The Strings of Summer: Joe Walsh on Berklee’s American Roots Weekend

Mike Keefe-Feldman
March 14, 2014
American Roots Music students perform at Berklee.
Joe Walsh (left) and Darol Anger (right) will teach at Berklee's American Roots Weekend on June 20-22, 2014.
Matt Glaser, artistic director of the American Roots Music Program, performs at Berklee during a summer program.
Renowned fiddle player and Berklee associate professor of strings Darol Anger works with a student.
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Dave Green
Photo by Kelly Davidson

For the first time ever, Berklee’s American Roots Music Program is offering a summer session for acoustic instrumentalists in genres such as bluegrass, blues, folk, country, and swing. The Berklee American Roots Weekend, the newest addition to Berklee's summer programs lineup, will run from June 20 to June 22, 2014, and will feature an unparalleled roster of roots musicians.

Berklee String Department instructor and alumnus Joe Walsh '07 will serve as the program's associate director. Walsh is a highly sought-after mandolin player currently performing with Mr. Sun, a new bluegrass quartet with violin virtuoso and Berklee String Department associate professor Darol Anger. Walsh recently spoke about the American Roots Weekend, which is open to musicians who are at least 15-years-old and are interested in advancing their musicianship on instruments such as violin, viola, cello, bass, mandolin, guitar, and harp.

What can students who attend this program expect?

“It will be some of the best roots musicians in the world coming together for the weekend to offer group lessons. Students will be able to play in an ensemble coached by various extremely high-level players. The intention is to have some classes that will give students a sense of music theory and musicality with things like ear training and songwriting or tune-writing.”

Who will students in the program be studying with?

“We’ll have (Berklee associate professor of songwriting) Mark Simos, who has written a bunch of songs for Alison Krauss. For songwriting or tune writing, he’s really a heavy-hitter. Viktor Krauss (renowned bass player who has worked with Bill Frisell '77 and Lyle Lovett) is coming, and man, he’s one of my heroes. We’ve added (Grammy-winning banjo player) Alison Brown to the lineup, too. Matt Munisteri, a guitarist and songwriter, is another really awesome person. He’s such a badass when it comes to swing and he’s toured with people like Mark O’Connor and Madeline Peyroux.”

“Also, it’s hard to overestimate the influence that (violinist and director of Berklee’s American Roots Music Program) Matt Glaser has had; for those of us who aspire to be good improvisers and instrumentalists in folk, bluegrass, and beyond, he’s just a hero to us and there aren’t a lot of chances to study with somebody like that or Darol Anger if you’re not already a Berklee student. We'll also have Paul Rishell, Annie Raines, and Maeve Gilchrist. I mean, these are some of the most influential roots musicians in the world.”

See the full roster of American Roots Music summer program faculty here.

Watch Berklee's American Roots Ensemble perform during a 2012 Commencement concert here:

What styles of music fall under the roots umbrella?

“It’s a fluid term, but we’re thinking of mostly acoustic stuff with its roots in some kind of folk music, whether it’s bluegrass, old-time, blues, early swing, old country—basically, vernacular music or the music of the people.”

Many roots musicians have had formal training but there are also plenty who have not had such training. What’s the value of studying this music at Berklee?

“I’m coming from the bluegrass world, and you don’t need to go to Berklee to play bluegrass, but for me, I wanted to play bluegrass with as much control over my own playing as possible. That’s what guided me toward ear training and harmony classes at Berklee. What Berklee offers is the ability to really understand music and to be able to make more precise decisions about what you want to do with your music. I wanted to come to Berklee to deepen my understanding of music, which is something I wouldn’t find at any bluegrass jam, even as I learned thousands of tunes.”

You’ve played with some of the biggest names in bluegrass: Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris, Béla Fleck—the list could go on and on. Naturally you need a certain amount of talent, drive, and hard work to do that, but how much does your music education at Berklee play into it?

“I’ve pondered that a lot—and who knows what would have happened if I hadn’t come to Berklee? But I can say that the cache that comes with going to Berklee has opened a lot of doors, and the networking at Berklee is insane. Nobody gets a gig without some networking. It doesn’t matter how good you are; you have to cross paths with somebody and get on their radar somehow.”

What can a student take away from one weekend like this?

“Take something like ear training. Certainly, you’re not going to squeeze four years of ear training into a weekend, but doing it for an hour or two in this weekend can set up a structure that you could then continue working on—starting with just learning about how to work on it.”

What are you most excited to work on with students?

“In general, my goal with students is always to empower them to understand music and to develop a set of tools that help them analyze different musical situations so that they can make their own musical choices with as much precision as possible. I want to make it as easy as possible for people to achieve their own musical vision and to control their own voice.”

Learn more about the Berklee American Roots Weekend here.