By: Zoe Van Buren, Folklife Specialist
The fiddler’s convention has a central place in the old-time music tradition. Musicians seek out North Carolina’s storied old-time gatherings for the chance to meet one another, join workshops, and jam with pickers from near and far. These convenings grow the tradition and keep its people together.
This year, the Folklife Program of the North Carolina Arts Council and the Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center gave the youngest generation of old-time musicians a gathering of their own. Over a May weekend at Stecoah’s historic schoolhouse building nestled in the mountains, students from Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) programs across the western counties came together to create their own community of music at Stecoah JAM Camp. Stecoah is home to one of the oldest JAM programs supported by the N.C. Arts Council’s Traditional Arts Programs for Students (TAPS) grant.
Master fiddler Roger Howell, JAM instructors, Stecoah staff, and representatives of Junior Appalachian Musicians, Inc. led the weekend’s workshops, jam sessions, and singing circles, culminating in a special round of the Mountain Youth Talent Contest, hosted by the Jackson County 4-H. As the weekend wound to a close, Folklife staff asked one camp instructor, Julie Nelms, a former student in the Stecoah JAM program, just what JAM means to her.
Stecoah JAM Camp was sponsored by the North Carolina Arts Council, the Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center, and Graham County Travel and Tourism.
Unlike Wiley, there were a plethora of musical instruments around in my childhood days and better than that, there were people who knew how to play them.
The traditional music of Appalachia has been the soundtrack of my life in the mountains of North Carolina.
My earliest memories revolve around the art of making music. I was blessed to grow up in a family where it seemed someone was always pickin’ and grinnin’ in the kitchen. I often fell asleep to the sounds of guitars, mandolins, and high lonesome harmonies.
My father, Jerry Marshall Wilson, was one half of the famed Wilson Brothers who won the North Carolina Heritage Award from the North Carolina Arts Council in 1998. After the grandkids came along we begin to affectionately call him Pap.
Pap was also raised in the mountains of North Carolina surrounded by music. His grandmother Carrie Coleman Elliott Wilson played piano by ear.
In the late 50s, Pap was drafted into the United States Marine Corp. He served with a boy from Churchill, Tennessee who had a guitar and liked to play and sing. He gave Pap a few lessons and taught him to play his first song “The Lonely Little Robin.”
After Pap was discharged and back home in the mountains of North Carolina he made an earnest effort to play music. He and his brother Ray began singing and performing as The Wilson Brothers in the classic brother duet style that was popular at the time.
The brothers performed as a gospel duet for about 40 years. They sang in countless churches and other venues. They had weekly programs on at least three different radio stations during their career. In 1973 they released their first album “Words of Life,” which was well received and is still played on the radio today. They made their last recording “Today, If You Will Hear His Voice” in the early 2000s.
Pap passed his great love of music on to his children and to his grandchildren.
For many years my brother Paul played lead guitar for The Wilson Brothers. I learned to play the acoustic bass as an adult. My daughters, Corie and Katie, started out singing with Pap in church and eventually picked up their own instrument and learned to sing harmony from Pap and Paul.
Corie plays the guitar and mandolin while singing harmony with her sister, Katie, who plays the fiddle and piano while singing lead.
By late 2008 Pap was performing with Paul and myself. Once his grandchildren came of age they periodically joined them on stage. As time went swiftly by the younger generation took the lead with Corie and Katie stepping to the forefront while Pap, Paul, and I backed them up.
For many years we played as a group at churches, community centers, festivals, and other venues. During this time, as Pap’s health began to fail, we began calling ourselves The Pressley Girls.
In 2016 we lost Pap. It was a tremendous blow to our family, but we found great solace in playing the music he spent his life sharing with us. Singing the songs Pap wrote and sharing the traditional songs he taught us is beyond rewarding.
The art of making music is as common as eating supper in our family.
Corie and Katie joke they really didn’t have a choice in learning to play and sing traditional music because they were totally immersed in it from birth. The girls were just toddlers when a cousin said to me, “Do you know everywhere this family goes they take guitars with them? I mean it could be coming a tornado and someone would say ‘Did you get the guitars I think we’ve got time to sing one before it hits.’”
Although my cousin was being facetious, there is a certain amount of truth in his comment. The art of making music is as common as eating supper in our family.
The tradition of music in the mountains of North Carolina is something I’ve often studied on. There’s a creativeness present in the songs and playing, there’s certainly entertainment value; and often there’s a mournful soulfulness which evokes a sacredness that’s in direct relation to the towering mountains and deep dark hollers which make up the mountains of North Carolina and Appalachia at large.
Singing or playing a song I know my grandparents enjoyed makes my heart sing. Hearing my daughters sing or play a song my grandparents enjoyed almost makes my heart burst with happiness.
Corie and Katie have enjoyed traditional Appalachian music and folk dancing for their entire lives. The music they’ve made and the dances they’ve danced have made them a standout with older folks, but it never, not once, made them the cool kids at school.
It was only after Pap passed away that the girls fully realized what they’re doing is more than having fun. Every time they take the stage or sing around the family circle of guitars they are continuing the legacy of music which was laid before them when they were children sneaking from their bed to lay in the floor and be lulled to sleep by the sounds of guitars, mandolins, and high lonesome harmonies just like their momma was when she was a child.
About Tipper Pressley
Tipper Pressley is the author of the popular blog, Blind Pig and the Acorn. Based in western North Carolina, the blog celebrates Appalachian heritage and culture. The blog is an effort of Pressley’s to shine a light on the cultural traditions to preserve and celebrate Western North Carolina’s legacy. You can hear more about The Pressley Girls at www.thepressleygirls.com
Music and dance have always been a central part of the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N.C. Founded in 1925 by Olive Dame Campbell and Marguerite Butler along with the Appalachian community of Brasstown they created a unique school inspired by Denmark’s folk schools.
The traditional Scandinavian folk school model encouraged singing and dancing as a way for the staff, educators, and students to learn about one another. John C. Campbell offers experiences in non-competitive learning and community life that are joyful and enlivening. Through art, craft, music, dance, and agriculture, the school works towards its goal of bringing out the best in people. Campbell was a gifted musician and singer and the first to collect mountain ballads throughout Southern Appalachia. She collaborated with English scholar Cecil Sharp to produce English Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians (1917), an internationally celebrated text on American music.
Today, the Folk School continues its rich legacy of supporting traditional music by offering a diverse spectrum of music classes on many different folk instruments and dance styles. Adults from all over the United States and abroad travel to the school to attend weeklong and weekend workshops in banjo, fiddle, dulcimer, mandolin, guitar, autoharp, ukulele, folk harp, and dobro. The music programming complements the school’s renowned craft programs including over 800 classes each year in subjects ranging from blacksmithing to jewelry to writing.
The school hosts a free Friday night concert series featuring local and regional musicians performing old-time, bluegrass, folk, and gospel. During the winter months, the concerts are held in the Community Room of historic Keith House and in the summer, they are in the Festival Barn. Anyone is welcome to attend. On the first full weekend of October, thousands of people flock to the annual Fall Festival, a celebration of Appalachian heritage showcasing traditional music and dance, craft demonstrations, and artisans selling their work.
Live music is also featured in weekly community contra and square dances, and on most Tuesday nights locals and students are invited to join in on a free "Learn How to Contra" dance. There’s also a weekly music performance by folk school staff.
For more information about the concert and dance events: Link
For more information about music classes: Link
The John C. Campbell Folk School is funded by the North Carolina Arts Council in a category that supports exemplary arts organizations that set standards of excellence for the state, providing high-quality arts programs, educational and outreach opportunities for children and adults.
The school is located at 1 Folk School Road in Brasstown, N.C. www.folkschool.org; 828.837.2775.
One of the quainter musical venues in the Blue Ridge region is the tiny Barber Shop in the little town of Drexel. Around noontime, the “regular pickers” start strolling into the Barber Shop. On Saturdays they favor old-time bluegrass.
Lawrence Anthony‚ a veteran of General Patton’s Third Army and the driving force behind the jam‚ owned and operated The Barber Shop in its present location from 1964 until shortly before he passed away, in December 2009. He began his career in 1949 in his first little shop, just across from the railroad tracks, and enjoyed “pickin’ with the guys” for almost sixty-one years.
Visitors can see the guitar he took with him through World War II hanging on the wall. Anthony’s son Carroll learned to play on that very instrument. He’s continuing the tradition of music at the Barber Shop today by setting up the Barber Shop Preservation Fund, a nonprofit fund to keep the shop open as a memorial to his father—and to keep the music alive.
“My daddy’s last wish was to keep the music going,” Carroll Anthony said. “We have lots of kids coming in now and some of the old guys will help the younger kids along to keep traditional music alive.”
The jam sessions occur year-round on Saturdays around 11 a.m., but visitors should call ahead to check the schedule. The jam sessions are informal, but the music is high quality, provided by some of the finest pickers in the area.
In 2012, The Barber Shop was the subject of an Emmy-nominated documentary film, called Pickin’ and Trimmin’, for obvious reasons.
The Barber Shop is located at 100 South Main Street, Drexel, N.C., 28619. Take I-40 to Exit 107
(Drexel Road/NC 114); go north 2.5 miles to downtown Drexel.
Weekly videos of the jam sessions are posted on Facebook.
The Barber Shop is featured in the Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina Guidebook, a project of the N.C. Arts Council in partnership with UNC Press. You can discover more unique music venues at www.BlueRidgeMusicNC.com.
As spring turns to summer Western North Carolina rings with the sounds of old-time and bluegrass bands, ballad and shaped-note singings, dances, and the traditions of the Cherokee. Yes, it’s festival season in the mountains!
Pack your bags, load the car, and travel down the road on the Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina to enjoy one of the many festivals planned this season.
Some best bets for late April through June include:
April 25-28, www.MerleFest.com, Wilkesboro, N.C.
MerleFest is a celebration of ‘traditional plus’ music, a unique mix of music based on the traditional, roots-oriented sounds of the Appalachian region, including bluegrass and old-time music, and expanded to include Americana, country, blues, rock, and many other styles. MerleFest is an annual homecoming for many musicians and music fans.
Fiddler’s Grove Ole Time Fiddler’s & Bluegrass Festival
May 24 - 26, www.fiddlersgrove.com, Union Grove, N.C.
Fiddler’s Grove has enjoyed a long tradition of preserving old-time and bluegrass music and passing the legacy on to future generations. On-site camping and a laid-back family atmosphere allow guests to immerse themselves in the music and tradition of this festival which has been going strong since 1970.
23rd Annual Swain County Heritage Festival
May 24 - 25, www.facebook.com/Swain-County-Heritage-Festival, Bryson City, N.C.
The Swain County Heritage Festival on Memorial Day weekend features gospel music Friday night, and bluegrass music Saturday. You can enjoy mountain-style clogging, craft booths, food, beverage, ice cream, an old-time log-sawing contest, sack races for the kids, and more.
Cherokee Voices Festival
June 9, www.visitcherokeenc.com, Cherokee, N.C.
The voices of an 11,000-year-old culture invite you to come out and play. Cherokee culture speaks in its most thrilling ways through dance, music, storytelling, arts and crafts, and food.
Bluff Mountain Festival
June 15, www.madisoncountyarts.com, Marshall, N.C.
Bluff Mountain Festival hosts an all-day event with a non-stop stage full of the finest traditional musicians and dancers. Artist vendor booths feature a wide variety of art and craft and provide a one-of-a-kind shopping opportunity.
Annual Heritage Day and Wood Kiln Opening
June 29, www.traditionspottery.com, Lenoir, N.C.
Live music all day with The Dollar Brothers, Glenn Bolick, and Friends, and more. Storytelling with Fred Frawley and Orville Hicks. The wood kiln will be filled with face jugs, Rebekah pitchers, hand formed animals, teapots, vases, pitchers, and more. Arrive early for the best selection! The day includes an interactive quilting party and a Gee Haw Whimmie Diddle Contest.
From the valleys to the highest peak, you’re never far from the music of the mountains and the foothills. Visit www.BlueRidgeMusicNC.com for a full calendar of traditional music events throughout Western North Carolina. Or pick up a free copy of the 2019 Down the Road Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Guide at a visitor center in the region.
About the Blue Ridge Music Trails
The Blue Ridge Music Trails is a project of the North Carolina Arts Council and a division of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, and the Blue Ridge National Heritage Areas to preserve and promote traditional music in Western North Carolina.
About the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area
The Blue Ridge National Heritage Area is the regional steward of living Appalachian traditions in North Carolina that honor our elders and invite new generations to explore music, craft, foodways, the outdoors, and the native wisdom that all have their home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
MerleFest, considered one of the premier music festivals in the country, serves as an annual homecoming for musicians and music fans. Held on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, MerleFest was founded in 1988 in memory of the late Eddy Merle Watson, son of American music legend Doc Watson.
MerleFest returns to Wilkesboro this year from April 25 to April 28! For ticket information, line-up, and schedule visit www.MerleFest.org.
North Carolinians have a long history of masterfully expressing their identity and community culture through song writing. One of our state's most celebrated traditional song writers is Ashe County's Ola Belle Reed, whose songs have been recorded by hundreds of musicians. Below you'll find a profile of Ola Belle Reed from the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area's Traditional Artist Directory. We invite those of you interested in honing your own song writing to participate in the Ashe County 2019 Ola Belle Reed Song Writer's Retreat, an intensive weekend of training lead by Alice Gerrard, Cathy Fink, Sam Gleaves, Claire Lynch and Marcy Marxer and sponsored by Come Hear NC.
One of thirteen children in a musical family in Lansing, North Carolina, Ola Wave Campbell (she changed her name to Ola Belle) became a prolific songwriter and performer. In 1986, she was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts for her banjo playing and singing.
Musical influences came from both sides of her family. Grandfather Alexander Campbell, a Primitive Baptist preacher, was “notorious” for playing his fiddle. Ola Belle’s father, Arthur Harrison Campbell, a schoolteacher and storekeeper, played fiddle, banjo, guitar and organ and organized a band with his brother Doc and sister Ellen. She learned her clawhammer banjo style from her Uncle Dockery Campbell before she was old enough to go to school, and later learned guitar and organ from her Aunt Ellen. Her Uncle Bob Ingraham, her mother’s cousin, conducted singing schools in the mountains, and Uncle Herb Osborne sang mining songs from the coalfields of West Virginia. From her grandmother and mother, she learned many of the traditional ballads and songs of the Appalachian region.
In 1934, the Campbells moved from Ashe County to southeastern Pennsylvania, then to Maryland. In the wake of the Depression, many people from Northwest North Carolina and Southwest Virginia were making similar moves in search of jobs and good farmland. Invited to join the North Carolina Ridge Runners, one of the first hillbilly bands in the Delaware-Maryland area, Ola Belle put her musical skills to work in 1936. The Ridge Runners were popular performers on live radio broadcasts and for dances and other social gatherings among Appalachian migrants in the region. Her brother Alex, who served in World War II, joined the band as guitarist after the war.
Ola Belle’s marriage to Ralph “Bud” Reed in 1949 brought another musician into the family. Together they made ends meet doing various kinds of work, along with their music and raising two boys. During that time, Ola Belle and Alex began what became a long and influential career in radio broadcasting. Their group, New River Boys and Girls, performed in the area for nearly 30 years. Alex and Ola Belle also opened the New River Ranch music park in 1951, which featured performances by bluegrass and country stars for seven years. In 1969, Ola Belle, Bud, and their son David began performing together regularly, returning Ola Belle to a family band setting where her music flourished.
Ola Belle Reed was a featured performer at the 1972 Smithsonian Folk Festival in Washington, DC, and she recorded 75 songs for the Library of Congress. Several of her compositions, including “High on a Mountain,” and the autobiographical “I’ve Endured,” have been widely recorded and performed. Since 2006, the Ola Belle Reed Homecoming Festival has been held in Lansing in honor of Ola Belle and the Campbell family.
The Ashe County Arts Council welcomes the weekend retreat of songwriting, making music, and celebrating the work of Ola Belle Reed with the Song Writer’s Retreat. The workshop will be held at the Ashe Civic Center Friday, April 12 through Sunday, April 14, 2019. It is open to songwriters of all genres and styles, and all accompaniment instruments are welcomed. Instructors include Cathy Fink, Alice Gerrard, Sam Gleaves, Claire Lynch and Marcy Marxer.
Did you know that one of the first women to credited with recording country music was from North Carolina?
Born the daughter of a well-known fiddle player, Samantha Biddix Bumgarner, taught herself how to play the fiddle and the banjo while growing up in Dillsboro in Jackson County. She and Eva Smathers Davis made history when they recorded a number of songs for Columbia Records in 1924 that would lead to them being the first women to be credited to record country music.
Some of the most esteemed and respected women in old-time music will lead workshops in fiddle, banjo, guitar, bass, mandolin, flat foot dance/square dance calling, and harmony singing during the Women! Mount Air Old-Time Workshops scheduled Thursday, Feb. 28 to Saturday, March 2.
Hosted by the Surry Arts Council with support from the N.C. Department of Natural & Cultural Resources the workshops are being held in conjunction with the Tommy Jarrell Festival, which also kicks off on Thurs., Feb. 28 with old-time dance lessons.
Registration is still open, and students and adults of all ages are invited to participate. Register online through the Surry Arts Council's secure Eventbrite site. Tuition is $300 and includes classes, meals (lunch and dinner), event tickets, and a t-shirt.
Classes will be held at the Andy Griffith Playhouse and the Historic Earle Theatre in Mount Airy, N.C.
The following musicians are leading the workshops:
Caroline Beverley teaches mandolin, singing, guitar and string band classes at Alleghany JAM (Junior Appalachian Musicians) at Surry Community College in Dobson and plays mandolin for the Virginia based old-time band, the New Ballards Branch Bogtrotters, as well as other N.C. bands.
Trish Kilby Ford started playing old-time music as a young teenager under the instruction of Emily Spencer and many other old-time and bluegrass musicians around her hometown of Lansing in Ashe County, N.C. In the 26 years of playing old-time music, Trish has been influenced by legends in traditional music, including Thornton and Emily Spencer, Dean Sturgill, the Birchfield Family, Ola Belle Reed, just to name a few. She has played with many groups and traveled internationally.
Erynn Marshall is an old-time fiddler who lives in Galax, Virginia and is known nationally and beyond for her traditional music she learned Appalachian old-time fiddling from rare recording and visiting 80-95-year-old southern fiddlers for decades. Erynn performs at festivals and music camps around the globe and often tours with her husband – songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Carl Jones.
Terri McMurray has great chops on 5-string banjo, banjo uke, and guitar. She studied with many masters including the late Tommy Jarrell and has played with great banjoists including Dix Freeman, Fields West, Benton Fllippen and Kyle Creed. Terri co-founded the Old Hollow String Band and has also performed with the Toast String Stretchers, the Mostly Mountain Boys and the Mountain Birch Duo with Paul Brown. She has taught at numerous banjo camps, including in England.
Emily Spencer is a certified PK-12 teacher and has taught fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, dulcimer and bass in the schools and at Wilkes Community College and Wytheville Community College. She has played music since childhood and started playing with the Whitetop Mountain Band in the 1970s with Thornton Spencer and continues with the band today.
Martha Spencer is the daughter of Emily and Thornton Spencer, the leaders of the Whitetop Mountain Band. She began dancing and playing at a young age and currently plays fiddle, banjo, guitar, bass, and dulcimer. She has won countless competitions for her Appalachian dancing and has taken part in master dance workshop at the National Folk Festival (USA), Woodford Folk Festival (AU) and Lowell Folk Festival (USA). Her music passion includes passing on the traditions and she has been an instructor in the Junior Appalachian Music (JAM) program in Ashe County and plays with numerous bands.
One hundred years ago famed folk-song collectors Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles visited North Carolina and documented hundreds of ballads and folk songs that had their roots in the British Isles. The epicenter of our state's ballad singing tradition is Madison County, NC. In the second installment of Director's Cut, a special mini-season of Arts Across NC, Wayne Martin shares a "Jack-A-Roe," a ballad performed by Doug Wallin.
Doug lived far up a holler in Madison County, and he learned how to sing ballads from his mother Berzilla. He once told Wayne Martin he sung all the time...even when he was falling asleep at night.
"Doug himself was an extraordinary ballad singer for two reasons. The texts of his tunes were very full and well developed...plus he was very musical and he was able to put beautiful tunes to the songs themselves," says Wayne.
The National Endowment or the Arts awarded Wallin the National Heritage Award in 1990. He passed away in 2000.
Director's Cut is a special music themed season of Arts Across NC, curated in celebration of Come Hear North Carolina, a campaign for the 2019 North Carolina Year of Music. In each episode NC Arts Council Director Wayne Martin will unearth a field recording from the archive he built during his 30+ year tenure with our agency. Each song represents a different region of North Carolina.
"These pieces that I've chosen are part of the fabric of who we are as a people," says Wayne. "They are pieces that tell the story of North Carolina.
Arts Across NC is a podcast by and about the North Carolina Arts Council.