The Search for the Perfect Jam

Our strategic location of Claytor Lake State Park not only allowed us to enjoy the facilities of the park, but it also put us within reasonable reach of two different events listed in the Mts. of Music Homecoming booklet. There was an Appalachian farm market with music in the nearby town of Pulaski, and there was a traditional “old time” jam at a Mexican grill in the not-too-nearby town of Pearisburg.

 

I was able to spend about an hour kayaking around on Claytor Lake in the morning, before the thunderstorms moved in. I loved it.

 

We headed off toward the town of Pulaski to experience that Appalachian farm market with music. When we got there we found that it was … meh. There wasn’t much on offer from the farmers’ market, and the band was nothing to write home about. It was not something we wanted to spend our whole evening on. So, we did what we could. We headed for the “old time jam” at that Mexican grill in Pearisburg. Our GPS led us to … the Walmart!

 

We were a bit mystified. There was supposed to be a Mexican grill here, with jamming, but we didn’t see one. I drove around the parking lot, and lo and behold – a Mexican grill. We entered with some trepidation, because there were only a few cars in the parking lot, and we couldn’t hear any music. But when we got inside we found three gentlemen and a lady off to one side singing and playing instruments. They welcomed us warmly, and immediately asked if I had an instrument. When they heard that I had a guitar they enthusiastically encouraged me to bring it in and join the fun.

 

The songs they were doing were all over the map. Some folk music, some country music, some bluegrass, an occasional gospel song, and some originals that one of the fellows had written. These folks were salt-of-the earth people who were simply gathered together for a fun night of making music together. I contributed quite a few songs, which is really not what I usually do. I just felt comfortable doing so, and it was easy to do. They brought us right into the circle. During the course of the evening I got them to introduce themselves and tell me a bit about who they were. Here are two of them: T-Baby Reed – the guitar man and Earl Thornton with the baritone uke:

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And here is Addison Dobbs with his mandolin (He’s really the only one who consistently lead bluegrass tunes):

 

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And here I am joining in:

 

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It was a really unusual evening, and much different than I had anticipated. But it was a great, authentic, Appalachian music experience. This is what we came here to find.

Feastival!

At this point in the trip we faced a fork in the road, and we took it. Our original plan had us heading to the Asheville area and focusing on non-musical interests. There were no more Blue Ridge Music Trail events closeby. However, a few days ago E discovered that Virginia’s Crooked Road (which we explored pretty thoroughly in 2015) was holding a 10-day, Mts. of Music Homecoming celebration. There were all sorts of events going on all over southern Virginia from June 9 through June 17. We found that we would be able to catch quite a few of these events if we headed back up to Virginia at this point. This decision was a no-brainer.

 

The first event we decided to attend was billed as a “Feastival.” It was a catered church-picnic type of event, with a bluegrass/gospel band, a couple of highly accomplished musicians, and talks by two local authors who have written books about the food in Appalachia. E had already heard of one of these authors, and had recently placed a hold on her book at the library, so when she saw that we would be able to meet this lady and hear from her, it seemed like a great opportunity.

 

The event was being held at the Dinwiddie Presbyterian Church, outside the town of Hillsville, VA. A couple miles short of the destination our GoogleMaps directions brought us to a dirt road with a dark, forbidding entrance, low-hanging branches, and prospects of hills and switchbacks that I just wasn’t willing to face. I phoned our contact person at the event, and with some help, we were able to come up with a better route. The only problem was, now I had to turn the trailer around on this crooked road. With E’s help, and our pair of walkie-talkies, we made it happen. We arrived at the Feastival about 20 minutes late.

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Fortunately, the eating hadn’t started yet. We missed some music, but there would be much more of that later.

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The authors (Ronni Lundy and Libby Bondurant) told interesting stories, and they helped us understand more about the culture of Appalachia. I have become more and more convinced that the people of this area are judged very unfairly by outsiders. The stereotypes are hurtful, and for the most part very untrue.

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The music was provided by a band named Changing Lanes, and they were joined by a guitarist named Mac Traynham and a banjo-player named Edwin Lacy. Evidently these two fellows are well-known mountain music “sages.” (Keep that name, Mac Traynham in mind as you read future posts in this trip of ours. We were to learn more about him later.) The music was good, and most of what they played was gospel. I love the fact that gospel music plays such a big role in traditional mountain music.

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Oh! We found an RV park just a couple miles down the road from the Dinwiddie Church. Good thing, because it had been a very full day!

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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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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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Blooms on the Ridge

Since we are so near to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and since we have very fond memories of our 2007 journey on the Parkway, we decided to spend today revisiting the area around Peaks of Otter, and taking some time to stop and look at things we had overlooked before. One of our hopes was that by being here earlier in the season we would find more mountain flowers in bloom. On our previous trip, which took place in July, we noted an abundance of rhododendrons, but they were well past their bloom. Perhaps in late May we could find some that were still blooming.

 

We were to learn that our expectations would be met and exceeded. We entered near the point of lowest elevation on the entire Parkway. There we saw no blooms. But some bicyclists stopped near us for a break, so I struck up a conversation with Mary Lou from Florida. She said that in the higher elevations there were rhododendrons blooming. A few minutes later we spoke with one of her friends who showed us a multitude of photos she had taken at higher elevations.

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Within a short time we had climbed 3,000 feet, and sure enough, we began to see blooms.

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We made our way to the Peaks of Otter Lodge and spent the rest of the day exploring there. We took the shuttle to the top of Sharp Top Mountain, we had dinner in the lodge, and we took a walk around Abbot Lake.

 

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