

I checked a few workshops and did the open mike again, was mightily entertained and educated by Gregg Miner’s pontifications, and I unexpectedly got to perform at the recital with Mike Doolin and Paul Price which was an honour, great fun and very musically rewarding.

I got to hear guys like John Riley, Dan Schwartz, Frank Doucette, Steve Farmer, Bruce Labadie and Mark Farley, amongst many others (sorry for any I have left out, you were all great). It was simply the best weekend I have ever had.

The last evening was filled with laughs as we gathered at a lovely bar/restaurant in Mooresville for a farewell evening. Stephen Bennett started the music up with some beautiful solos and then followed Gregg Miner and his brother who were just hilarious with some routines they had worked up back in their college days.

It was a mirth overload. Stephen came back after Gregg and bro’ and was joined by Andy Wahlberg, who did the most entertaining and hilarious set of songs I think I’ve ever heard.

I thought for a few moments there that Gregg Miner was going to choke to death with laughter, my eyes were flowing with tears of laughter, not only at Andy’s material, but Gregg’s infectious giggling. I had no idea that Andy sang so well, and his lyrics are very clever… and of course the harp guitar playing from both Stephen and Andy was impeccable.

We all had many drinks and laughs until we had to leave at 11pm when the bar closed.

Back to the hotel, more harp guitar playing in the foyer, and swapping of numbers, jokes, more harp guitar playing… needless to say it was late night and I had so many great fun conversations with so many great people.
Sadly it all came to an end, and on Monday morning I was forced (not literally) to say goodbye to a crowd of people, who had been total strangers to me two days before and now I genuinely and honestly think of as good friends. The Harp Guitar Gathering is made up of people from all walks of life, myriad occupations and vastly different tastes in music, yet all joined in the love of the harp guitar and, let’s face it, music in general. I found all of the music to my taste; I have never been a musical snob and enjoy it all from classical, jazz, to rock and country pickin’ and everything else in between (with the exception of certain, shouty rhyming talk to drum tracks… you know the one).

I feel honoured and privileged to have been a part of the 13th Harp Guitar Gathering and to have been accepted so readily and with so much warmth. I thank all of you at the Gathering for making me feel such a part of it. I made some lifelong friends there!

Another thing that struck me, there was absolutely no musical snobbery, which is extraordinarily rare these days. I also think Gregg and Jaci, Stephen and Nancy, Joe and Linda Morgan and all those who organise this event deserve medals for all the work they put into it (sorry again for those I have omitted…. I’m a new boy). Randall did a marvellous job as host and he and his family worked tirelessly throughout the weekend to make everything go smoothly. Brilliant work! Thank you on behalf of all the gatherers.

Mike Doolin drove me to the airport and we had a last beer together while we waited for our flights, discussing the weekend and already making plans for next year. My Harp Guitar Gathering smile, which was there all weekend, was still there when I got on the plane and stubbornly refused to leave my face. This turned into a good thing because I seemed to get great service from the flight attendants…. Ha ha ha little did they know!

I could write pages on this fabulous weekend, but I fear it’s a bit like telling somebody about the dream you had last night, boring, a bit incoherent and yawn inducing if it didn’t happen to you, not to mention my writing style. The Harp Guitar Gathering is on my calendar from now on. I cannot wait for the next gathering. I am totally hooked and the only thing that will keep me away is a gig at Carnegie Hall… in other words, see you at the next Gathering!

Tony Barnard

Photos courtesy of Tony Barnard, Linda Morgan, Dan Pease, Benoit Meulle-Stef