There used to be a bit of hostility between the two camps, as in those who love to play bluegrass and those who love to play old-time music. Bluegrass, of course, is the brasher younger cousin of old-time, and the differences between each species are real. Bluegrass features hard-driving rhythms and high-lonesome lead and harmony singing fueled by improvisation and the Earl Scruggs three-finger-style of banjo picking. On the other hand, old-time features inclusive group-oriented jamming marked by the much-older clawhammer-style of banjo playing and is sparked by thousands of fiddle tunes that can be called out at anytime, some of which are two hundred years or older. As you can see from its title, however, both genres are welcomed at the Mount Airy Bluegrass & Old-Time Fiddlers Convention in the North Carolina hometown of Andy Griffith. Still, up until the last decade or so, both camps looked at each other warily at times.
Mark Johnson is known in the bluegrass world as the inventor of the clawgrass-style of playing the banjo, which is a combination of the three-finger and clawhammer techniques. In 2012, Johnson won the Steve Martin Prize For Excellence In Banjo And Bluegrass Music and performed on the Late Show With David Letterman with his long-time collaborator Emory Lester, as well as Martin. About the time of the release of his first album, Johnson found himself at the Mount Airy Bluegrass & Old-time Fiddlers Convention hanging out with musician, TV host, and Doc Watson collaborator David Holt.
“When I did the album Clawgrass with the Rice Brothers and friends in 1994, the guys that wrote the liner notes for that album were David Holt, Jay Unger, and Tony Rice,” recalls Johnson. “In the late 1990s, David invited me up to Mount Airy. When I got to the Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention to meet David, he was going around with a film crew from the University of North Carolina. He was filming with them and he said, ‘Mark, go and enjoy yourself a little bit. We’ll meet back here at a certain time.’ So, I took my banjo and started walking around the festival, and I heard this big jam going on in this one area. The people were really rocking and making this cool sound. I went in there and pulled my banjo out and starting playing what I play. I started getting all kinds of looks, and not good ones. People started closing their cases up and walking away and stopped playing. I broke the whole jam up. What I was doing was I was picking leads with my clawhammer style, taking breaks, and playing loud. I was like, ‘Man, what did I do? What happened? What have I done?’”
Eventually, Johnson found Holt and told him about his unintentional jam-busting. “I walked back and waited for David to come by and he asked, ‘Well, did you have a good time?’ I told him what happened and he said, ‘Oh, you went to that end of the field. That’s where the preservationists play, all of the people that want to preserve the sound of old-time music. You’re not old-time, Mark. You have your own sound.’ He was one of the first guys to tip me off on that. Then, David said, ‘You should go down to the other end of that field down there.’ There, bluegrass bands were picking away, and I fit right in. But, that is when I first realized I was doing something different because, up until then, I thought I was playing old-time music. That was my first exposure to it, because I started getting out. I never really went to an old-time festival. It was funny. Not to put it down, because I love it. I’m fascinated by old-time music.”
These days, bluegrass and old-time music have come together like never before. In 2011, Mountain Roads Recordings put together an album and a wonderful 14-minute YouTube video, Close Kin: A Reunion Of Bluegrass And Old-Time. One year earlier, the 11-time IBMA Mandolin Player Of The Year, Adam Steffey, won the IBMA Instrumental Performance Of The Year Award for his version of the old-time fiddle tune “Durang’s Hornpipe” featuring his wife Tina on clawhammer banjo. And, both traditions were brought together in the opening sequence of the 2014 IBMA Awards Show in Raleigh with Mark Schatz leading the way on clawhammer banjo.
Sherry Boyd has been a bluegrass, old-time, and country radio DJ for many years. She’s also known for emceeing over ten bluegrass festivals annually. She graduated from North Surry High School in Mount Airy and now lives in Galax, Va., where she hosts a radio show on WBRF-FM. For two decades, Boyd worked at WPAQ-AM in Mount Airy. Since the 1980s, she’s been an emcee at the Mount Airy convention. Every year, the festival’s band and instrument contests are broadcast in the area at 740-AM on the radio dial and around the world live at www.wpaq740.com.
Mount Airy is not only the hometown of the legendary Andy Griffith, it’s also located in Surry County, which is ground zero for the fiddle tradition known as the Round Peak sound. “The Round Peak sound is one that people have tried to emulate and is one of the reasons people like to gather in that area,” says Boyd. “It’s a particular sound that (the late) Kyle Creed and Fred Cockerham created. Between the two of them and Benton Flippen and Tommy Jarrell, people have come to that area for a long time to hear the music and learn the music and that’s helped the Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention.”
Boyd agrees that in these modern times, the bluegrass and old-time music rivalry has lessened. “I don’t know about calling it a rivalry, but I do know that I have come across people that are either/or, as in they play either bluegrass or old-time and are fans of either/or,” she says. “I still come across those people. But, I think more and more, people appreciate both, and I think places like the Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention help to further that cause and help people to understand the music…in addition to drawing a lot of participants. And, the convention draws a lot of folks that bring their families out, and they sit and listen to the music and dance to the music. I think it takes events like the convention for people to understand the two different kinds of music. Everybody comes across that stage with the same thing in mind. Everybody wants the same opportunity to play the best you can and have fun playing it. I think it really helps to bring the two together.”
Another aspect of the convention that Boyd believes furthers the cause of American roots music is the instrument and band competitions. The convention is not only affordable at the outset, but those who come to the event are incentivized to participate as musicians and are given part of their entry money back if they sign up and play in the contests. “You’ve got people that are brand new to the music and are just learning it and they get on the stage and play, and then you have those that have played it all of their lives,” she adds, about the multi-day and night music contests. “You’ve got both bluegrass and old-time music side-by-side, and the stage is equal ground. That’s what I like about it, as you go from one to the other. People come from all over and it’s like a homecoming for the music. I see a lot of new faces when I go there now and that’s encouraging. There are a lot of younger people coming out, playing and enjoying the music. And, to stream the music and the festival live worldwide has been huge for bluegrass and old-time music. There is so much new and incredible talent coming along.”
Like the Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention’s older sister, Galax’s Old Fiddlers’ Convention, many famous roots music performers are able to attend this festival in Surry County and blend in and jam with those in attendance. On Saturday of the 2014 convention, I was sitting at a camp that was hosting a jam combining bluegrass and old-time. Robert Gabb and Toby Weaver of the bands the Prairie Belt Boys and Brynmor were jamming with Mike Arant, Eric Svenson, and Wes Deaton of the Brown Liquor Pickers. Also sitting in was three-finger banjo master Ryan Cavanaugh who has won banjo championships at MerleFest and RockyGrass and has played with everyone from Bill Evans and Soulgrass to Bela Fleck. Gabb is a clawhammer banjo picker who is also the founder of the Ancient Tones-New Sounds Festival coming to North Carolina in 2015, a new event that will bring together bluegrass, Celtic, old-time, and Americana music.
Yes, there were three banjos in the jam, with both clawhammer and Scruggs-style represented. But, after a couple of songs, everybody found their space and the collaboration took off. It proved to be inventive, inclusive, and entertaining, fueled by some BBQ that was cooked in a smoker by Weaver for at least ten hours. As the afternoon progressed, there was word of a wedding taking place just a few tents over. Sure enough, a procession of musicians wound their way through the lower camps playing New Orleans second line-style tunes as the bride and groom are led to a big circus tent. After the wedding ceremony is over, award-winning fiddler Nancy Sluys asks everyone in attendance that can play an instrument to grab up their axe and play the Surry County National Anthem—“Sally Ann.”
“Sally Ann” is an example of a tune that goes back over a century and accepted and played by both old-time and bluegrass musicians over the years. The late bluegrass artist Jimmy Arnold recorded a wonderful version of the song on his Southern Soul album. On the other side of the coin, the Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe’s “Jerusalem Ridge” is a classic instrumental that has been adopted by the old-time community as well.
Four-time IBMA Banjo Player Of The Year Sammy Shelor grew up in southern Virginia not far from Surry County. In 2012, Shelor and his group the Lonesome River Band won the IBMA Instrumental Performance Of The Year for their recording of the weathered fiddle tune “Angeline The Baker.” Shelor recalls, I was influenced early on by old-time music and clawhammer-style banjo. I never really learned to play that style, but I learned how to play that kind of music doing a three-finger roll. There is a lot of energy in that music, a lot of drive. I grew up about thirty miles east of Galax, so every year, I was at the Fiddlers’ Convention up there and got to see people like Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham. Fred Cockerham was probably one of the groovingest musicians I ever heard. He had a lot of soul in his playing, and when I was real little, I got to hear him play and then listened to a lot of his records over the years. Tommy Jarrell enjoyed music more than anybody I ever watched, and just lived it. I was really captivated by how much he enjoyed it.”
As Saturday progressed, there was music being played everywhere, both on the contest stage and in the camps. Up on the hill, the members of the rootsy jamband Donna the Buffalo were holding court, wanting to do nothing more than play some fiddle tunes with their friend, fiddler, and luthier Joe Thrift and others.
Beside the stage, Gabb, Weaver and Arant of the aforementioned afternoon jam were about to compete and preparing to play a fired-up version of “North Carolina Breakdown.” Even though they were next in line under the green room tent, the proceedings were stopped for 15 minutes so the judges could take a break. Next in line was a bluegrass band that eventually decided to kick into a tune to keep their chops up. Soon, Gabb, Weaver, and Arant joined in and everyone under the tent stepped closer. It was a spontaneous and tight jam that brought together bluegrass and old-time musicians in an exciting way that might have been unlikely in years past. Universal smiles and head nods followed the last crescendo.
As night fell, there was music throughout the park. If you walked past one camp you might hear “John Henry” and “The Old Home Place” while in another area, there were the sounds of “Ook Pic Waltz” and “Three Way Hornpipe.” Late at night, a few of us decided to wander down to the stage area where a flatbed truck was set up for people to dance on throughout the day. Around 2 a.m. or so, magic happened as the stage was brought back to life with a revolving group of musicians and dance callers hosting an unofficial square dance that has become a Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention tradition. Father and son team of Scott and Ben Nelson and Aaron Ratcliffe threw down some fiddle, Phillip Clapp and Roger Amundsen played guitar at various points, and Colin Booy held down the banjo chair. Calling the dances in rotation were Green Grass Clogger Rodney Sutton, Phil Jamison, Ben Nelson, and Ratliffe.
Keeping the solid and ever-important bottom was bassist Adam Smith. Smith had tape on his picking hand as he moved the stick with intense precision, stretching the single string over top of the number 2 washtub and hit every note with power. The rest of the stage was full of dancers spinning and promenading and hitting their Allemande Left steps in unison, causing the flatbed to shake and bounce.
It was a night reminiscent of a time when string band musicians did more than stand in front of a single microphone, a period before radio when they were the only entertainment in town, providing a fun acoustic groove over which everyone could dance and socialize. Frank Blevins and His Tar Heel Rattlers did it in Ashe County, North Carolina in the 1920s, as did Arnold Schultz and Bill Monroe during the same time period in Rosine, Ky. That common thread still runs through the music at the annual Mount Airy Bluegrass & Old-time Fiddlers Convention.