Interview: Bryan Sutton on the Blue Ridge Guitar Camp

Bryan Sutton’s Blue Ridge Guitar Camp launches in May, 2020 with an over-the-top instructor lineup: flatpicking legends Chris Eldridge, Courtney Hartman, David Grier, Dudley Connell and Sutton himself. But, beyond the world-renowned faculty, this guitar camp has an interesting twist: an application process that involves a short video submission from potential students. Patterned after Béla Fleck’s successful Blue Ridge Banjo Camp (held at the same facility in Brevard, North Carolina), it’s an intriguing model and one that promises to make for a stronger camp experience.

Before all those videos start flooding in (the application process opens on October 1), we decided to sit down with Sutton to hear about the camp from Sutton himself.

Fretboard Journal: You already are pretty rooted in the online instruction world. Are there some things that just need to be taught in person?

Bryan Sutton: Working with Artistworks has helped me formulate and articulate what I feel is a deeper way to talk about flatpicking and bluegrass guitar in general. I have a method now and feel more equipped these days to get in front of people just get into it. I see the in-person experience as a natural extension of what and how I teach and I enjoy getting to work in real time with folks. The camp opportunity takes this to yet another level with the additional energies of the other instructors and the all-around good vibes.

FJ: Not many guitar camps have an application process like yours. Can you describe it?

BS: One of the things I’m most excited about with BRGC is the opportunity to sort of “tweak the system” a little. Most music camps have participants rate and gauge themselves as part of the application process. I haven’t done every camp in the world but I’ve never seen this really work. Classes I’ve taught never seem fairly and evenly populated. We’re having folks submit a short video along with the standard application process to basically help us know more about who’s coming and ultimately make sure players of similar playing abilities learn with each other. The process is not intended to be a “make the cut” kind of audition.

FJ: What are you looking for? Is there an easy gauge for a player to know whether they’d fit in or not?

BS: I’m essentially looking for folks who are excited and motivated to be better guitar players. I imagine the camp will naturally skew towards more intermediate and advanced flatpickers, but I really want to encourage experienced players from other styles to apply. I want guitarists who sing and may primarily rhythm to apply. I like the idea of folks with those kind of different backgrounds learning from each other.

FJ: Can you describe a typical day at the camp? How much formal instruction versus jamming and concerts? Do you have any other surprises planned that go beyond the typical guitar camp experience?

BS: A lot of what will happen during the days will be what folks may have experienced at other camps. There’ll be a balance of formal instruction along with times where we’re working to create some really neat morning and evening group sessions. We may get into everything from performance opportunities, group “deep listening” time, Q & A with some special guests, and jamming, of course. As this is the first year, I have a lot of ideas, and as I get more of a sense of who’s coming I’ll be able to figure out the best use of the time.

There’s also the main Saturday night concert at the Brevard Music Center that’ll be open to the public. It’ll really be a celebration of the guitar where we’ll have some invited guests along with the instructors and campers.

FJ: The entire instruction staff is world-class: How do you decide who teaches what?

BS: This is another area where as I learn about who’s coming to the camp I’ll get with each of these instructors and work out what seems like an effective and comprehensive approach to what’s actually taught. I wanted to get a variety of styles and sounds with the instructors and we’ll certainly play to the strengths we have. I love that we have Courtney and Dudley who, along with being amazing guitar players, have made a name for themselves as singers and songwriters. Dudley has been in some of the most important bluegrass bands in history!

FJ: What is your long term hope for Blue Ridge? Can it grow or do you want to keep it relatively small?

BS: I’d like the BRGC to be a sort of “mountain top experience” for the participants. We’re already in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains so we’re halfway there! Between the facility itself, the instructors, and some of the extras we have planned, I hope that folks see the camp as a special and unique opportunity. I want to offer an experience you just can’t get at any other camp.

As far as growth, we’ll have to wait and see. I’m a fan of quality over quantity so I think we’re looking for a sweet spot.

Photo credit: John Partipilo for the Fretboard Journal #40