We learned of two events taking place in Blacksburg, VA today, and we had made arrangements to spend the night at a winery associated with Harvest Hosts. So, after a leisurely morning, we packed our camper and headed to the Whitebarrel Winery in Christiansburg, VA. As members of Harvest Hosts we agree to make a purchase at participating wineries, farms and museums, and in return we are welcome to spend the night parked in our camper without a fee. The people that run Whitebarrel winery were generous to us and let us do our business in the afternoon and then return well after dark to sleep. We didn’t ask for this, but Maria offered to let us unhitch the camper and just take the truck into Blacksburg. That made things much easier than they might otherwise have been. Maria was a wonderful host, explaining about each of the wines, and guiding us to a special charcouterie board and pizza that they had available. We enjoyed a quiet and sophisticated “lunch” on their patio before heading for Blacksburg.
In Blacksburg, our first interest was an artistic exhibit called “From These Woods.” It featured a number of different wood products, artistically constructed, representing everything from tables, to sculptures, to paddles, to instruments. I was very surprised to find the name Mac Traynham again after having seen him first at the Feastival on Sunday. A banjo made by Mac was featured in the exhibit. Nearby were these words about Mac: “Mac Traynham is a giant in the world of Appalachian music, a towering figure who has been plying his trade as a musician, teacher, and artisan for over 30 years. Recognized as a master banjo maker by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities in 2009, Traynham’s open-backed, custom-made banjos combine expert craftsmanship with impeccable aesthetics, with each piece resulting in a sonic whirlwind of beauty.”
Wow. Those are words of high praise. I had no idea who we were dealing with on Sunday! His banjo on display had incredibly beautiful inlays in the fretboard:
After the exhibit closed we had a couple hours to kill, so we chilled out in the student center at Virginia Tech. I was reflecting how unique college campuses are in that you can just go and hang out in them if you know the right places to go.
The second thing we had come into town for was to be an old-time music jam in a downtown park starting at 8:00. (We grabbed a super Cajun dinner at a place called Boudreaux’s. The seafood gumbo was to die for.) We were a bit late for the jam, but we joined in anyway. It was a genuine, fiddle-and-banjo old-time jam, and the pace was blistering. I had a great time, and I am finding that I recognize more and more of the tunes. This jam was the sort of thing I love joining in on. It was not the relaxed, laid-back style that made me feel comfortable, but it was the “real deal,” and I feel that I learned a lot by participating in it. We stayed until the bitter end at 10:00, which means I was playing my guitar for a solid hour and a half at breakneck speed. Wonderful!
Then it was back down the crooked roads to our home on wheels at the Whitebarrel winery.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 banjo-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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
On most of our travels the best things that happen are the ones that are unexpected and unplanned. We’ve seen this time and again: we have plans (or sometimes we don’t), and as we attempt to make our plans come to pass, we run into obstacles. Things don’t go well, or things don’t turn out as planned, and we have to abandon our ideas and find alternatives. Last year, on the Crooked Road, the most notable example of this was the night we found the Alan Hicks Jam. Today (tonight) will go down in ContinualSunsets history as one of the more remarkable instances of this sort of thing.
In researching for this trip we found that there were actually two alternatives for music on the evening of August 11: there was said to be Thursday night jamming at the Big Timber Brewing Company in Elkins, and there was to be a festival taking place at a nearby campground, and they had a lineup of bluegrass bands on tap for this evening. Either would be suitable, but we opted for the jamming at the Big Timber Brewing Company.
We had stopped in at the Elkins Visitors’ Center as we had entered town, and we had learned about a third musical option: a Thursday night concert connected to the Augusta Heritage Center’s ongoing summer program. This week was “Old Time” week, as well as “Vocal” week, and the Thursday evening concert would feature old time music, vocals, and traditional dancing.
However, once we had moved to our new campsite in the Stuart Recreation Area we realized that we had very little information to go on. Still lacking a cell signal, we were unable to go online to find out details about the Thursday evening jamming at Big Timber Brewing (our first choice). We were guessing that 7:00PM would be a logical time to expect them to start. We knew the location, so we set out shortly before 7:00. When we got there we found that this “brewing company” was really just a bar, and a fairly small one at that. I went in and found no jamming. I asked the bartender about it, and she said it was “hit or miss.” Sometimes “they” showed up and sometimes they didn’t. You could never tell. If they were going to be there, they were generally there from about 7:00 to about 9:00. Well, it was shortly before 7, so we decided to give it a bit of time to see what developed. Meanwhile, we decided to find the library and see if there was a wifi signal that we could use to check on our communications.
At the library I found more information about the Thursday evening concert with the Augusta Heritage Center. It was to start at 7:30. I got some “general” directions to the location from one of the librarians. (She was pretty sure we would have trouble finding a place to park if we went there.) When we went back to the bar at about 7:20, still nothing was going on. So we punted. We decided to try to make it to the 7:30 concert. I wound my way through town and onto the Elkins and Davis College campus. The directions were vague and complex, and I really couldn’t remember the details. But I knew I needed to go up the hill and look for a library and a chapel. As I wandered through the campus I saw both of these. We saw several people headed in the same direction, including a man carrying a banjo case. We followed. We followed right up to an empty parking space in the closest row to the performance venue. We arrived a few minutes after the start of the show, but we were still able to get tickets and enter between songs.
What we found was beyond extraordinary. We were in an auditorium that seats over 1000, and it appeared to be nearly full. The performances were mostly teachers and students from the weeklong “classes” that are studying old time music and singing (along with dance and mountain crafts). Each performer had about 10 to 15 minutes, and then the next ones were introduced. We heard everything from the traditional fiddle-banjo-guitar ensembles to cowboy songs to yodeling to sea shanties to gospel to whistling. Not a single performance was disappointing, and one or two were almost breathtaking.
By far the most spellbinding performance was from Emily Eagen. She is listed as the instructor for “Lullabies from Around the World” and “Tricky Transcriptions & Hidden Harmonies.” She is described as “a singer who loves both early and old-time music, [she] can plumb the connections among many genres.” But these words do not begin to capture the creativity and talent that this woman possesses. In one song there was a verse that she whistled. I have never imagined that a human could whistle this way. She sounded more like a bird than a human. In another song she collaborated with another instructor (Ann Downey – Cowboy Songs and Yodels) to create some of the more interesting and entertaining yodels I’ve heard. The most remarkable thing Emily presented is an original song in which she reversed the Twinkle Twinkle Little Star lullaby, presenting the star’s response to the original lullaby’s query. Not only did she reverse the perspective of the song, but she also inverted the melody.
After the concert ended I was asking around about purchasing tickets for Saturday night’s performance. After seeing tonight’s concert I didn’t want to chance missing an opportunity to attend Saturday night’s main event. (I had thought that the main event was to be held outdoors, and therefore was not concerned about the tickets selling out. Learning that the concert would be held in this venue I realized that there would be a limited number of seats.) I asked one of the volunteers about getting tickets, and he pointed out the person (Beth) that I should talk to. When I introduced myself to Beth I did not realize that she is the Director of the entire Augusta Heritage Center programming. When she (Beth King) learned that I was going to be writing about our experiences here, she presented us with complimentary tickets for Saturday’s concert.
As if all of this were not remarkable enough, we then spent the next two hours or so jamming with a group of singers and players in “the bridge,” an enclosed walkway connecting some of the buildings on campus. Elaine enjoyed this a great deal, as it was not billed just as an instrumental jam but also as a “singing” jam. By the time we left, at 12:30 AM, it had been a most amazing day!