From jam sessions held in century-old general stores and small-town barber shops to multiple-day fiddlers conventions and folk festivals, traditional mountain music can be heard throughout western North Carolina, preserving its past and energizing its present.
“Not only is there more community-based performance of traditional music in North Carolina, it’s more accessible than anywhere I’ve been,” said author and folklorist Fred Fussell. “Anybody who’s interested can find it, 52 weeks a year.”
Fussell shows visitors how to experience the state’s legendary mountain music and dance culture in Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina: A Guide to Music Sites, Artists, and Traditions of the Mountains and Foothills (UNC Press, $20).
The guidebook, a project of the North Carolina Arts Council and its partner, the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area Partnership, introduces readers to the music scene in 29 counties spread over six regions. The comprehensive publication profiles more than a dozen artists and groups, explores the significance of North Carolina’s rich cultural heritage, and features a CD with more than 20 songs by musicians included in the book.
“North Carolina has many visitor opportunities, but I think the best way to really get into the heart of the community you’re visiting in an authentic way is to go to a music venue because it’s a much more personal encounter,” said Fussell, who provides an insider’s guide to the worlds of bluegrass, old-time, blues, gospel, and stringband, as well as dance forms including clogging and flat-footing.
The Blue Ridge music legacy has national as well as regional significance, noted Wayne Martin, executive director of the North Carolina Arts Council, who developed the idea to create the guidebook. He cited examples including the 11 musicians from western North Carolina who have been awarded a National Heritage Fellowship, the country’s greatest honor in the traditional arts; the birth of team clogging by Sam Love Queen (his son Joe Sam Queen every summer runs a community dance in Waynesville); and Tommy Jarrell’s contribution to Surry County’s Round Peak style, the intense, bluesy, fiddle-driven sound mixed with banjo that has become synonymous with old-time music worldwide.
But perhaps North Carolina’s most important contribution, said Martin, a traditional musician himself, was the introduction of the banjo.
“North Carolina more than any state in the union has produced a number of historic banjo players,” he said. Enslaved Africans migrating west from the Piedmont and South Carolina Low Country introduced banjo playing to western North Carolina. From there, Earl Scruggs, who grew up near Shelby, elevated the musical form with his breakthrough three-finger picking style.
Along with Scruggs, another of the country’s most beloved folk musicians was Doc Watson. (MerleFest is named in memory of his son Eddy Merle Watson, who died in a farm tractor accident in 1985.) Both men passed away last year leaving the state without its mountain-music maestros.
While the musicians are sorely missed, “the tradition is in good hands,” said David Holt, a multiple-Grammy-winning musician, and a radio and television host based near Asheville. Holt frequently shared the stage with Watson and will perform at this year’s MerleFest, which will pay a special tribute to Watson, who grew up in Deep Gap, outside of Boone.
“Many people in North Carolina have learned from Doc and Earl because they were so influential,” Holt said. “Because of that, the music and the tradition can carry on.”
His new band, in fact, called Sutton, Holt and Coleman, with musicians Bryan Sutton and T. Michael Coleman, was formed around their common bond with Watson.
“We’re not a tribute band, but we’re digging deep into his repertoire, with Doc as our mentor and our guidepost.”
Other North Carolina musicians feel an obligation to maintain what has been passed down to them by their families.
“The blues are my roots,” said Clyde Ferguson Jr., a music educator in Lenoir, who for the past six years has played bass in a band with his octogenarian father, old-time blues singer and guitarist Clyde “Pop” Ferguson. “I started to learn about the 1940s blues era because that’s what my dad played.”
Ferguson organizes the Pop Ferguson Blues Festival in downtown Lenoir, which celebrates its fifth year this summer. “My thing is to keep the blues alive by teaching the heritage of Afro-America from the standpoint of its music.”
Donna Ray Norton, a ballad singer and eighth-generation musician from Madison County, shares a similar call. She’s the daughter of singer Lena Jean Ray, granddaughter of legendary fiddler Byard Ray and banjo player Morris Norton, and cousin to balladeer and storyteller Sheila Kay Adams. Ballad singing, once used to communicate news before the evolution of mass media, has experienced a particularly rich history in Madison County.
“I feel like it’s really important for us to continue the tradition because it’s something that’s dying out,” said Norton, who now lives in Weaverville and performs locally and across the state several times a year. “It’s our heritage.”
While ballad singing may be less commonplace, Martin observed that other forms of traditional music are making a huge comeback.
“I’m just astounded,” he said. “When I was starting to learn, when I was 18, I thought I was seeing the end of old-time fiddling and banjo playing, but lo and behold, it’s back. What I didn’t realize at the time was how powerful the authentic really is. When people sense that something is really true and reflective of a place, they want to be near it and a part of it.”
Jan Davidson, executive director of the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown and a traditional musician, has witnessed the same thing at his popular school, which emphasizes noncompetitive learning.
“We’ve always attracted a lot of retired folks, but in the last four or five years, young adults in their 20s and 30s want to both learn to play and to make traditional instruments,” said Davidson, who grew up in nearby Murphy. The school also hosts free weekly concerts, community dances, regional and national acts, and a fall festival featuring artisans, music and dance.
The renewed interest in performing traditional music delights and heartens Davidson, he said.
“That’s how it stays a living art form. People do it. You can document the heck out of it, but the music won’t keep going unless people play it.”
You can find a temporary companion website to the guidebook here:
Books are available at bookstores throughout the Southeast or online.
Blue Ridge Music of North Carolina is a project of the N.C. Arts Council’s cultural tourism program. An early leader in cultural tourism the agency has developed trails featuring important arts assets, such as music, North Carolina craft, and Cherokee heritage to brand the state as a place that sustains unique and significant arts resources. To find out more visit www.ncartstrails.org/blueridgemusic.
Traditional music performances are more accessible in North Carolina than anywhere in the country, said Fred Fussell, who toured 29 counties nestled in the Appalachians and its foothills for the guidebook Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina. Get ready to round the mountains and stomp your feet as you sample a taste of what the book’s six regions have to offer.
Fussell suggests that first-timers might want to check out larger events to learn about different kinds of music. Here are some ideas.
MerleFest (Wilkes County)
MerleFest is the state’s most famous festival, attracting more than 75,000 regional, national and international fans and considered one of the premier music festivals in the country. The four-day event features more than 90 artists spread across 14 stages on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, and focuses on many types of traditional and folk music. www.merlefest.org (While you’re in town, take time to visit the Wilkes Heritage Museum and Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame, 100 E. Main St., Wilkesboro, www.wilkesheritagemuseum.com.)
Mount Airy Bluegrass and Old-Time Fiddler’s Convention (Surry County)
This two-night outdoors event the first weekend in June at Mount Airy Veterans Memorial Park started in 1972 to honor the famed Surry County Round Peak musical style of banjo and fiddle playing. It now attracts hundreds of musicians and thousands of mountain music fans. www.mountairyfiddlersconvention.com. (While you’re in town, check out the Old-Time Music Heritage Hall at the Earle Theatre, also home to the weekly live mountain-music radio show “Merry-Go-Round” and the annual Tommy Jarrell Festival. 142 North Main St., www.theearle.org.)
Mountain Dance and Folk Festival (Buncombe County)
Downtown Asheville is the scene of this three-day event, the oldest continuing festival of traditional mountain music and dance in the country, held at the Diana Wortham Theatre, Pack Square, www.folkheritage.org. (The Shindig on the Green free concert series takes place most other weekends throughout the summer at Pack Square Park.)
Red, White and Bluegrass Festival (Burke County)
Every year from June 30 to July 4 thousands of bluegrass fans converge on the Catawba Meadows Park in Morganton for one of the state’s large music events. What grew out of the city’s Fourth of July celebration now boasts a lineup of more than 30 of the biggest names in bluegrass. www.redwhiteandbluegrassfestival.com.
SMALL, INTERESTING VENUES
Now that you know more about traditional music, Fussell recommends you explore some more-intimate settings, many interesting spots in their own right. Try these on for size:
Zuma Coffee (Madison County)
Downtown Marshall, bordered on the south by the French Broad River and the north by the sheer stone face of a mountain, hosts weekly bluegrass jams at Zuma Coffee. Fiddling legend and local resident Bobby Hicks often emcees the lively Thursday evening event, which is pictured on the cover of Blue Ridge Music Trails. 7 North Main St., www.zumacoffee.blogspot.com. (While you’re in town, check out the mountain music and dance event every Friday evening at the nearby Depot.)
Jam Sessions at the T. M. Rickman General Store (Macon County)
Every Friday afternoon from May to October, the Friends of Richman’s Store holds an open bluegrass an old-time jam session out on the upstairs porch overlooking the Little Tennessee Valley. Inside, community volunteers are on hand with displays of vintage store equipment, furnishings, and local crafts. The store, part of the 370 acre Cowee-West’s Mill National Historic District and acquired by the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee in August of 2007, reopened that same year and hosts community events year-round. 251 Cowee Creek Road (off of Highway 28 about 6 miles North of Franklin), www.rickmanstore.com.
Drexel Barber Shop (Burke County)
One of the more quaint musical venues in the Blue Ridge region is the tiny barber shop in the tiny town of Drexel, just east of Morganton. The regulars gather at noon on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Depending on the day, you might hear gospel, country and western, or bluegrass. The shop was the subject of a Emmy-nominated documentary film “Pickin’ and Trimmin,” 100 South Main St., Drexel. Facebook.
Alleghany Jubilee (Alleghany County)
Every Saturday evening 100 or more dancers from around northwestern North Carolina converge upon the historic Spartan Theater to dance the mountain two-step to the music of some of the region’s most popular traditional groups. On Tuesdays, there’s another bluegrass and old-time picking session with dancing. 25 North Main St., Sparta. www.alleghanyjubilee.com.
Ever wanted to go to summer camp for adults? Your wish is granted, all year long.
Surrounded by forests and mountains in the far west of the state, the 372-acre John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown (Cherokee County) provides experiences in non-competitive learning and community life that are joyful and enlivening. Adults of all ages can take year-round weeklong and weekend classes in craft, art, music, dance, cooking, gardening, nature studies, photography and writing, with special attention given to traditional mountain arts. The school also is home to the History Center, which traces the school from its beginning in 1925 and provides an overview of Appalachian culture. It also hosts a concert series, community dances, and special events. If you want a crash course in Appalachian culture, this is a great place to start. www.folkschool.org
To learn more about the Blue Ridge Music Trails visit: www.ncartstrails.org/blueridgemusic