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.

Competitions, Interesting Folks, and Some FINE Music

Today was the main day of competition in a million different categories. In the main building, the folksinging competition took place all morning long. On the main stage, there were competitions in bluegrass and in old time, for every conceivable instrument, in adult and youth categories. In the evening, each band performed its second of two competition songs or tunes. After all the bands, individual dancers performed for competition. When all the performances ended, the prizes were awarded. There were five prizes awarded for each category of competition.

 

We spent quite a bit of time at the folksinging competition. It was pretty amazing to see how many competitors there were, and it was eye-opening to see some of the talent that people have. I was particularly struck by one little girl as she competed in youth folksinging. Even though her entry was for her voice, she also accompanied herself on the fiddle.

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After she performed, I went to find her and her dad to discover more about her. Her name is Lake Carver, and she is only 7 years old. I was pretty awestruck by her.

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Lake Carver

We noticed a fellow wearing a GreyFox 2016 T-shirt, so we struck up a conversation with him. I wondered if he was from the northeast. Nope. He and Clare were here from Nashville. She is a talent scout for GreyFox. We found them to be fascinating people, and we talked for quite a while about various mountain music topics. Once I realized that Clare was a talent scout I made sure to mention some of my favorite artists. I hope this ends up helping some of them!

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Clare and Jeff   –   Howdy, Y’all!

In the afternoon we took a free shuttle bus into the city of Mt. Airy to re-acquaint ourselves with “Mayberry.” (Mt. Airy is the city that Mayberry from the classic TV show, The Andy Griffith Show, is modeled on.) One of the venues on the Blue Ridge Music Trail is the Earl Theater in Mt. Airy. This is where the Saturday morning live radio show, The Merry-Go-Round takes place. Although it was too late to catch today’s broadcast, we watched a short documentary film about the Surry County old-time fiddle style.

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Back at the festival, we were able to watch as the awards in the youth category were announced and handed out. Sure enough – Lake Carver won an award! (I was not surprised in the least.)

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The first-place winner in the youth folksinging category was a girl named Karlee Keepher from Sparta, NC. (You can see her standing to the side in the photo of Lake receiving her award.) Karlee absolutely stunned us with her voice. Clare, the talent scout, commented on Karlee’s singing as well. Clare said that she is an up-and-coming Alison Krauss. Now that is high praise, especially considering the source.

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Onward to Mt. Airy

Today’s journey was pretty short – about an hour – but we passed from one “world” into another. The 46th Annual Mt. Airy Old Time and Bluegrass Fiddler’s Convention was our destination. As we entered Veteran’s Memorial Park in Mt. Airy we were told that we can set up our camper “anywhere,” except in the marked firelane. Unlike other festivals that we’ve camped at, this one had no discernible order or plan for campers to follow in selecting a spot. We pulled up in a fairly open section of a grassy lawn, next to a man playing his uke and a young woman setting up a tenting complex. The young woman was Krista, and she was here to compete in the folksinging category as well as the old time banjo category.OurSite.JPG

The festival began, for us, with an open-invitation jam for “all musicians” in the main building. We played a number of old time fiddle tunes together. I played the mandolin, but not very well. On many of the tunes, I was lost and unable to figure out the structure of the tune. In the evening we enjoyed the performances of all the bluegrass and old time bands as they each performed the first of two of their songs or tunes for the competition. There was a ton of jamming going on throughout the entire camping area.

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Perspective Check

Today we entered North Carolina and began the musical part of our adventure. The goal was to get to a campground close to Kernersville, NC, where one of our favorite bands, Balsam Range, would be performing in the evening. The drive was relatively short (about 150 miles), and we took our time. The campground, Oak Hollow Family Campground in High Point, NC, was wonderful. It is operated by the municipality of High Point, and it had everything a modern camper could want. Except for one thing: quiet. It is next to Interstate 74. We had about an hour to enjoy the pool (which we had all to ourselves) before heading to the concert.

 

We first met the members of Balsam Range a few years ago when they were one of the featured bands at the Winter Village Bluegrass Festival in Ithaca, NY. Since then they have gone on to win several awards from the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association). One of the members of Balsam Range, Buddy Melton, won “male vocalist of the year” a couple years ago. His voice is amazing. Balsam Range does a song that Buddy wrote called “Stacking up the Rocks.” It is an a-cappella, four-part harmony, and it talks about remembering the works that God has done in our lives. Buddy wrote it to mark an event in his life in which God worked a miracle. Buddy had been in a terrible farm accident and spent days hanging between life and death, battling a severe head injury. Hundreds, or maybe thousands of people were praying for him. He (obviously) survived and returned to his full ability to function.

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Today, before the concert, while I was waiting in line at a food truck, I struck up a conversation with the man in front of me. I asked him if this was the home area for Balsam Range. (I knew they were from somewhere in NC, but I didn’t know where.) He told me that he thought they were more from the Ashville area. He then told me something that shocked me: he told me that one of the members had died recently. He didn’t know anything more than that, but he thought it was within the last six months or so. I was stunned. I had been on their website recently in order to find their tour dates and locations, and I hadn’t seen anything about this. Could it have been Buddy? Could it have been the banjo-player, Marc Pruett, who is much older than the others? This fellow didn’t know. I decided to be skeptical about this fellow’s information.

 

When the band took the stage, Buddy was there. (Whew!) Marc was there (whew!). Caleb Smith, the guitarist was there. Darren Nicholson, the mandolinist was there. But … Tim Surrett, the bass player and more-or-less leader of the band, was missing. I couldn’t believe it! Could it be true? Could Tim have passed away? The last time we heard them, last summer, Tim had said at one point that he was living the dream. His experience with Balsam Range had exceeded all his expectations. He had been a gospel singer earlier in his life, and I believe he had won awards in that genre. I’m sure, from hearing the things he has said, that he knows and loves Jesus Christ. I was thinking about all of these things as the band was playing its first few numbers. I was missing Tim. I was grieving a little bit for his loss.

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After a few numbers, Darren began to talk to the audience. After a brief introduction he said, “Those of you who know and follow the band have surely noticed that while there are normally five of us, there are only four here tonight. Our bass player Tim Surrett’s mother-in-law passed away this week, and so, obviously, he was unable to be with us tonight. Buddy is handling the bass instead of his usual fiddle for tonight.”

 

Oh. My. Goodness.

 

Most of the rest of the concert was pure enjoyment. This band has a wonderful sound, particularly their tight vocal harmonies. They have great stage presence, and they relate easily and well to their audience. Each of the musicians is polished and “alive.” We just love them. We’re so glad Tim was just missing and not gone. (The absence of his voice and Buddy’s fiddle was significant.)

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