It’s hard to rattle Steve Kaufman.
After all, the longtime Blount County resident is a champion guitar player — literally. He won the National Flat Pick Guitar Championships at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas, three times, and he’s turned his six-string prowess into a full-time business. He travels the world (literally — he’s headed to South Africa next year) teaching others to play, and when his nimble fingers start working their magic, most other pickers stare in awe.
Not so the musicians who will join him starting next week for the annual Acoustic Concert Series, however. Held on the Maryville College campus for two weeks every June, the series is a nightly public offering that gives area residents an opportunity to see Kaufman and his peers show off their chops. By day, they’re offering instruction on a variety of instruments for the annual Steve Kaufman Acoustic Kamps, but at night, it’s a friendly bare-knuckle musical brawl on the stage of MC’s Alumni Gym.
“It’s scary playing with them, because they could cripple you!” Kaufman told The Daily Times this week. “One year we had the guitar staff up there, and I think there were six of us, and when we play on stage, we pass the song down between us, from right to left. I was on the end, next to Mark Cosgrove, who’s a national champion as well, and before him is Chris Newman, who used to play with Stephane Grappelli. And Mark leaned over to me and said, ‘Oh, we’re about to see this guy mop the floor with us!’
“Everyone is so good at what they do. They don’t mean to mop the floor with anyone, but they know they’re with their peers, and they can cut loose. When you play with someone you know is not at the level you are, you play at their level. You don’t do anything to make them feel bad or ‘put it in the case,’ as we call it. You never do that. But when they’re playing up there with everyone on the same level, there are no holds barred. They know they can play whatever they like.”
Kaufman came south from New Jersey in the summer of 1975, when he stuck out his thumb and started hitching rides to various guitar contests up and down the East Coast. At the time, he had only an old guitar and a dog-eared copy of Bluegrass Unlimited that served as a map. He liked Blount County, however, and eventually settled here, finding work as a guitar instructor and slowly becoming a part of the local music scene.
By 1990, he and his wife, Donna Dixon, were on their way to building the Steve Kaufman brand into what it is today. In 1990, he struck a deal with Mel Bay Publications, which began to distribute his instructional books and videos nationally and internationally. Around the same time, he gave up his local practice and began touring the country as a flatpick guitar teacher at various instructional camps and festivals. On one of those return trips, Dixon picked him up at the airport and suggested that if he organized one in Blount County, he’d be able to stay home for at least a week every year. She had in mind another workshop; but driving through the Maryville College campus, he envisioned something bigger.
And so, in the summer of 1996, the first Steve Kaufman Acoustic Kamp was held on the MC campus. Six instructors and 180 students from around the world came to town, and that first year’s success demanded it become an annual event. This year’s camp opens Monday, and the event now lasts two weeks, with sessions on just about every stringed instrument one can play, save for some classical contraptions like the viola and the cello, and the faculty is made up of a literal who’s who of world-class musicians.
And every night, those instructors will come together to perform public concerts that are open to everyone. Steve Kaufman’s Acoustic Concert Series has been almost as important a part of the camps as the lessons themselves, because the amount of talent gathered on a single stage is unrivaled anywhere else in the United States, at least for 10 nights in June.
“You won’t find a more talented collection of players,” Kaufman said. “The only thing that might be close is Telluride (Bluegrass Festival), which is going on during our first week, because there you’re going to have Sam Bush. But for the second week, people are coming from Telluride to our camp. To answer truthfully, that would be the only thing that could compare to the talent that we have in town.”
Over the years, the concerts have become an annual tradition for both music aficionados and casual fans alike. The picking geeks who go nuts for the big names get downright gleeful at the amount of bluegrass and Old Time royalty in their backyard. Others have no idea who’s playing, but they trust Kaufman enough to know it’s going to be good.
“People will stop me in Kroger’s and say, ‘You got them concerts coming up at the college, don’t you?’” Kaufman said. “I’ll have people come up that I don’t necessarily know, but they know us from what we do there and thank us for what we’re doing, and they’ll say things like, ‘We know what a good thing it is for the community.’”
Economically, it provides a boost — over the next two weeks, the number of students and their loved ones who will attend the two camps (Monday through June 15 is the Old Time and traditional week; June 16-22 is bluegrass week) will be roughly 500, plus another 60 instructors. Those people will be filling hotel beds, dining in local restaurants and spending money here in Blount County. And at $15 per night, the acoustic concerts that cap each day of the camps are a bargain, considering the level of talent on stage.
“There’s an up-and-coming bluegrass band called Mile 12, and the entire band is coming with the exception of the guitar player,” Kaufman said. “David Benedict is the mandolin player; the banjo player is from New Zealand; and the fiddle player just moved to Nashville from Boston. We couldn’t get them for next year because they’re in such demand, and their agent would not allow them to be tied up for a week.
“We’ve also got Kenny Kosek, who was the guy in bands when I was growing up. When he was at camp two years ago, he played his set, and when you watch him, you say, ‘That is the real thing. That’s the real deal right there,’ as far as what you would expect a fiddle player to do.”
There’s also Dale Ann Bradley, a vocal instructor and a five-time Female Bluegrass Vocalist of the Year honoree by the International Bluegrass Music Association; Don Rigsby, a veteran of multiple bluegrass outfits, including the Lonesome River Band, and a collaborator of Alan Jackson’s, among others; East Tennessee dobro icon Phil Leadbetter; Andy Hatfield, who’s won both the national mandolin and national guitar (twice) contests; John Carlini, credited by guitar great Tony Rice as his instrumental role model; Jordan Ramsey, an award-winning mandolin cross-picker; bluegrass singer and picker Alice Gerrard, who turns 85 in July and made her name as part of a duo with the great Hazel Dickens; and the list goes on.
Kaufman counts many of them as his personal friends — Italian guitar great Beppe Gambetta, for example, was close friends of Roy’s Record Shop owners Roy Garrett and his late wife, Alma. Despite his long association with them, however, rarely does he get an opportunity to see them perform.
“I always like playing with them, but just to get to hear them is great, because I don’t get to hear these people,” he said. “We swim in parallel streams, and I’m never where they are. Any of these people, to be up there with them, is a thrill to me and an honor, but just to be out there watching them is amazing.”
And while the acoustic concert series will highlight them all, there’s no telling who all will join the all-star band on Wednesday to play contra dance music. Several years ago, Dixon, who had been taking contra dance lessons, convinced Kaufman to add a contra dance night. The first half-hour is spent teaching participants the simple dance steps, and as Kaufman points out, “You need no skills whatsoever in order to do this. You don’t even need rhythm!”
The music, after all, is enough to straighten out any crooked legs or double-left feet, and it’s fairly safe to claim that no contra dance anywhere else in the country will feature the amount of musical firepower that will be on display in the Alumni Gym.
“It’s the hottest contra dance band you can get — our instructors!” Kaufman said. “And they’re all Grammy and award winners.”