Fur Peace Ranch: Jefferson Airplane Alums Run the Real School of Rock

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Fifteen minutes into orientation at Fur Peace Ranch, a guitar retreat taught by classic rock royalty, manager John Hurlbut offers a half-joke warning about the neighbors’ dogs. “We haven’t had any problems, but if the dogs sneak past the fence, pretend to pick up a stone and say GIT! Not get, as these are Appalachian dogs,” he says with a laugh.

Fortunately, no ornery farm dogs bothered the 33 students or staff that weekend. It’s not difficult to imagine why the next-door wildlife might keep its distance. For one, all 119 acres of the ranch vibrate with vintage jams from several distorted guitars at any given hour. Then there’s the camp’s de facto leader. With a forearm wrapped in dense tribal tattoos and a gold front tooth that could light a deep-sea trench, Fur Peace’s head professor strikes an imposing figure at 71. His name is Jorma Kaukonen, and he loves to hunt, ride his motorcycle and watch Sons of Anarchy. He’s also the same Jorma Kaukonen who played on early recordings with Janis Joplin, hammered out blistering solos with Jefferson Airplane and currently fronts the folky blues outfit Hot Tuna with lifetime collaborator Jack Casady. And along with his wife Vanessa and Hurlbut, Kaukonen runs a remarkable musical sanctuary nestled deep in the rustic hillsides of Southeastern Ohio.

Jorma (pronounced your ma) laid the foundation for his unorthodox school when he bought a stretch of country in Pomeroy, Ohio, from a TV producer friend in 1993. He and Vanessa were living in Woodstock, N.Y., at the time. “Back then, land was dirt cheap,” Vanessa explains. “He got one of those great Southeast Ohio land deals. It was about $500 an acre.” That’s not to say that she was ecstatic to move from the town where her husband had played “Volunteers,” “White Rabbit” and “Somebody To Love” with Grace Slick and the Airplane at a certain historic music festival. “Vanessa thought that I’d absolutely lost my mind. She wasn’t looking forward to living in the sticks,” Jorma chuckles.

Vanessa may have been hesitant to move to the country, but it was actually her idea to build a camp where she and her husband could “grow guitar players,” a legal alternative to the marijuana that served as the region’s cash crop for years. A trip to the bank and five years later, Fur Peace Ranch (so named because it’s a fur piece from anywhere else) held its opening weekend. The camp has since grown to offer an escapist setting where guitar lovers of all style and experience can learn and mingle with six-string legends. Country Joe McDonald, Arlo Guthrie and former Saturday Night Live bandleader G.E. Smith have all claimed residency as have niche experts like banjo prodigy Tony Trischka and mandolin expert Barry Mitterhoff among many others.

Building big things out of spontaneous ideas wasn’t uncommon for Vanessa, who also serves as CEO and Director at Fur Peace. For her and her husband, their path to Fur Peace began on a nude beach in Key West. Sort of.

Jorma first met his wife in July of 1988 at Pier Beach when the bearded front man spied Vanessa sunbathing during a performance with Casady. Vanessa was invited back stage later that night, where she asked the band to go sailing with her on her boat. Much to her surprise, Jorma took Vanessa up on the offer with a phone call at 5:30 the next morning. This created a slight hitch: Vanessa didn’t actually own a boat. Her sailing hobby’s hypothetical nature didn’t stop her from making good on her word, though. After a few phone calls and a big favor from a friend, Vanessa and her future husband found themselves cruising the Gulf of Mexico the following morning. Jorma was so impressed that he asked his new seafaring guide to marry him 28 days later. “I wasn’t interested in nabbing a rock ’n’ roll guitar player unless it was the universe laying it out in front of me. I asked him if I could think about it, and he said ‘what’s to think about?’”

Fate is also a common theme at Fur Peace. Vanessa believes that the ranch is “sacred ground,” pulling its visitors into a web of synchronicity where campers find peculiar similarities and bonds with one another. The bonding part isn’t particularly surprising, as the majority of the campers are “repeat offenders,” using the ranch as a default retreat multiple times a year. Everyone knows one another on a first-name basis, and more telling, can cite their peers’ guitar collections without pause. Demographically, the students are white-collar baby-booming males from the four corners of the United States. And everyone, faculty and student body alike, is ridiculously pleasant. The instructors, which included Jorma, Jack Casady and G.E. Smith on the November weekend observed, didn’t reveal a shred of diva entitlement. They eat, banter and sleep in the same cabins alongside the campers without hesitation. “At the ranch, we’ve never had somebody who, for lack of a better word, has been an asshole,” Jorma says. “They’re just folks. A lot of people have come back so often that I call them friends.”

Bob Doherty is one such friend, celebrating his 34th weekend. (The only other student to visit more, Marjorie Thompson, has graduated to Jorma’s Teaching Assistant). Doherty first came to the ranch two years after it opened in 1998. Though he spends most of his time developing automation systems as the VP of Broadcast Systems for Technical Operations at NBC, the ranch grants him a familiar escape where the freewheeling spirituality of the ’60s meshes with the acoustic guitar skills he’s built on for the past 37 years.

“If I had to pick one word to describe Fur Peace Ranch, I’d say it’s the magic,” Doherty smirks. “There are a lot of people who think this is just like a rock ’n’ roll fantasy camp. If you ask Jorma and Jack about Woodstock, they’ll politely talk about it. But if you ask them why they chose an F sharp 7 in a song, that’s when the workshops come to life. The magic is really the immersion into the music. And there’s nothing that they know they won’t share.”

Good vibes aside, Doherty’s statement includes one of two unmentionables at the ranch. The first is Jefferson Starship. The second is fantasy camp.

“We are not a fantasy camp!” Vanessa says, her voice rising to a passionate crescendo. “Don’t you dare write that. We could not be further from a fantasy camp. There are camps that will get these washed up musicians and say, ‘Oh, we’ll pay you $10,000 to play on stage with [some arena-rock band]’. And I’m like, eh, I’d rather go learn the real song from Jorma.”

Anybody who disputes this claim only has to take Casady’s nine-student bass class. Spry fingers draped over the signature bass that Epiphone named after him, Casady moves with uncanny precision along the fret board as he shows his students how to play the grueling solo from “A Little Faster,” a track written by Hurlbut off Hot Tuna’s 2011 release, Steady as She Goes. Individual members try to recite the grooving lick back to its originator, fumbling the rhythm and losing track of the progression. Casady doesn’t care if you feel like a rock star or own a limited-release axe—he just wants you to learn.

“There are no throwaway notes,” he cautions. “If you’re gonna practice, practice like you mean it.” When one student can’t move past a part, Casady waits patiently, guiding an Atlanta-resident through a tricky finger shift. “Do it in time,” Casady says. “I’m going to kill you by the end of the weekend.”

G.E. Smith’s offering, an intermediate electric guitar workshop, has a slightly different, louder tone. “Learning the names of the notes is the most important thing. Music’s just another language, and it’s only got 12 words,” Smith announces. The bandleader of choice for SNL, Hall & Oates, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan and, currently, Roger Waters, Smith is well familiar with those 12 words as he leads a gaggle of restless players through some slinky blues riffs. Smith peppers the lesson with industry stories about Buddy Bolden, Jeff Beck and the superglue Stevie Ray Vaughan put on the tips of his fingers when he’d grate them away during shows.

All throughout, students go off on their own audio tangents, filling the air with a conflicting swarm of buzzes and tones. Smith keeps his cool. “You cannot make a mistake. The music police are not coming. They’re at the opera. Ask any question, play what you want. Just turn down your volume.”

The Fur Peace weekends end with two concerts, one performed by the students, the other by Hot Tuna joined by Smith. Sold out a year in advance, the latter shows attract the local community and are recorded for WOUB, the local public media affiliate. This show witnesses mandolin player Barry Mitterhoff and drummer Skoota Warner join Jorma, Casady and Smith. The experience takes on a surreal air. Moving past their roles as educators, the band effortlessly unleashes years of honed skill. Strings bend and release in staccato triplets, fingers hammer on frets in greasy syncopation and nimble baselines weave a running canvass underneath the entire creation. And the legends emerge.

Earlier that day, Jorma mentions that he “heard somebody mention, ‘If you can’t do, teach.” He relaxes as his words escape in quick exhales. “I remember saying that when I was young. And we know today that that’s absolutely not true. Because you can’t teach unless you know how to do something.”

Or at the very least, avoid the neighbor’s dogs.

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