MLAG 2019 Post Gathering Newsletter

Gregg Averett – Festival Director and Chairman of the Board

Director’s Recap


Greetings, Autoharpers!

I trust all is as well back at home as it was at Little Buffalo so recently, where a super smooth 2019 Gathering set the table for our 30th Anniversary next year. Arrival at the State Park campground revealed a few changes. A number of trees downed in a storm had been transformed into rustic stools, and one of the hilltop cabins had been damaged and demolished. On the other hand, everything else was tidy and some tent areas had been improved with macadam pads around which to set up. Another improvement would unfold (literally) later, in the form of new-style, sturdy, super-comfortable, folding chairs board member Warren Fisher sourced for us. Seating in all areas away from the Rec Hall was greatly improved.

There were some muggy, midday hours under the workshop tent and one quick, passing shower but, otherwise, the weather was some of the best we’ve enjoyed. That said, I want to get on to news and acknowledgements.

As usual, our Pre-Gathering Classes were well-attended and well-received, led by Bryan Bowers, Tom Schroeder, and Bob Lewis. Bryan hosted beginning/intermediate players and addressed an olio of subjects. Tom gathered in intermediate chromatic players for left- and right-hand techniques, while Bob treated with intermediate diatonic players on open-chording and harp setup. Ruby Morgan sponsors a paid tuition for a lucky class attendee in honor of her late sister, Patsy Tressler. The winner of this year’s grant drawing was long-time Mt. Laurel benefactor Robert Grappel who, in typical fashion, donated the award back to the festival for next year.

Phyllis Davis got high marks from attendees for her Autoharp Boot Camp before the Gathering and Karen Daniels guided them on afterwards with some very helpful daily Beyond Boot Camp sessions. This is low-pressure, focused, guided stuff I wish I had had way back when I was a newbie. It really gets the essential techniques and right information to exactly the right people and lets them feel more at home in other workshops.

Catering was served up in exemplary fashion by Della, Jenny, Denise, and Taylor of Laurie Berrard’s Townside Café.  Their efficiency, promptness, cheerfulness, and accommodation simply could not be improved upon. The convenience was so popular the last couple of years we decided to make their food available beginning with lunch on Tuesday and all the way through Sunday dinner, something we intend to continue.

I’ve always been amazed by Winfield’s “land rush” and the rapid transformation of their Walnut Grove from an empty field to a good-sized, functioning town of thousands in the space of a day. The same anticipation and conversion of the gigantic Rec Hall takes place about 11 a.m. Wednesday when the loading door goes up and, with the vital help of attendee volunteers, a huge, empty, echoing space becomes an expo of stage, auditorium, cafeteria, display, and vending in the space of a few hours. Bill Belz’s truck with staging, lights, and sound gear, the curtain contractors’ van, and the Mountain Laurel truck and trailer with decorations and props coordinate offloading and setup to create our familiar festival home for the week. Later, on Sunday afternoon, a little over an hour is sufficient to undo it all for another year. Many thanks to all our board members and volunteers.

Wednesday night is known for two things—opening ceremonies (consisting of traditions, introductions, and announcements) and some good entertainment. Our Peacock Princess was on hand to help install A. P. on his throne, we honored our roots, met the board, featured performers, and workshop leaders, and learned the ins and outs of designated harp storage areas, accessible parking, and pie-and-ice-cream tokens. Then, the board got a little reward for their year’s work and staged some fine entertainment in the form of solos and well-rehearsed combos at the Board Members’ Concert.  It’s a popular event for the attendees, many of whom have already been on hand camping for a couple of days before the official Thursday morning commencement of activities.

We are very proud and grateful to Technical Director Niels Jonker that this and other concerts and activities were broadcast to the far reaches of the autoharp community, courtesy of his extensive personally provided video and communications equipment and the auspices of Concert Window live streaming services. Some broadcasts are free, others available for a token fee. We’re still learning and improving. Niels typically relies on a couple of dragooned, eager-but-inexperienced attendees to assist him with camera work and production control. Concert Window itself has occasional glitches, and limited Wi-Fi bandwidth in your home region can also affect reception. Overall, though, it’s pretty cool! Thanks to Noah Daniels, Holly Grable, and John Lelo for their video command center assistance.

In addition to registration, hospitality, and our MLAG and performer sales tables, vendors included luthiers Tom Fladmark, John Hollandsworth, Greg Schreiber, Warren Fisher, Ken Ellis, and Chuck Daniels. Drew Smith’s All-American Autoharp Emporium and Maureen Maxwell’s reflexology station filled out the roster. We are especially grateful to Maureen for her well-received, relaxing ministrations and for donating her entire proceeds to the Gathering.

On Thursday morning we began our program of workshops led by our slate of featured performers as well as workshop leaders Ken Ellis, Cindy Harris, John Hollandsworth, Drew Smith, and Lucille Reilly. There were a few Soapbox Workshops as well, volunteered by thoughtful and capable attendees, notably Ann Fisher’s lap dulcimer sessions.

After overcoming some medical issues, determined 2018 Cohen-Grappell CD Recording Endowment recipient Muriel Powers was on hand to celebrate and discuss her project and host a CD release party. Cindy Harris facilitated an on-stage interview with Muriel before an interested audience, followed by cake and a CD reception line. The flavor of the CD has a unique, spiritually palliative aspect and seems a strong example of healing music. Muriel had even sold a few to her hospital caregivers in the weeks preceding the Gathering.

The 2019 Cohen-Grappell CD Recording Endowment recipient was announced, to some “of course” forehead slapping.  Bob Lewis, long a noted player, performer, and champion, has never laid down an album, but that will change. He revealed his plan for an O’Carolan-themed project, which we’ll hear at his release party next year.

Concerts Thursday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon showcased invited feature artists Bryan Bowers with bandmates Danny Knicely and Geoff Goodhue, Tom Schroeder, Rick Fitzgerald, Bob Lewis, Allison Guinn and her band, plus 2018 Mt. Laurel Champion Michael Poole. Bryan and his trio wowed with incredible harmony singing, Tom brought his trademark blend of wit and incomparable musicianship, Bob reminded us how much we’ve missed his O’Carolan mastery, and Rick showed again what a killer singer/songwriter he is. Allison combined her musical theater punch with the autoharp chops she developed since being a Mary Lou Orthey Scholarship attendee several years ago and delivered powerful, eclectic sets, while noted diatonic player Michael ably demonstrated his chromatic roots. Great shows all!

Between performances, emcee Ivan Stiles regaled us with snippets from his growing-up years. Have you heard about his mother?

Friday’s Mountain Laurel Autoharp Championship came off before a packed house plus a good number more tuning in to the live stream. This year saw 17 hopeful and well-prepared entrants vying for cash, prizes, acclaim, and of course the unmatched title of Mt. Laurel Champion. This year, for a change, I didn’t try to track and handicap the competitors. I just let the music roll over me and enjoyed every note.

Chromatic maestro Doug Pratt was no surprise as a finalist and he was joined by Steve Braden, who also delivered up a sterling performance. They each came away with $50 as well as a handsome plaque.

Third place went to Nancy Cowan, who claimed a Hollandsworth ‘harp as her reward for a fine evening. In one of those delicious “42nd Street” twists where the ingénue becomes a star, Nancy was this year’s selectee for the Mary Lou Orthey Scholarship, which enabled her to attend Mountain Laurel and go on to win her harp. She was a standout in Open Stage, as well.

Harvey Wagner, a frequent top finisher, took second place and selected a Greg Schreiber prize instrument. Harvey plays in the rarely seen (these days) lap style where his fingers are out front for all to see… or not. Many commented they were more a blur of bare-fingered action. Way to go, Harvey!

Cindy Harris can now forego her long quest for the brass ring because she will be a featured performer next year. In a near-flawless performance, Cindy at last took top honors as the 2019 Mt. Laurel Champion. In no small irony, Tom Fladmark had previously asked her advice about what kind and layout of autoharp he should make as a prize instrument. She told him and he did so. You may be certain Tom’s was the prize she snatched up without a second’s hesitation. Her signboard signature has now joined the pantheon of champions.

As well as much-coveted prize harps from Tom, Greg, and John, top finishers also received commemorating plaques.

Post-concert slow jams were held each evening.  Much thanks to the jam leaders—Carol and Fisk Outwater, Lucille Reilly, Ann and Warren Fisher, and Chuck and Karen Daniels.

It was a hot time, literally, on the field of competition for the Autoharp Toss. The Grand Poobah never really appreciated the shade of those few scrawny pines until they went missing due to the storm. But, we were undaunted! Jean Evers squeaked out a win in combined Men’s and Women’s Accuracy, and Mary Elkins claimed first in Women’s Distance. A size 12 shoe would span the difference in the top three Men’s Distance competitors in a neck-and-neck race.  Ceremonies were then briefly halted, as the Grand Poobah had to be revived upon hearing that multi-year medalist Mike Herr had been edged out by none other than Ivan Stiles!

In a perfect setup, third-place women’s distance finisher Lucille Reilly somehow lost the medal from her ribbon and was frantic all afternoon, retracing her steps (even to the Dollar Store parking lot) in an effort to recover it. Neal Walters called her to the stage Saturday night before the second concert set, informing her he had found it (we had!). A grateful Lucille was then taken completely aback when her husband Charles unexpectedly emerged onstage, and she was floored (literally) as Neal began to read from a proclamation naming her as the 2019 inductee into the Autoharp Hall of Fame. She was as shocked and surprised as they come! Nevertheless, she made a gracious acceptance speech and played a tune in celebration. Congratulations, Lucille! Your name, too, now joins a pantheon of immortals.

No longer a dinner time diversion, Open Stage has become an attendee favorite with friends, and each other, claiming their 10 minutes of fame. The Leonard Reid Open Stage award went to the very deserving singer/songwriter Kathie Wieland.

In accordance with the wishes and generosity of benefactor Chuck Schacht, a brand new tweaked and tuned Oscar Schmidt autoharp was awarded to Nancy Truax.  The selection guidelines handed down suggested it be someone for whom such an instrument would further assist demonstrated ambassadorship, enthusiasm, and playing participation inside and outside the autoharp community. Congratulations, Nancy!

The Silent Auction went well, thanks to Cindy Harris and her volunteers and contributors’ generosity, not to mention energetic bidders. It seemed virtually everything had been scooped up by Sunday morning.

Likewise, the Bazaar Autoharp brought out a buzzing hive of sellers and buyers. I noted a particularly high number of quality instruments on offer.

Soundman Bill Belz is a virtual institution at the Gathering and turned in his typical, flawless job despite numerous challenges. Frank Baker has found a permanent new niche as Bill’s indispensable assistant and stand-in, and did an outstanding job there, as well as official photographer during the evening concerts.

I did not specifically thank all those I mentioned, above, because the necessary prose would add another full page to the recounting, but please know that your participation and efforts were appreciated more than I could say… if I had tried.

There are, as well, a number of volunteers whose contributions were vital to the smooth functioning of the Gathering and my brief mention, here, is inadequate to and, no doubt, incomplete for the praise merited but everyone should at least know so that they will have greater appreciation and, perhaps, take note next year. Take time to give them a pat on the back.

Marti Hudak, who is constantly at the Hospitality table, and Michael Poole, at Registration nearly as long; Coleen Walters for registration work and unending lodge hospitality; Erina  Fitzgerald tirelessly at Performer Sales; Deb Schreiber in the Snack Bar and overseeing meals; and Shirley Averett at the MLAG Cruise desk; Rick Fitzgerald and Tom Davis handling stage setup; Greg Schreiber for his tireless hauling, loading, and unloading of everything, plus being liaison with the park office; Tom Fladmark for bringing order and function in the campground and assistance in the Snack Bar; Neal Walters for his communiques, streaming links, and software massaging; Maggie Dodd for keeping up with all the disbursements, accounting, and trips to the bank; Warren and Ann Fisher for constructing and erecting the Hall of Fame display; Niels Jonker for video and whacking the registration moles; Al Lumpkin for handling the workshop tent sound system; Les and Martha Brooker, who did truly yeoman service handling all the trash removal; Jim Adams for his indispensable counsel and good humor throughout the year; the park service staff whose support and cooperation are crucial to our venue.  And, lastly, all those volunteers who pitched in in so many ways—staging equipment, cleaning tables, checking meal lines, and much more.

Next year we will hold our 30th Gathering, and we consider that a pretty big deal. And, if YOU want to be a part of that legacy, join us in 2020, where we will continue to make an indelible mark in the records, the memories, and the hearts of all who love this instrument. While with us, you will enjoy the music and talents of a terrific slate of performers chosen to help us mark this milestone year:

Karen Mueller—Ron Wall—Les Gustafson-Zook—Ivan Stiles—June Maugery—Cindy Harris

These performers are regularly among the most requested on attendee evaluation forms. So, here they are!  Don’t miss ‘em.

I would like to end with a couple of appeals. First, go to this link or the bottom of our home page and opt-in to our email notification list. It is only for essential notifications regarding the Gathering and is a step required by new privacy laws.

Second, if you have pictures you took at the Gathering, please share them with our webmaster, Neal Walters, at for posting on our website.  He can lead you through the best way to transfer large files.

Thanks, and see you at the 30th!