Story By Scott Stegall
“I think they is some of the best pickers ever been, from North Carolina. I mean the woods is full of them,” Junior Harris says, barely audible over the sound of a five-string banjo in the next room. Sitting on the front porch of his pickin’ parlor, Junior casts his glance away from the soft lines of quilted maple spanning the back of his fiddle and into the fading sunlight. From somewhere out in the dusky afternoon, the thunder rumbles for a split second and then it’s gone. It seems the thunder has learned a lesson known to all bluegrass musicians: it’s no use competing with the blaring twang of a bluegrass banjo.
Inside the building, turnout is testament to Junior’s belief. Musicians armed with mandolins, banjos, guitars, fiddles, and basses plow through a rendition of “Temperance Reel,” a 19th century Irish melody now a standard of American folk music. The tune bounces off the picture clad walls of the pickin’ parlor. From the center of one wall, the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe looks down on the crowd from his framed perch. “Bill Monroe was my favorite of course,” Joy Harris, Junior’s wife of fifty-two years, tells me. “When he would travel around in Virginia and places around here, I would go sing with him. I really loved that.” Jeff Branch, Junior and Joy’s nephew, thumps the bass lines out as the musicians kick off “Put My Little Shoes Away,” a Bill Monroe classic. That song has a special meaning for Jeff: “That was the first song I remember Bill Monroe dedicating to me when I was a little kid.”
Many musicians at the jam have formed relationships and shared stages with some of the greatest artists in bluegrass music. Although pickin’ regular Preacher Gene Hopkins is usually found jamming on guitar, he once filled in on bass with the Stanley Brothers when George Shuffler failed to show at a concert in New Salem, North Carolina. Junior performed with Kenny Baker and Bill Monroe, and Bill Simpson, a local banjo legend, toured with Bill Monroe for several months in the 1950s. The old-time fiddlers and banjo players that Junior and his cohort learned from may be long gone, but their legacy is still living and breathing in the instruments and voices that resonate with their tunes and their songs. Their music—the music of the Carolina Piedmont—lives on.
Junior’s jam session has been a mainstay of the community for many years. Before the jam moved to its present location, Junior and his brother Bob hosted the music making at their tire store in Oakboro, North Carolina every Tuesday. Junior began constructing his pickin’ parlor to house his wife’s antique collection in 2006. Joy recalls how the newly built space became a home not only for old antiques, but old tunes as well: “I knew he would miss it, so I said, ‘Well let’s build a building.’ I love antiques, and I was going to put antiques in here. When we got it built he said, ‘You know this would be a good place to play music.’ So, he won I guess!” Although musicians and local listeners fill up Junior’s pickin’ parlor each Friday night, there is still enough room for several of Joy’s and Junior’s relics. Old instruments hang on the wall, hunting trophies roost above the stage, and pictures of family members and friends are clustered from floor to ceiling.
Throughout the night, Junior and a group of local bluegrass veterans, share microphones and swap licks with teenagers new to bluegrass and old-time music. Bluegrass standards like “Cabin in Caroline” and “Gold Rush” are performed back to back with regional old-time favorites like “Kiss Me Waltz,” “Up Jumped the Devil,” and “Monkey in a Dogcart”—a tune Junior picked up from older Stanly County musicians who learned it in the 1920s. Some of the tunes Junior plays, like “Soldier’s Joy” and “Uncle Joe,” have been staples of the Southern fiddling tradition since the late 18th century. Between songs Junior offers his trademark sage advice to other musicians: “Eighty per cent of fiddling is in the right hand…You’ve got to do picking just about like you’re eating. If you ain’t got a whole lot to do, pick it up three or four times a day.”
As mentors to local performers, these musicians have been instrumental in the musical upbringing of professional bluegrass artists including banjoists Terry Baucom, winner of two IBMA awards, and Ben Greene, 2015 SPBGMA Banjo Player of the Year. But while the rattling of plastic picks against steel and the cutting tone of a well rosined bow gliding across fiddle strings sets the audience to tapping their feet, it is the relationships — not the music — that listeners and musicians alike cherish more than anything else. When asked about her favorite aspect of the jam, Joy replies, “It’s just the people and how much they love it.” Junior agrees: “I just like to get to fellowship with everybody and jam.”
Junior Harris’s jam is held in his pickin’ parlor the first Friday of each month starting at 7:00 p.m.
The address is 12954 Oak Grove Rd, Oakboro, NC 28129.
Scott Stegall is a junior History and Music major at Davidson College. Born in Monroe, North Carolina, Scott grew up around bluegrass and old-time music. Watching reruns of the Grand Ole Opry with his grandfather inspired Scott to pick up the banjo at age thirteen. Since then, he has taken up fiddle, guitar, mandolin, and bass. He's performed with various bluegrass and country bands including Stonewashed, the Catawba Riverkings, and Red Clay Revival. With the help of Davidson College and the North Carolina Arts Council, Scott has conducted fieldwork with and learned from some of the best traditional musicians in the Carolina Piedmont including fiddler Junior Harris and banjo players Clint Barwick and Marvin Gaster