Tucked away in the hills of southeast Ohio is a place called Fur Peace Ranch. Founded by Jorma Kaukonen, guitarist for Hot Tuna, it's a place where musicians share their wisdom and perform concerts in front of fans and fellow musicians from across the country. A new documentary by Andie Walla called Fur Peace Ranch: It Doesn't Get Any Better Than This provides a glimpse into the world Kaukonen conceived in 1989 to be "a ranch that grows guitar players." It's a place where budding and seasoned musicians immerse themselves for several days and leave inspired and better musicians.
Walla works at Fur Peace Ranch, helping them do a multi-camera studio production for their YouTube channel. They film one song from every concert they hold at the Ranch and their videos have been seen roughly two million times. This documentary film was intended to showcase more of the overall Ranch experience.
"I had been doing all these live music videos and during the time I had personally spent at the Ranch there was just this sense of camaraderie and spirit," explained Walla. "I kept seeing this happen year after year with people coming back every year. I wanted to capture that spirit and share it with the world."
The documentary was shot entirely during one Pick N Putt Weekend. This is a special session that runs Friday through Monday as usual, but also includes a motorcycle ride led by Jorma that encompasses about 200 miles of road. The ride is held on Saturday or Sunday and the musical workshops are scheduled around rides, so nobody has to miss anything.
"I decided to capture the Pick N Putt weekend because I love motorcycles and it's one of Jorma's favorite weekends," said Walla. "He's a big motorcycle guy and there's a special vibe that happens that weekend that's a little more over the top than other weekends. I was lucky enough to sit in on a couple of classes by Jorma and some by Steve Kimoch and you get to see inside the classrooms. The films let you hear from people that are first timers and hear what their first impressions are, as well as from people who have been there dozens of times."
Some of the musicians who have served as instructors at Fur Peace Ranch include names like Dave Alvin, G.E. Smith, Bill Kirchen, Dar Williams, Chris Smither, Larry Campbell, Jill Sobule, David Lindley, and Chris Hillman. While guitar workshops are always in session, the Ranch also includes workshops on instruments from bass guitar to lap steel guitar, mandolin and percussion, and even vocals and songwriting. Space is limited and several sessions are already sold out through 2015.
Part of the lure is the way the Ranch removes the boundaries between musicians and fans. Attendees have an entire weekend to sit and talk to people about music with everybody being on the same page. The instructors don't carry a rock star attitude. They're easily accessible and they love passing on what they know.
"Let's say you always admired G.E. Smith as a band leader and guitar player and you wanted to take a class with him," continued Walla. "You'll study with him on a Friday or Saturday during the day, then get to see your teacher perform as part of the Saturday night concert series, and then you get to have class with him the next day. And everybody leaves on Monday. So if you were a fan of a particular style you could just pick the weekend you wanted to come and there's a concert thrown in too!"
Walla, who teaches video production at Ohio University in Athens, is excited to have the film screened at the New Jersey Film Festival with its connection to Rutgers University. She's a big believer in the support of the arts in higher education. Higher education actually played a major role in her first documentary. The subject was Nancy Cartwright, an actress who is best known as the voice of Bart Simpson. Cartwright returned to Ohio University (where she once was a student) as the commencement speaker in 2012. Walla, a huge Simpsons fan, used this opportunity to build a documentary on Cartwright.
"That was my first taste of doing a documentary," she said. "This is now the third or fourth one I've done, but I couldn't have done it without Bart Simpson!"
Working at the Ranch is a dream come true for Walla who admits to being a fan of Jorma's music. She had just finished her undergraduate work when the Ranch began looking for someone to help out with videos. Several million views of the YouTube channel later she's hoping to continue spreading the word about the Ranch with the documentary.
"Jorma's just turned 74 years old and he has more energy than I could ever hope to have," she added. "He's on the road constantly touring as a solo act and with Hot Tuna. He's still very active but a lot of his old buddies aren't around anymore. I think it's cool that he gets to be around the Ranch and share his stories and interact and help people learn from the best of the best. And there are so many Jorma fans out there that don't even know this is going on. I just thought it would be great if more people knew about it."
Saturday-January 31 at 7pm
New Jersey Film Festival
New Brunswick, NJ
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.