Southbound Again

By 
David Hollender
March 31, 2008
Ricky Skaggs talks to the Opry crowd after receiving his honorary degree. Behind him are Lawrence J. Simpson (center) and Stephen Webber, professor of Music Production & Engineering (right).
Ricky Skaggs, moments after receiving his Berklee honorary degree.
Photo courtesy of the Grand Ole Opry
Photo courtesy of the Grand Ole Opry

Berklee's 2008 spring break trip to Nashville was one of the busiest ever. Led by faculty members Pat Pattison and Stephen Webber, the trip—from March 14-19—provided 125 students with more than two dozen sessions and events featuring top names from every aspect of the music business, including performers, studio musicians, songwriters, producers, engineers, record company executives, publishers, managers, and song pluggers. By the end of the week, students had received knowledge distilled from decades of experience, preparing them for the move to Nashville that many of them will make after graduation.

While bluegrass is always part of the annual trip, it helped provide one of the biggest highlights this year when Berklee gave an honorary doctorate to mandolin great Ricky Skaggs on March 18. In previous years Skaggs had welcomed Berklee students to his recording studio, and this year, he joined a list of illustrious musicians who have received an honorary degree. The students attended the Tuesday night Grand Ole Opry where they heard, among other bands, the Whites and Del McCoury Band.

During the show, students took an eye-opening tour. They watched players warming up in their dressing rooms, saw television and radio production facillties, and even stood in the wings of the stage during one part of the Opry. The last band of the evening was Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, who played four tunes before the honorary degree ceremony began.

Next, the Opry crowd watched a brief video in which President Roger H. Brown described the acoustic string principal at Berklee. Lawrence J. Simpson, senior vice president for academic affairs, and trustee Jeff Davis made the presentation to Skaggs. Following the ceremony, Skaggs, still wearing the robe, grabbed his mandolin and closed out the Opry show by playing "Bluegrass Breakdown."

After the Opry ended, the students were treated to a two-hour private session with Skaggs and the band in the Opry television studio. The band played and students asked questions of Skaggs and the other players. Some students were bluegrass players and some had just heard the music live for the first time. Regardless, Skaggs and his bandmates generously gave time to everyone and connected well with the students. Plans are currently in-the-works to schedule a visit by the band to Berklee where they will give clinics, work with student players and bands, and perform.

Other sessions and excursions of interest to bluegrass enthusiasts also took place during the Nashville visit. Everyone headed to the Station Inn on Sunday night for a jam session. On Tuesday afternoon Grammy-nominated Berklee graduate Casey Driessen, Grammy-nominated engineer Jason Lehning (Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, Viktor Krauss, Dreissen), and bassist Viktor Krauss spent two hours sharing insights with students in a panel discussion held at Warner Brothers Records.

There were also a number of very inspiring and educational non-bluegrass sessions.

On Wednesday, students filled the Tracking Room to watch Vince Gill record a new song. He was backed by first-call session players including Eddie Bayers (drums), John Hobbs (keyboard), David Hungate (bass), J.T. Corenflos and Steve Wilson (guitars). Hobbs produced the session and Billy Sherrill engineered. The students filled the studio, listening through headphones while seated right beside the players in the isolation booths, while others sat in the control room. Gill played through the new tune a couple times for the players, who jotted down a chart in Nashville notation, talked briefly about the arrangement and put down the tracks. Most of the players on this session, along with guitarists Paul Franklin and Brent Mason, presented a panel discussion earlier in the week.

Other presenters included Mark Montgomery of Echo Music, marketing whiz and music producer Scott Rouse, country artist Hal Ketchum, and Dinse Sith of DS Management (Alison Krauss).

This article was adapted from a posting on the Bluegrass Blog. You can also read the comics a student made about the trip.