We’re currently assembling the 2017 gathering. Stay tuned for faculty updates.
ARTISTIC DIRECTOR JERRON PAXTON
Although only in his 20s, Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton has earned a reputation for transporting audiences back to the 1920s and making them wish they could stay there for good. Paxton may be one of the greatest multi-instrumentalists that you have not heard of. Yet. This young musician sings and plays banjo, guitar, piano, fiddle, harmonica, Cajun accordion and the bones (percussion). Paxton has an eerie ability to transform traditional jazz, blues, folk and country into the here and now and make it real.
He’s a world class talent and a uniquely colorful character who has been on the cover of Living Blues Magazine and the Village Voice and has been interviewed on FOX News. Paxton’s sound is influenced by the likes of Fats Waller and “Blind” Lemon Jefferson. According to Will Friedwald in the Wall Street Journal, Paxton is “virtually the only music-maker of his generation—playing guitar, banjo, piano and violin, among other implements—to fully assimilate the blues idiom of the 1920s and ’30s.” Playing with Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton is like being at a house party in the wee hours after all the civilians have been weeded out and it’s time for the lunatics to shine. Jerron is musical genius, expert in all forms of traditional American music from Blues to Ragtime to Swing to Appalachian to you name it. He is a brilliant player of piano, guitar, fiddle, banjo, harmonica, Cajun accordion, again you name it. He mesmerizes audiences with his storytelling, his humor, and his prodigious musicianship.
SUZY THOMPSON – GUITAR/VIOLIN
Suzy Thompson is one of the rare musicians today who has mastered the acoustic blues violin, following in the footsteps of Lonnie Chatmon, Clifford Hayes and Eddie Anthony. A powerful blues singer in the styles of Memphis Minnie and Bessie Smith, and a highly respected blues fingerpicking guitarist, Suzy is unique in her ability to combine fiddle, vocals and guitar in the blues and ragtime idioms.
In 2003, after thirty years as a working musician, Suzy Thompson released her first solo CD, “No Mockingbird” which features blues songs (including the title track, which has been described as “Memphis Minnie on acid”) and oldtime fiddle rags. Suzy is backed on the album by an all-star cast including Maria Muldaur, Fritz Richmond, Geoff Muldaur, and Mike Seeger. Her followup CD, “Stop & Listen”, released by Arhoolie Records in 2005, is a live concert recording with Del Rey, Eric Thompson, and the Thompson String Ticklers.Over the past three decades, Suzy has been a leading force in many influential roots music groups, including the California Cajun Orchestra (two award-winning CDs on the Arhoolie label), the Blue Flame String Band (with Kate Brislin and Alan Senauke), Klezmorim (who started the klezmer music revival in the 1970’s), the all-woman Any Old Time String Band (featured on the Grammy-winning Arhoolie box set), and most recently, the Bluegrass Intentions (with banjo ace Bill Evans.) She has also worked with Darol Anger, Laurie Lewis, Beausoleil, Peter Rowan, Maria Muldaur, Jody Stecher, Del Rey, Geoff Muldaur, Alice Gerrard, D.L. Menard, Jane Voss, Rinde Eckert, the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band, Sukay, and Frankie Armstrong, among others.
CRAIG VENTRESCO – GUITAR
Craig Ventresco’s unconventional musical direction was set during early childhood, when he fell in love with old 78-rpm recordings of early ragtime and jazz. When other kids were listening to Led Zeppelin, Ventresco was searching through dusty bins for rare sides by such obscure artists as Billy Murray, Arthur Collins, and Will Denny. “I love all kinds of music from the turn of the century – ragtime, waltzes, marches,” he explains. “I wasted every dime I’ve ever made on old records.”
Ventresco’s parents forced him to take classical guitar lessons, and he can read and write music. But he is essentially a self-taught. Much of the material he plays was not originally guitar music. The rags of pianist Scott Joplin are obvious examples, but Ventresco also draws inspiration from horn players, accordionists, and even the American Quartet, a best-selling vocal group that scored hits during the 1910s and ’20s with such popular songs as “Casey Jones,” “It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary,” and “Over There.”
Ventresco’s playing stands out by virtue of his aggressive sound. Using only a flatpick (to set up an attack that can’t really be duplicated with a naked thumb or a thumbpick) and the ring finger of his right hand, Ventresco manages to sound like three guitarists, and he achieves a brawniness lacking in the approach of many fingerstyle guitarists who play similar material. “People tell me my style is all screwed up,” Ventresco says of his idiosyncratic picking, “but I think people used to play this kind of music in a muscular and aggressive way. My favorite ragtime pieces are the piano rolls, and when you hear piano rolls you really hear a heavy left hand.”
MEREDITH AXLEROD – GUITAR/VOCALS
Meredith Axelrod is multi-instrumentalist and vocalist who envisions the limitless potential of early twentieth century music, whether it be Ragtime, Music Hall, Pop Standard, Boogie Woogie, Tin Pan Alley, String band, Jazz, Country, Blues or even Jug Band music, and embodies the spirit that brought the music into existence and drove it ahead. Ms. Axelrod learned to sing and play by listening to how folks did it a century ago – through the medium of cylinders, 78-rpm records, and from sheet music.
The dominant theme throughout her expansive repertoire, is that, whatever the genre, these are songs she learns from the original sources which were released between the 1890s and the 1930s. Delightfully engaging and unassumingly comic, her performances draw on many of the tools of musical scholarship. Part of the allure of old time music, indeed any music throughout the history of recorded music, is hearing the original recordings as played and sung by the original performers in their heyday, loving what they’re doing and doing it because it means something to them in that moment, never because of nostalgia, and Meredith brings the same unbridled passion, earnest devotion and candid vitality to all of her music. There’s nothing to dust off in her bag of reclaimed songs, as her resourceful arrangements and heartfelt renditions prove. In her care, the songs are unmistakably inspired, infectious and relevant. Meredith Axelrod is an example to herald, someone who has found possibility and joy in the treasures of cultural folklore.
BEN PAYTON – GUITAR
Ben Wiley Payton of Jackson, Mississippi is an acoustic blues artist with roots in the Delta, but he’s only a relatively recent convert to the vintage style. Born in tiny Coila in the hill country just east of the Delta, Ben lived in Greenwood—the resting place of Robert Johnson—before moving as a teen with his family in the early 1960s to Chicago. There Payton fell in the city’s vibrant blues and soul scene, performing with artists including Bobby Rush.
In the late ’60s jazz pianist Randy Weston recruited Payton for an extended stay at a club in Morocco, which widened his musical outlook.
In the late ’70s Payton laid down his guitar and concentrated on raising his family, but picked up the acoustic guitar again in the ’90s. Payton soon returned to his home state of Mississippi, and began studying and then performing the music of early masters including Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, and Mississippi John Hurt.
He also applies his rich voice and considerable guitar skills to his own compositions—his debut CD, Diggin’ Up Old Country Blues, features all originals that build upon early Mississippi blues traditions. The CD received heavy play on XM/Sirius’ station “Bluesville.”
Payton has a great passion for blues history and teaching others about acoustic country blues and its connections to broader themes in African American history.
MARCUS CARTWRIGHT – VOCALS/GUITAR
Marcus Cartwright was born in Stuttgart, Arkansas, and raised in Holly Grove, AR. Marcus loves playing his guitar, mainly the delta blues style. He is a Christian and plays regularly at various churches. He began singing at the age of 4, playing the guitar harmonica at the age of 10 and playing the guitar at the age of 14. His first blues festival performance was in October 2010 at the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, AR, on the Bit O Blues Stage. Since then he has performed regularly at the festival. He also performed on the festival’s Sonny Boy Williamson Main Stage and hosted the Festival Youth Jam since 2014. Marcus has been a regular performer at the Juke Joint Festival, in Clarksdale, MS.
Marcus participated in the 2013 Pinetop Perkins Workshop as a student which allowed him to play at the Annual Pinetop Perkins Homecoming with Pinetop Perkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Hubert Sumlin and Preston Shannon. In 2015 he worked as an intern teaching guitar during the workshop.
In 2015 Marcus performed at the first St. Francis County Heritage Festival, Forrest City, AR. Marcus has performed with other artists such as Walter “Wolfman” Washington, Phil Wiggins and The Peterson Brothers.
ELEANOR ELLIS – GUITAR
Eleanor Ellis, a native of Louisiana, has taught and played throughout the United States and in Europe. She has developed a distinctive and personal approach to the music. According to one reviewer, “More than copying one artist or another, Ellis distills the elements of the originals and transmits them, intact, in her own expressive way.” Her musical influences include the blues musicians she has known personally as well as early blues greats such as Memphis Minnie and Mississippi John Hurt.
She has a long involvement with the blues scene and has traveled and played with the late Gospel street singer Flora Molton, was a regular at the Saturday afternoon barbershop blues jams of Piedmont bluesman Archie Edwards and sometimes accompanied Delta blues great Eugene Powell in Greenville, Mississippi.
Eleanor is a founding member of the Washington, DC, Blues Society and the Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation. She has written about the Blues for several publications, teaches guitar privately and at various Blues campsand is producer and editor of the video documentary Blues Houseparty, which features well-known Piedmont blues musicians such as John Jackson, John Cephas, Phil Wiggins and Archie Edwards. Once upon a time she also once worked at the Archive of New Orleans Jazz at Tulane University and at the New Orleans Jazz Museum.
ERNIE VEGA – MANDOLIN
String master Ernie Vega performs stark versions of Country Blues, Gospel-blues, Old-Time, & Jazz classics (as well as original compositions) that are stripped down to their barest elements. Sounding like ghosts from a by-gone era, he illustrates the simple elegant power of these great songs.
Ernie performs and teaches his broad repertoire of songs at the fabulous Jalopy Theater, a venue fast becoming Brooklyn’s center of Folk, Roots and the Art of the Jug.
Ernie Vega transports you to a time when the Village was still bohemian and old-time music was all there was.
ADAM TANNER – MANDOLIN
Adam Tanner grew up in northern California and was exposed to early country music by his older brother who was learning the guitar during the Bluegrass boom of the 1970’s. By 13 Adam began his obsession with the mandolin, and specifically the Monroe style. Inspired by live performances of Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys in California, Adam bought all the recordings of them available. He slowed the records down on his turntable in hope of catching all he details of Bill’s style.
In his 20’s Adam devoted much of time to playing and studying old time fiddle music and the styles of various players of the Southeastern United States. Adam’s approach to mandolin and fiddle playing reflects the diversity of rural music heard on 78rpm discs made prior to Monroe’s recorded debut, as well as field recordings from various sources. Adam has toured in both the United States and Europe over the last 15 years as a member of The Crooked Jades, The Hunger Mountain Boys and The Twilite Broadcasters.
For the last 10 years Adam has been on staff at The Swannanoa Gathering and Mars Hill College in Western North Carolina teaching old time fiddle mandolin and guitar. He is currently teaching at East Tennessee State University’s Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Country Music program.
HENRY BUTLER – PIANO
Considered the premier exponent of the great New Orleans jazz and blues piano tradition, Butler is a ten-time Pinetop Perkins (formerly W. C. Handy) Best Blues Instrumentalist Award nominee. A rich amalgam of jazz, Caribbean, classical, pop, blues, and R&B, his music is as excitingly eclectic as that of his New Orleans birthplace.
A rich amalgam of jazz, Caribbean, classical, pop, blues, and R&B, his music is as excitingly eclectic as that of his New Orleans birthplace. Blinded by glaucoma at birth, Butler has been playing the piano since he was six years old, and arranging, composing, and performing professionally since he was twelve.
A New York Times review of a performance at New York City’s Jazz Standard described Butler as “percussive in his attack, ostentatious with his technique…the picture of stubborn mischief — and, not coincidentally, of New Orleans pianism. He obliged the spirit of the occasion with his own stylistic consommé: billowing whole-tone glissandi; furrowed, Monkish hiccups; boppish two-handed octaves; flare-ups of funk and Chopin.”
ETHAN LEINWAND – PIANO
Ethan Leinwand is a St. Louis-based blues pianist and preservationist. A student of the music’s rich history and varied regional styles, Ethan presents personal interpretations of many of the great (and forgotten) old-time barrelhouse masters. He specializes in St. Louis pre-war piano blues, Texas barrelhouse, Deep South barrelhouse, early Chicago boogie-woogie, and good-time hokum stride. His influences include: Jimmy Yancey, Henry Brown, Little Brother Montgomery, Peetie Wheatstraw, Aaron ‘Pinetop’ Sparks, Albert Ammons, Black Bob, Cooney Vaughn, Professor Longhair, and Carl Sonny Leyland.
Though it’s a tradition rarely championed, the piano has played a tremendous role in the history and development of the blues. In his performances, Ethan teaches this story, connecting tunes with the pianists, regions and environments whence it came. Ultimately, a more complete history of the blues emerges.
Originally from Middletown, CT, Ethan has spent time living in New Orleans and Brooklyn. He moved to St. Louis in the summer of 2014, and, connecting with the city’s thriving blues community and its deep piano blues heritage, has quickly become a mainstay. In addition to his solo work, Ethan plays in multiple projects, include The Bottlesnakes (piano/guitar duo with Nick Pence) and The St. Louis Steady Grinders (with vocalist Miss Jubilee).
PHIL WIGGINS – HARMONICA
During the early years of his development as a musician, Phil Wiggins was constantly playing with and learning from some of the most notable acoustic blues musicians that made their homes in the Washington, D.C. area: Flora Molten, Mother Ester Mae Scott, Wilber “Chief” Ellis, John Jackson, Archie Edwards, John Cephas, and others. He was mentored as well by many other musicians who frequented the D.C. area: Johnny Shines, Sam Chapman, Sunnyland Slim, Henry Townsend, Robert Lockwood, John Dee Holeman, Algia Mae Hinton, Howard Armstrong, Ted Bogan, Etta Baker, and others. “I have always been amazed by and grateful for the generosity of these masters of traditional blues. They welcomed me and shared freely of their knowledge and abilities.”
Phil performed with Flora Molten at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., every summer from 1972-1976. It was there in 1976 that he met and joined with Chief Ellis on piano, John Cephas on guitar, and James Bellamy on bass, forming the group Chief Ellis and the Barrelhouse Rockers. They performed at several venues and festivals in the D.C. area until Chief retired. Phil and John Cephas then formed the duo Cephas and Wiggins. They performed together for over 30 years, becoming America’s premier blues duo. As ambassadors of the Piedmont Blues, Cephas and Wiggins took their music all over America as well as all over the world. “John and I have performed on every continent except Antarctica.” Some venues of note include Carnegie Hall, Sydney Opera House, Royal Albert Hall, and the White House.
BRUCE “SUNPIE” BARNES – ACCORDION
Bruce Sunpie Barnes is a veteran New Orleans musician, former park ranger with the National Park Service (30 years), actor, photographer, book author, former high school biology teacher, former college football All-American, and former NFL player (Kansas City Chiefs). Sunpie Barnes’ many careers have taken him far and wide. He has traveled to over 50 countries playing his own style of what he calls Afro-Louisiana music incorporating blues, zydeco, gospel, Caribbean and African influenced rhythms and melodies. He is a multi-instrumentalist, master accordion and harmonica player, also piano, rubboard, talking drum, and dejembe. He learned accordion from some of the best Zydeco pioneers in Louisiana, including Fernest Arceneaux, John Delafose, and Clayton Sampy. Along with his musical group Sunpie and the Louisiana Sunspots, he has performed at festivals and concerts across the US and around the globe. Sunpie has recorded 6 critically acclaimed CDs with his compositions currently featured in 16 Hollywood film productions.
In addition to this musical work he is also a current member of the Paul Simon Band and recently finished a 58 city arena tour “Paul Simon and Sting Together”, which span 34 countries (2014-2015). Film acting has also been a important part of his busy career. Sunpie’s work has appeared in such Hollywood productions as Point of No Return, Deja Vu, Under Cover Blues, Jonah Hex, Treme, The Big Easy, Skeleton Key, Heartless, The Gates Of Silence and Odd Girl Out.
He is deeply involved in New Orleans parade culture and co-authored the 2015 critically acclaimed book “Talk That Music Talk” – Passing On Brass Band Music In New Orleans “The Traditional Way”. Over 300 of Sunpie’s photographs are featured in this book.
He is the Big Chief of the North Side Skull and Bone Gang, one of the oldest existing Black Carnival groups in New Orleans. Sunpie is also a active member of the secondline parading organization, Black Men of Labor Social Aid and Pleasure Club.
LIGHTNIN’ WELLS – UKE
Mike “Lightnin'” Wells breathes new life into the vintage tunes of the 1920s and depression era America employing various appropriate stringed instruments in a dynamic style which he has developed in over thirty years of performing experience. Raised in eastern North Carolina, Wells learned to play harmonica as a young child and taught himself to play the guitar as he developed a strong interest in traditional blues and folk music. His many years of public performance began in Chapel Hill, N.C. in the early 1970s. During the following decades he has presented his brand of acoustic blues throughout North Carolina, the United States and Europe.
Lightnin’ remains an insatiable student and researcher, studying the various forms of American roots music from bygone eras. With his experience, knowledge and well-honed performance skills, Lightnin’ Wells has established himself at the forefront of the traditional blues revival. His musical style is personal and energetic yet remains true to the original root form. His goal is to entertain and educate using a variety of sources, influences and techniques to express his dedication, respect and pleasure in presenting this unique American art form. Wrote one recent reviewer; “Whether you look for to performers for inspiration, education, virtuosity, or sheer entertainment, Lightnin’ Wells delivers all the above, every single time”.
AARON GUNN – VIOLIN
Aaron “Mr.” Gunn is a veteran of the new generation of blues and string band musicians that have cut their teeth on the streets of the U.S. and abroad. Growing up in Florida, music was his avenue to other cultures and his teachers were the great recordings of earlier generations.
He started playing as a young teen in the old time and Irish communities, but didn’t begin busking in earnest until moving to Asheville, NC, where he discovered that he could make an honest living via bucket and case.
In New Orleans, Gunn found a broader community with the same mindset and moved there shortly after. He has grown into a formidable multi-instrumentalist with a solid grounding in jazz & vernacular music from America and beyond, but it is the role, voice and proper use of the violin that remains his principal obsession.
LEROY ETIENNE – WASHBOARD/PERCUSION
Leroy Etienne was born in St. Martinville and now resides in Lafayette, LA. Although everyone spoke Creole in his household growing up, Leroy learned much of the language from his mother, Odelia Porter Etienne.
Leroy’s father, Lawrence Etienne taught Leroy the Bamboula or rumba rhythm commonly used in the older Creole musical forms of juré and la la music. Both juré and la la are musical predecessors to zydeco.
Leroy has has a deep connection to this music and currently plays drums with Sunpie and the Louisiana Sunspots.