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Anderson says the reason she started the camp was simple enough: "There just aren't enough women doing this," she says of her mindset at the time, "and more girls need to know how empowering and how much fun this is." The environment has changed noticeably, if not completely. For her part, Blankenship says, "I know more female musicians than male musicians out on the scene."
But an all-girls camp still makes sense, no matter how far the broader context evolves.
"Even if it came to be that there were more women playing music than men," Anderson says, "there are experiences that can be shared — you know, just like having girls' sports teams. They can be together and not worry so much about the differences that are occurring at that key age."
One night, Jessi Wariner was up late, and couldn't believe her eyes when a commercial for SGRRC flashed across the TV screen. Before she could find the phone, her best friend Alex was already calling: "Did you just see that?!" she exclaimed. "We gotta go!"
Soon thereafter, Wariner and three of her friends signed up to join the camp's 2003 inaugural class — which also included Jemina Pearl (née Abegg), who went on to front the breakout Nashville punk band Be Your Own Pet, which just two years later would sign a record deal with XL Recordings in the U.K. Other alumni include Rachel Durnin, now of the indie-pop outfit How Cozy!, country singer Dylan Taylor, a songwriter at Next Century Music, and artist-musician Heather Moulder of Hatch Show Print, who was inspired to pursue printmaking in a workshop led by Grand Palace's Bingham Barnes and plays with fellow volunteer Olivia Throckmorton in Don Coyote.
On the cover of the Aug. 14, 2003, issue of the Nashville Scene, a 12-year-old Wariner, standing inside oversized bell-bottoms patched together from scraps of denim and corduroy, holds a heavily collaged bass guitar she had borrowed from a family friend.
"At the time, I didn't know many musicians my age, especially not female players," Wariner recalls. "Not that I felt like I should be exclusively playing with girls." Though campers come from a wide variety of backgrounds and experience levels, Wariner sounds a familiar theme: "I was too shy and self-conscious around boys at that age to figure out how to break loose as a musician."
Wariner had always dreamed of playing music professionally, and rock camp ignited something in her that she had sensed but couldn't realize. "My dad's family were musicians, so I had been around it all my life," she says. "But they were also all boys, and it was quite intimidating at times. I was looking for something to bring me out of my shell."
If there was ever a shell holding Wariner in, you would never guess that now, watching her perform with Those Darlins, the band she started with Anderson and two other SGRRC volunteers. Fans know her as Jessi Zazu Darlin — a snarling, guitar-wielding dervish with a wicked drawl and a wild stage presence that's equal parts punk rock and backwoods country. She sounds every bit the kind of woman who could sing a riposte to the Louvin Brothers' cautionary tale "You're Running Wild" and have none other than Charlie Louvin himself endorse it. ("Wild One" is the song that put the Darlins on most listeners' radar.)
"The first year was the first time I ever played in a rock band in front of an audience," Wariner says — another part of her experience that's common among campers. And while not every girl who attends SGRRC goes on to play in a band professionally or go on tour, that's beside the point, Wariner explains. "It's more about being in an environment where folks are saying, 'You can do whatever you put your mind to,' that makes it so special." Wariner attended camp for five years, and volunteered for three after that, before a rigorous touring schedule made it difficult to commit the time.
"I am grateful to all the wonderful people who have been involved in SGRRC and continue to be," she says. "They made rock 'n' roll high school a reality for me."
Zig-zagging swiftly through the halls of the Wright Music Building, a set of keys jangling on her hip, Blankenship checks in on each of the 15 camper bands as they perfect their original songs for Saturday night's finale. The names the campers have chosen for themselves range from the covertly clever — Muktuk is an Inuit word for whale blubber — to the ironically meta — take Various Names With the Word Fire, for instance.
The songs they generate run the gamut from bright neo-folk to moody, introspective rock. Over a bouncy chord progression, the band Pop Rocks sings with a cheery delivery that belies their song's sarcasm: "But I don't care if you like Call of Duty 3 / More than me / And I don't care that you asked how much I weighed / Before our date." Other songs feature comedic interludes, one-note keyboard solos and rap breakdowns.
Flanked by her lieutenants — volunteers Dave Cate, once a camper at YEAH's coed Tennessee Teens Rock Camp, and keyboardist Matt Rowland — Blankenship makes sure the bands and their volunteer managers are on task and making progress. The presence of Cate and Rowland, along with the many other male volunteers who teach everything from multi-track recording to drums, sets SGRRC apart from other girls' rock camps.
"I think it's really important to show that men can be feminists too," Wariner says. "And it's a very good thing for young girls to have positive male influences in their lives." For the campers, the gender makeup of the staff doesn't seem to matter, if it registers at all. Dave, as the campers call him, is the guy who teaches recording and runs sound. Matt is the goofy dude who got an entire keyboard class synced into the same software session and made it sound like Skrillex.
The larger mission of YEAH — actively encouraging young people to create empowering, community-building endeavors using music and the arts — is not gender-specific. But everyone involved sees it as an extension of what SGRRC has built and continues to build.
"We believe that the coed camps still have a feminist mission," Blankenship says. "To get to a place where we are finally on equal footing, you have to do it entirely involving everybody. And we're growing to that."
Inside MTSU's ample and newly renovated Tucker Theatre on Saturday night, the girls perform to a nearly packed house. Just as they had for Wanda Jackson's set the day before, the campers crowd the front of the stage to cheer each other on.
One band at a time, they count off the beat. They strum, they throw glitter and balloons on the audience; they mess up. They laugh. They sing bravely and defiantly, and in breathtaking harmonies.
To close the night, the week and the decade, the volunteers all take up instruments, and the campers all join them in filling the entire stage — everyone playing and dancing together in a chaotic superband jam that builds to a dizzy crescendo of guitar solos and cymbal-smashes. After the show's over, as the girls mill around the lobby, their eyes searching the room as they say their goodbyes, they look much like ordinary kids.
But up on the stage, with the amps still roaring and the entire camp population bouncing in ecstatic unison, it's easy to imagine this motley, centipedal force bursting out of the hall en masse and marching down I-24 to tear that "be the girl they sing about" billboard right off its scaffolding.
And in a way, they already have.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct a quote by Kate Fox, which was incorrectly attributed to Erika Sisk
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