Adam Schlenker was surprised to find himself an acclaimed flat-picking guitarist and the director of a university’s innovative roots music program, maybe he should have looked for a sign.
After all, it happened once before.
“When I was seven or eight, we were going down Robert C. Byrd Drive in Beckley, West Virginia,” Schlenker recalled. “I saw a sign in a music store window for guitar lessons. And I said, ‘Mom, I want guitar lessons.’ And she says, ‘You’ve never mentioned this before.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ve never seen that sign before!’”
He remembers going in for his first lesson and then going home to sit on the back porch to practice, thinking, this is what I do. “And I’ve never looked back. I just love to play the guitar.”
Now Schlenker is the one giving lessons, regularly teaching online and at music camps with artists such as Wyatt Rice, Tim May, and Kenny Smith. He’ll soon be performing with legendary guitarist David Grier for the second time in a year. And at Denison University’s weekend bluegrass festival last February, Schlenker and his American Roots Music program students celebrated an important milestone with Peter Rowan.
Schlenker grew up in Beckley and, armed with a degree in audio production, moved to Columbus, Ohio. He was always playing the guitar, but a fascination with fiddle tunes captured his imagination.
“It was the notion of improvising around the melody line with flat picking and the fiddle tunes--that’s where the light bulb just went on double bright, and it was like, this is it. This is what was missing.”
He immersed himself in the work of those who have become his greatest influences: Clarence White, Norman Blake, and David Grier. He played in regional bands, taught during a long residency at an art center, and launched Fifth Fret Productions, his online guitar instruction portal—all the while, he was also developing his teaching philosophy.
“I think a lot of times people teach in reverse. They say here’s the end product. Go spend some time getting this down, and then I’ll show you another tune. And to me, that’s just backward. Music is a language, and you have to learn how to speak in that language and put the language together.”
Schlenker was working toward creating his teaching studio when he was asked to become a guitar instructor at Denison University in nearby Granville, Ohio. He became the coordinator of the program in 2018.
“When I took over, it was a bluegrass major--a Bachelor of Arts in Music Performance with a concentration in bluegrass. We relaunched in 2021 as an American Roots Music concentration, which didn’t take away any of the bluegrass components. This allows us to look at more music, people, and culture. A lot of music led to the creation of bluegrass. We’re trying to create opportunities for the students to look at early blues, early country music, gospel music, and the earlier string band music leading into bluegrass.”
The Denison American Roots program has offered a major since 2010. Five or six students major in the program, and about 15 students typically minor each semester.
“There’s a cap of 2300 students total at the university,” Schlenker explained. “Most of the programs are relatively small, which is kind of a cool thing because that means that all of your students are getting a lot of one-on-one attention from the faculty.”
Twenty-four students are playing in the Denison Bluegrass Ensemble this semester, playing at festivals and participating in workshops and jams. “The majority of them are not music majors or minors,” Schlenker said. “And that’s fine because that means they’re getting the opportunity to play music they wouldn’t play otherwise.”
One of those recent opportunities allowed students to share the bill with Peter Rowan at the Denison Bluegrass Festival.
Schlenker has long been a fan of Rowan’s innovative band, Muleskinner, and its fabled guitarist, Clarence White. He realized the 50th anniversary of the band’s formation would coincide with Denison’s festival, so he invited Rowan to participate. Appalachian Swing, Schlenker’s band that honors the music of Clarence White and The Kentucky Colonels, would accompany Rowan.
Playing with Rowan was a thrill for Schlenker, but not the only one of the festival. Backstage, before the show, Rowan heard a Denison student ensemble running through his song “Dustbowl Children.”
“I’ve never heard my song like this,” Rowan told Schlenker. “This is incredible. I’ve never experienced this song from someone else’s point of view in such a way.” Schlenker beamed. “It was a proud dad moment for me because my students had arranged this piece that he wrote, and Rowan’s moved by what they’ve done with it. Here’s Peter Rowan, a legendary musician at 80 years old, and he’s sitting and listening, and his words were, ‘I learned from your students this evening.’”