I Finally Learn (Some) Flatfooting!

The Mts. of Music Homecoming event that was close to us today was a flatfooting workshop at the Blue Ridge Music Center. Even though we have been to this location a few times now, the prospect of learning flatfooting was an irresistible draw. I’ve been watching people dance for the past couple of weeks, and I really want the mystery of what they are doing to be removed. (I tried a flatfooting workshop at a festival a couple years ago and got absolutely nothing out of it. But hope springs eternal, and I once again thought it would be worth trying.) So we headed out to the Blue Ridge Music Center again, prepared to learn dancing, and prepared to enjoy music by the Buck Mountain Band.

 

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The teacher of the workshop, Mary Ann Kovach, was excellent. She convinced us that we couldn’t do it wrong, and she broke down several of the steps into their essential elements so that we could imitate her. The band provided great music, and I managed to “get” a couple of the steps. I also took notes on the steps that were a bit beyond me, and maybe I will be able to figure them out on my own.

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We also did some square dancing, and we thoroughly enjoyed having a couple of pre-adolescent girls as our square partners.

After the dancing lesson we headed north to camp at Claytor Lake State Park. This park is in the vicinity of several Mts. of Music Homecoming events, and we thought it would be a good place to locate ourselves for a couple of days.

A Warm Embrace

Back in the summer of ’96 the US Forest Service had decided to permit clear-cutting of the lumber on Bluff Mountain, just above the North Carolina town of Hot Springs. What the Forest Service did not take into account was how the local people would react to this decision. When the locals found out about it, they staged a protest. The protest took the form of a fund-raising, old-time music and dance festival. A year later a lot had happened. The Forest Service changed their plans and suspended consideration of Bluff Mountain for clear cutting. The folks in Hot Springs held a celebration. The celebration turned out to be the Second Annual Bluff Mountain Festival. Everyone had such a good time that they decided to do it again the following year, and every year since then. We attended the 22nd annual Bluff Mountain Festival on Saturday.

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The Bluff Mountain Festival is still a fund-raiser, but now it is a fund-raiser for the Madison County Arts Council. There were performances all day long from bluegrass and old time bands, a storyteller, cloggers, ballad-singers, and others. One of the performers was a band that included a fiddle-player named Laura Boosinger. I had become acquainted with this woman a few different times during my preparation for this trip. Most recently, we had learned that she was one of the 2017 inductees in the Blue Ridge Music Hall of fame (in the Wilkes Heritage Museum that we had visited briefly on Wednesday.) I was surprised to see her here today, because today is the induction ceremony in that hall of fame. When they introduced her they said that she would be leaving immediately after the performance to drive to Wilkesboro for the induction. I was able to snag her for a photo and a brief congratulatory “Thank You” for the work she is doing to promote and preserve Appalachian culture.

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The performances at the festival all day long were wonderful. I sat back and let myself feel completely embraced by the warmth, hospitality, and art of the people of North Carolina.

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Class I and II???

Today was to be a transition day; a day between musical events. We had to drive a bit more than a hundred miles west, to the small, high-mountain town of Hot Springs. The campground is on the French Broad River, a river known for its whitewater rafting. I learned that the “wild” class III and IV rapids are upstream from the campground, and the section downstream from the campground has several miles of flat water with “some class I and class II rapids.” I felt that this would be ideal for me and for my level of skill with the kayak. I begged E to help me out with the driving so that I could put in at the campground, paddle down stream to a park several miles down, and have her pick me up there. (Since she hadn’t yet driven our pickup truck, this was a BIG sacrifice on her part to be willing to do this. I greatly appreciate her for doing this.)

I put the kayak in the water just outside the campground, and I immediately found myself in white water. It was “whiter” than I’ve experienced before. I’ve been in class I and class II rapids before, and really enjoyed it, but this seemed more … exciting … than I remember. There were some pretty sizable waves, and some of them did manage to find their way inside the boat. When I got through this section of rapids, I pulled in to shore and beached the boat. I took a walk back upstream to take a photo:

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Is this Class II rapids?

The rest of the paddle was pretty exciting too, because during the stretches of flat water I could hear the sound of rapids that I was approaching. After my first experience, I was unsure of just what I would find in the next set of rapids. It was an experience made for a Hollywood movie: moving downstream with the increasingly loud sound of an approaching area of rapids. All that was missing was the dramatic musical background score. If the people who recommended this stretch of river considered what I had just been through to be mild and friendly (which is what they said), then would I be riding rapids like that all the way down to the park? The answer is, yes. Almost every set of rapids was just a little bit more than I had bargained for. By the end I was getting more comfortable and more confident. I guess the only way to learn something like this is to experience it, but I probably would have benefitted from doing it with a guide. In any event, this experience was one of the highlights of this trip for me, and again, I greatly appreciate my wife’s willingness to drive the truck for the first time and pick me up when I completed my run.

The Banjo-Master, and a Great BBQ

We had originally planned to visit a place called the Sims Country Barbecue today. This place is written about as if it is some sort of mecca for mountain music people, good food, and great performances. After yesterday’s disappointments, I decided it would be best to phone ahead to make sure of their availability. (I did phone the Orchard yesterday, several times, but they weren’t answering their phone.) I managed to make phone contact with Sims, and was greatly disappointed to find that they are not open on Thursdays any more. Well, at least we found this out before driving all the way out there.

 

Another stop on our planned tour was to be the Earl Scruggs Center, in Shelby, NC. We were planning to stop there at the end of next week. However, we found that we were only about an hour away from there at our current campground, so we decided to go there today instead.

 

Shelby was a nice town, and the Scruggs Center was absolutely wonderful. The entire (small-ish) museum is a tribute to this 20th century master of the banjo. We learned all about him through a variety of interactive exhibits. I will confess that the banjo has always mystified me. I cannot visually process what banjo players are doing with their fingers to produce all of the notes that they produce. There was a very helpful exhibit in the museum that showed me the difference between claw-hammer strumming, two-finger picking, and three-finger picking. I feel that I finally have a beginning of an understanding of the banjo. I’m still pretty intimidated by the instrument, however.

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While we were at the museum, E was peppering the docents with questions about BBQ. Since we were not going to be going to Sims, she wanted to find the best place here in Shelby for good, authentic, southern BBQ. She has been asking several people for explanations of the difference between “Eastern” BBQ and “Lexington” BBQ. We received strong recommendations to go to a place called Red Bridges Lodge. They are said to have the best in town. So, off we went in our quest for slaw (red), beans, meat, and sauce.

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I’m glad we did! The food was delicious, and now we can say that we’ve had the best BBQ Shelby, NC has to offer.

 

A Bust. In a Way.

When you make plans for a trip like this one, there are certain days and places that are like keystones in a stone arch. They hold a lot of pieces together. Today was to be one of those days. I selected our overnight campsite destination (for two nights) on the basis of its location mid-way between two music venues that we wanted to see. The campsite was expensive, but because of its central location I was willing to pay for it.

 

On our drive to the campground we found ourselves in Wilkesboro, NC. I had read that there is a small museum there with a Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame. We thought it might be worth a few minutes to take a look, even though we were on a tight schedule. We found our way to the museum and explained to the attendant what we were interested in. She took our money for admission to the museum, and told us that the admission includes a guided tour of the Wilkes County Jail. This is the jail where the legendary Tom Dooley was imprisoned before he was hung. (Tom Dooley; of the folksong “Hang down your head Tom Dooley.”) Well, we had to see that! The only thing is, this was a guided tour, and our tour guide also wanted to tell us about every historical event that ever happened in Wilkes County. We got to see Tom’s cell, and we got to hear the whole story of his crime (or supposed crime; there is some ambiguity about whether he was truly guilty). But when all was said and done, this stop cut about 2 hours into our tight schedule. We were destined to be late getting to the music events that we planned for later in the afternoon. Ah well. At least we saw some interesting stuff.

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The Cell Where Tom Dula (“Dooley”) Was Held

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We got to the campground and almost immediately headed for today’s music destination. The Orchard at Altapass was billed as having Wednesday afternoon jamming and free live music Wednesday through Sunday nights. We planned on staying for both the jamming and the live music. After the 45-minute drive, we arrived at the orchard, to find… no musicians. No one was jamming! Even though we arrived about an hour after the jamming was supposed to start, there was no one there. I asked, and was told that usually no one shows up. And they don’t have any musicians on hand to lead the jam if no one shows up. Well. That’s disappointing. But what about the live music on Wednesday evenings? What time does that start? “Oh. that’s not going on now. We close at 5:00 today.” What? No jamming and no music in the evening? So all our efforts to get to this destination were for nothing? I guess sometimes you just have to accept defeat and move on to the next thing.

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The Sign Says, “Parking for Musicians Only.” There were none.

 

Since we had to use the Blue Ridge Parkway to drive back to the campground, we resumed our quest for mountain wildflowers. The Mt. Laurel was everywhere. We also saw some flowers that we couldn’t identify.

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We took a short hike near Linwood Falls, and we saw some flame azaleas.

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So. No music today, and a lesson in how to handle disappointments.

A Mountain Climb and a Mountain Jamboree

With promising weather, and with us camped on the side of a mountain (Stone Mountain), the ideal way to begin the day was with a hike to the top of the mountain. The Stone Mountain hike was about 1.7 miles, with about 800 feet of elevation gain. It was billed as a “strenuous” hike, but with statistics like those, it was hard for me to accept that it really was strenuous. I reached the top in about 45 minutes, and only the last 10 to 15 minutes or so were hard work. The amazing thing about this mountain, and this hike, is that the top of the mountain is one solid mass of granite. I suppose from a distance the mountain has a really striking appearance, but from the vantage point of the mountain itself, it was just sort of weird. It felt weird to be sitting atop this mass of granite, looking out over the Blue Ridge mountains and the Yadkin valley to the south. It was beautiful, and the wind was strong, and it was pure joy to sit and soak it in.

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When I returned from the hike it was almost time to head for Sparta, NC where we hoped to find some music in the evening at the Alleghany Jubilee. We had read that the village of Sparta was cool and interesting, so we left ourselves plenty of time to explore it. I found a few mildly interesting things in the town, but mostly it was just an ordinary small-town-America kind of place.

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The Alleghany Jubilee was a homerun, however. The band for the evening was Rise and Shine, and they provided a great variety of bluegrass, old time, country, and folk music. The main thing, however, was the dancing. Unlike Floyd Country Store where everything is pretty much continual flat-footing, here there was all sorts of dancing. There was a lot of flat footing, but there was also a lot of two-step, quite a few waltzes, some line dancing, and even a square dance (where everyone seemed to know what to do even without a caller).

 

The highlight of the evening was meeting Anges and Dottie when the band was taking a break. The two of them took turns telling me various perspectives on the history of the Alleghany Jubilee, the importance of traditional music, and the various people and places that were a part of the story. These two ladies were the height of friendliness, and they were full of joy. They made it a special evening. Agnes and her husband are responsible for initiating the Alleghany Jubilee 23 years ago. I’m glad they did it!

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As the evening drew to a close, the band announced that their last number would be a gospel song. At this, all the members of the audience formed a circle and urged us to join them. With everyone holding hands, the band played its gospel song, everyone in the circle took a bow toward one another, and the evening was over. All in all it was quite a special evening.

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Jamming Progress

Our original trip plan itinerary showed us doing a lot of nothing today. All we had to do was pack up from the festival and move about an hour down the road to the Stone Mountain State Park. The relaxing “down time” in that plan sounded good. But when I realized that we were less than an hour from the Blue Ridge Music Center, and that there was old-time jamming there on Sunday afternoons, the temptation to abandon the relaxing day in favor of more music was too great. So, we headed out of town on route 89, climbed the mountains, and found our way to the Blue Ridge again. This would be our third time here, and our second time joining in on the jamming.

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This style of jam suits my abilities perfectly. It is relaxed, open to uninvited participants, and the musicians are non-judgmental. They even slowed down Fisher’s Hornpipe enough to enable me to play it on the mandolin. It’s just a relaxed good musical time. I found myself picking up the structure of the old time fiddle tunes better than I had ever been able to do before. The Blue Ridge Music Center was designed to attract tourists, so all sorts of people stop by to listen during any live musical event. Today was no different. E was struck by how thoroughly one woman seemed to be enjoying the music. (I find it kind of ironic that I was a part of the “band,” as far as this lady is concerned, but I was as much a tourist as she was. Different strokes for different folks.)

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After we left the music center, our next challenge was to find our way down to Stone Mountain State Park without mishap. The GoogleMaps directions wanted us to turn off the Parkway at a road named Mountain View Road. When we got there I thought it looked too dubious. With its low-hanging tree branches and dark entrance, all I could think of was impassable switchbacks and the nightmare of having to back the trailer up a long, winding road in the face of a too-low underpass. No, Thank You, GoogleMaps. I kept going, and the GoogleMaps voice was nice enough to re-route us. We left the Parkway on route 21, and found our way down, and down, and down, and around, and around, and around, until we eventually reached our destination: Stone Mountain State Park.