Since North Carolina is the most botanically diverse state in the nation, it should come as no surprise that popping up alongside those camellias, honeysuckles and loblolly pines are fiddlers, cloggers, banjo players and countless other exponents of the state's rich musical heritage who burst into bloom when the weather gets warm. From the mountains to the sea, North Carolina possesses not just a list, but a legacy of great music festivals.
Some are drop-in day trips; some are week-long schools; others are weekend get-togethers where parking lots and campgrounds become music festivals themselves, as informal circles of players paint the air with the sounds of banjos, fiddles, guitars and mandolins. Small music workshops are a mainstay, along with group and individual performance competitions featuring the good, the bad and the ugly of all stripes and all ages: musicians, dancers and singers.
Unlike your typical stadium rock show, these gatherings tend to be family affairs: no drugs, alcohol, or dogs, and lots of opportunities for kids to get involved. They're places where friendships are made and acquaintances are renewed on a yearly basis. Heading out to a festival is a small vacation not from life but into life, a welcomed journey into a renewable community of shared values and interests.
They're also places of "cosmic moments," as Hillsborough old-time musician Carl Jones said of this spring's MerleFest. When bass player Mark Schatz came up missing a fiddler, he invited Jones to the stage to bow a few sets of music. They were playing Jones' melancholy "Last Time on the Road" while John Hartford, who's been in declining health, began setting up to do a workshop nearby.
"John was looking poorly at the festival, and he was all bundled up behind me," Jones says. As they played, the wind rose and a storm began to brew. "The storm reached a frenzy during that song, and then after that, it really ebbed. We finished, and John was obviously very choked up, and he said, 'That was a beautiful song.' I told John if anybody knew about the road, it was him. And he didn't say anything else; he just kind of hung his head. John was thinking about it, and the storm was thinking about it, too. That was the highlight of that festival for me."
This list does not aspire to be a comprehensive guide to North Carolina festivals. Spring gatherings, like Penland (March) and MerleFest (April) have already passed. Instead, consider this an invitation to experience a unique and delightful element of life in North Carolina--summer music festivals, old and new, each with its own special moments.
As Jones says, "At any festival, there's a lot of those moments, more than people realize, where cosmic consciousness of all kinds of comes to a peak--and through music, especially so. It's not so much the place as the people. It's just like a church--it's kind of a church of old-time music. These people are kind of religious in their own way."
This year marks the 76th annual gathering known as Fiddler's Grove, held May 26-28 in Union Grove, making it--according to the National Geographic Society--the oldest continuously run musical event of its type in North America. Because of its heritage and commitment to folk-music preservation, it has been named an official "Library of Congress Local Legacy." In addition to group and individual competitions, including a "Fiddler of the Festival Play-Off," there will be workshops on shape-note singing, storytelling and children's folk music. Performers include master fiddlers Ralph Blizzard, Robin Warren, Mack Snoderly and J.P. Fraley, along with the Cockman Family, the Kruger Brothers, Laura Boosinger and others. For details, contact Harper A. Van Hoy at P.O. Box 11, Union Grove, N.C. 28689, or call (704) 539-4417.
The Mount Airy Bluegrass and Oldtime Fiddler's Convention meets for its 29th year on June 2 and June 3. More than 100 bluegrass and old-time bands will compete, including Mount Airy's Nunn Brothers, the Rye County Ramblers from Floyd, Va., and the Muddy Creek Bluegrass Band from Winston-Salem. Individual competitions will be held for mandolin, dobro, guitar, bass, dulcimer and autoharp, and there will be adult and child dance competitions.
Jones and Leva's James Leva describes Mount Airy as "the Jerusalem, Mecca, and Motown of mountain music. Saturday night's dance contest, with all of its great music, high spirits and tomfoolery, along with its benevolent, tongue-in-cheek emcee, Clyde Johnson, is the omphalos--the center of the universe. I would not miss this for the world." For information, write Jack Jones, 319 W. Oakdale St., Mount Airy, N.C. 27030, or call (336) 786-6830.
A few days later, during the week of June 4-10, comes the ninth annual Blue Ridge Old-Time Week at Mars Hill College. Go there for "the opportunity to learn old-time music the old way, directly from dedicated and accessible old-time musicians," including National Folk Heritage Award winner Wayne Henderson, Kay Justice and Carl Jones. Informal classes take place in the morning; workshops on topics from fiddle and bow maintenance to Appalachian singing styles go on in the afternoon. A "slow jam" begins after dinner, along with a string band workshop.
"I've learned a tremendous amount, made many new friends, and heightened my understanding and respect for an under-appreciated form of traditional American art," says Old-Time Music Group board member Charlie Gravel, who's played fiddle, banjo and guitar at the Old-Time Week for three years. "As a music student, I collect enough lesson material in my week at Mars Hill to keep me busy for the intervening year." Call (828) 689-1167, or e-mail email@example.com for details.
June 10 marks the first annual OcraFolk Festival, an eclectic day of folk music and storytelling on the grounds of Berkley Manor on Silver Lake, Ocracoke Island. Storyteller Donald Davis, Molasses Creek (finalists in A Prairie Home Companion's "Talent from Towns Under 2,000" competition), bluesman Kelly Joe Phelps, and other musicians, including Noah Paley and Kitty West, will perform and conduct workshops. There will be activities for children, and an appearance by Bynum chainsaw sculptor Clyde Jones. Visit www.villagecraftsmen.com/folkfest.htm for more information.
The three-day Festival for the Eno (July 1, 2, & 4), celebrating its 21st year, is the biggest gathering of its kind in the Triangle, and a model for environmentally oriented festivals around the country: In addition to being a five-stage celebration of music, crafts, dance and the spoken word, it raises money to help purchase and protect parklands along the Eno River.
"It's kind of like a family reunion," says Kurt Fortmeyer, proprietor of the Hyphen Coffeeshop in Fuquay-Varina, and a frequent festival performer. "I've been going there for years, and there's kids that I recognize who are adults now--I can remember seeing them when they were only 5 or 6 years old. The performers are very approachable, and everybody seems really interested in everybody's music--it doesn't matter if you're a bluegrass player, and the other band is an African drum band." Scheduled performers include Ralph Stanley, the Badgett Sisters, Tift Merritt, Andy Kuncl and dozens more. For details, call (919) 477-4549.
The Swannanoa Gathering is a series of weeklong workshops taught by players like Mike Seeger, Tracy Schwarz, Ginny Hawker, Ken Kolodner, The Georgia Sea Island Singers, Rafe Stefanini, Sloan Wainwright, Scott Ainslie and Del Rey. Choose from: Celtic week (July 9-15), dulcimer week (July 16-22), sing, swing and string week (July 16-22), old-time music and dance week (July 23-29), performance lab (July 23-29), contemporary folk week (July 30-Aug. 5) and guitar week (July 30-Aug. 5). For information, write Warren Wilson College, P.O. Box 9000, Asheville, N.C., 28815-9000, call (828) 298-3434, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
"A dear little fiddler's convention" is the way Durham old-time musician Joe Newberry describes the Alleghany County Fiddler's Convention (July 21-22). "It's memorable because the mix of old-time and bluegrass players is fairly equal, with the crowd cheering equally for everyone." Carrboro musician Gail Gillespie likes the setting--an agricultural fairgrounds with straw-lined animal stalls. "They give this little fiddler's convention a lot of the feel (and smell) that evokes the Galax (Va.) Fiddler's Convention of some 20 years ago," she says. "People set them up like little houses with chairs, coolers, tables and tablecloths, and hanging lanterns, and some pitch tents under them. Musicians crowd into them at night, and it's magical to stroll from lamp-lit stall to stall getting a sampling of the impromptu combinations of fiddles, banjos, guitars, mandolins and basses." Contact Lynn Worth at 616 Reynolds Road, Sparta, N.C., 28675, call (336) 372-2033, or e-mail email@example.com.
If you find yourself in the Asheville vicinity at the end of July, the Bele Chere Festival, which claims the distinction of being North Carolina's largest street festival, takes place July 28-30; a list of performers will be announced in June. For information, write Bob Applegate, Asheville Parks and Recreation, P.O. Box 7148, Asheville, N.C., 28802, or call (828) 259-5800. Shortly thereafter, the 72nd annual Mountain Dance & Folk Festival, established in 1927 by old-time music legend Bascom Lamar Lunsford, runs Aug. 3-5 in Asheville. For details, contact Leslie Yancey, at (828) 258-6107, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The 30th annual Ashe County Old Time Fiddler's & Bluegrass Convention takes place on August 5. Sponsored by the Rotary Club, its mission is to raise money to offer scholarships to graduating high school seniors in Ashe County; it typically earns $15,000 to $20,000 a year for this purpose. Several hundred participants are expected for bluegrass, clogging and flatfoot dancing, folk singing, bluegrass and old-time band competitions, and individual competitions. Write R.D. Williams for more information at P.O. Box 1045, Jefferson, N.C., 28640; call (336) 246-0701, or e-mail email@example.com.
The John C. Campbell Folk School's 27th Annual Fall Festival runs Oct. 7-8 in Brasstown. The festival features old-time, bluegrass, gospel, and folk music; clogging, contra and square dancing, crafts; food and children's activities. The folk school itself was founded in 1925, based on a non-competitive Danish model aimed at two kinds of human development: "inner growth as creative, thoughtful individuals, and social development as tolerant, caring members of a community." Wouldn't it be great if all schools had the same mission? For details, write Bob Dalsemer, John C. Campbell Folk School, 1 Folk School Road, Brasstown, N.C., 28902, call (800) FOLKSCH, or visit www. folkschool.com.