North Carolina’s Appalachia

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Steeped in music. The song of the south in the Appalachian Mountains

By Josephine Matyas & Craig Jones

WITHOUT A WORD OF A LIE, on any weekend in North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains, there are dozens of small music jams happening in every setting imaginable: old folk’s homes, community centres, barbershops, repurposed warehouses, church halls and front porches.

It’s not difficult to find a room full of people huddled around in a circle, playing the music of their youth. Usually there are three generations, with the young watching and learning from the elders, “stealing their licks.” Songs, playing styles, performance cues, rhythm and meter of traditional mountain music are strummed and absorbed, with nary a sheet of music in sight. Music and dance are glues that bind these communities together. The Appalachian foothills have long been a centre of musical and cross-cultural transmission.

A GREAT SPOT TO GET A LITTLE GROUNDING in the history of bluegrass is at the Earl Scruggs Center, a brand new museum dedicated to the legendary banjo picker and the three-finger roll instrumental style he put on the map. The Center anchors the foothills town of Shelby, housed in the original courthouse building. From hardscrabble sharecropper’s son to international banjo sensation, the story of Earl Scruggs inspires. One does not have to love the five-string banjo to appreciate how Scruggs showed what was possible.

Others followed in hot pursuit.

The intelligently curated exhibits follow the story of his rise and his evolution from Flatt and Scruggs (cue: The Beverly Hillbillies theme music) downhome banjo picking sensation to his embrace of the new music of the flower children (in a band with his two sons), opposition to the Vietnam War, and passage into graceful old age – an old age in which he never stopped performing and “chasing the light.”

Scruggs distinctive style of picking – “10 notes a second with a melody in the middle of it” – helped define a new genre of music. Touchscreen technology, headphones, video and audio histories; this museum has it all along with a display of Scruggs’ favourite instruments.

Then, because we wanted to see how the magic of bluegrass rolls out, we drove west along Highway #74 to Fletcher for the Monday open jam at the Feed & Seed, a live music venue that doubles as a church. This barely renovated, century-old feed and seed warehouse is now a storefront church carefully overseen by Pastor Phillip Trees.

MUSIC IS ONE OF PASTOR TREES’ WAYS of giving back to his community: the metaphor is deliberate. Don’t call it “geezer bluegrass” because – while technically accurate – that label doesn’t do it justice. Call it an evening of people immersed in the music of their lives and sharing their love of playing with anyone who walks through the door.

This all-ages, all-skill levels event brings out the best. We counted no fewer than 10 banjos, at least as many guitars, a doghouse (bass) and a sprinkling of fiddles, resonator guitars and mandolins. The average age was – oh, 65-plus – but what’s magic is the neuro-protective affect of playing, singing and sharing music on a regular basis. There must have been 25-30 jammers all awaiting their turn and at least as many in the audience, cracking up, singing along and generally soaking up the joyful vibe. Everyone looks younger than they probably are and some have taken up new instruments in their later years. Can’t make it to Fletcher for a Monday night jam or a weekend concert? You can livestream the evening on your home computer.

THE SIGN ON THE WALL OF THE DREXEL BARBER SHOP reads “Pickin’ and Trimmin.” Every Saturday, a slate of musicians show up, warm their hands by the woodstove, unpack instruments and get down to playing. It’s been that way for half-a-century and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing.

“I’ve been barbering here for 50 years,” smiles David Shirley as he pours a coffee, “and you never know who’s going to play.”

The front room of the barber shop is vintage 1950s: spinning chairs, red and white checked tile on the floor and the iconic red, blue and white barber pole. The walls are plastered with bluegrass posters and memorabilia. Owner Carroll Anthony’s dad – who carried his guitar into war with General Patton’s 3rd army – started this jam in 1964 and some combination of players and singers has been gathering here every Saturday morning since.

“He started strumming his guitar between haircuts,” Carroll explains, “Well, the chief of police played a mandolin. He started coming in and he’d pick a little bit. He’d get a call and have to take off. So he finally started leaving his mandolin at the shop. Joe came in and started playing banjo with them and it progressed from there. Today there are thirty to forty to fifty people every Saturday morning.”

In the back room, five men launch into a tune – resonator guitar, banjo, guitar, mandolin and bass. David pointed out 87-year-old Herbert Lambert, a terrific player and Second World World War veteran, hunched over his mandolin.

“You’ll think he’s asleep, tobacco juice be dripping out of his mouth,” someone adds, “but he’ll play here all day and go somewhere else to play all night.” Lambert plays circles around men three decades younger. The back room is decked out with bluegrass memorabilia, posters of Bill Monroe, tributes to musicians who have visited, retired instruments on the walls and a circle of chairs for audience members close to the wood stove. It’s not fancy. It’s authentic.

Most of all, the music is infectious. It’s worth catching. It’s the song of the South.

The Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina is the perfect place to start.

Some other great stops:

  • Asheville – nicknamed by locals as “the loophole in the Bible Belt – is known for Biltmore Estate. The city is a hotbed of culture, music and new ideas.
  • Asheville Bee Charmer sells all things honey and bee-related. You can sample the wares at an innovative, glowing, honey tasting bar.
  • Buskers and live music venues abound (weekend Bluegrass Brunch at the Asheville Music Hall, Orange Peel, The Grey Eagle).
  • Early Girl Eatery serves Southern standards meets farm-to-table movement.
  • Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar has soft music playing, thick Persian rugs, comfy chairs and sofas clustered in conversational hubs. Then there are the shelves of books. This beautiful downtown shop is a combination bookstore (mainly used and rare books) and champagne bar (beer and wine also available by the glass and bottle).
  • Stop by luthier Jerry Read Smith’s workshop, Song of the Wood. He describes the notes of his handmade hammered dulcimers as “music set free.” Every note of the unique instrument rings as long as it wants to. Pure beauty.

Who’s writing

Our travel horizons keep expanding. For fall 2014, we’ve packed the camper van, taken along our easy going Border Collie (Eleanor Rigby) and are exploring the Carolinas and Georgia. On the way down we’re looking for everything unique about life along the ocean coastline. And on our travels back north we’re taking the inland route, looking for food, culture and roots music. We’ve added a new website devoted to our travels: with info on RV travel, pooch-friendly travel, food and music destinations.