Slouching Toward Mt. Airy


A friend and fellow picker, Tripp Johnson, has a saying I think is worth keeping on file: “If you find people you like playing music with, then you’ve found what you’re looking for.” By that he means (or I think he means) that playing music with friends is far preferable to playing music with prima donnas, and that playing traditional music is as much a communal experience as a musical one.

 I was thinking about that as I drove toward Mt. Airy, N.C., which held its 40th annual old time/bluegrass festival in early June. Bruce Molsky had told me much the same thing, saying that old time music is the “music of communities” that helps sustain people through good times and bad, including, as Bruce put it, their “daily grinds.” I’m no stranger to the grinding of life’s gears, so a little old time R&R seemed like a good idea. I was also hoping to see a few friends, maybe make a couple of new ones, and with any luck pick some tunes with the old timer masters I knew would be there. 

Mt. Airy isn’t a large festival – not like Clifftop, the Mecca and Medina for old time players from around the world.  Its size, and more “authentic” vibe,  are why some people prefer Mt. Airy. Tara Nevins, who fronts Donna the Buffalo (and who will be profiled fairly soon) told me that Mt. Airy is her favorite festival and that Donna doesn’t schedule any shows the week the festival is held. Tara,  an accomplished and spirited old time fiddler, especially likes the fact that Mt. Airy attracts players from the surrounding areas in North Carolina– pickers who may be part of a musical tradition stretching back several generations. She had said she’d be along in a few days, along with her band mate Jeb Puryear, who, I would discover, is also a terrific old time fiddler (he plays guitar in the band).

 The small town of Mt. Airy, best known as the model for Mayberry in the Andy Griffith Show – home of Barney Fife! —  lies just across theVirginia border. The descent from the Virginia highlands down Interstate 77 is fairly dramatic for this part of the world; one wishes the car had wings and could lift off the descending grade and glide out over the lower North Carolina plateau, perhaps taking a spin around Pilot Mountain,  which juts up 1400 feet a bit to the southwest near the site of another festival, Smilefest, where I planned to meet Erin Scholze, a new friend and an established roots music publicist, after Mt. Airy shut down on Sunday.

The drive down was a good time to think about the communal spirit that is central to the old time world. I had some experience with this phenomenon, primarily from the small Rockbridge festival in Buena Vista, Virginia, and two trips to Clifftop in West Virginia – once as a journalist and then, a few years later,  as a visitor/musician sorta hoping not to be recognized as the guy whose Wall Street Journal piece about Clifftop roiled many old time enthusiasts (though many others found no fault with it).

There was no greater exhibition of that communal spirit, at least to my mind, than at the vendor tent. The revelation came one morning as I slouched toward the showers at my usual early hour. Looking to the right, I was stunned to see display tables packed with instruments. They were covered only by a light tarp. There was no  one watching over them. They had, I soon learned,  been left  unattended through the night. When I asked Donald Zepp, owner of Zepp Country Music (Wendell,N.C.)  why he would take such a risk, he said he was taking no risk at all. He had no fear of theft. He added that even in the unthinkable event that an instrument was taken, he’d eventually get it back. The old time world, he explained, is a close-knit affair, and sooner or later someone would spot the missing instrument and let him know. 

I cannot think of another setting where a merchant would leave his inventory unattended through the night.  Leave a church unlocked very long and someone will come along and haul away the pipe organ. This level of trust indicates a unique sense of community, at least in my eyes.

It is also true that other types of music festivals are “communal.” Jazz, rock, classical and blues fests are communal in the sense of shared musical interest, but they tend to be spectator events where the focus is on stage acts, some of them high-profile. In addition, it’s unlikely vendors would leave their Les Pauls or Steinways unguarded.  As for folk festivals – I have never  been to one of any size, though I hope to do so for this project. I have had some interaction with the folk world, which to my mind is unique in the sense that a great deal of the music is political or reflects cultural assumptions that are expected to be uniformly held.  In that sense the folk world may have a sense of community similar to that among the old timers, though that’s a discussion for another day. 

The most immediate comparison that comes to mind is between old time and bluegrass festivals. There’s a different feel, at least in my experience. For one thing I’ve never seen an instrument dealer leave his wares out all night, unattended, at a bluegrass festival. It appears vendors suspect the possibility that at least someone, and perhaps several someones,  will come along and grab a deeply discounted guitar, fiddle, mandolin or banjo. They have taken the pulse of this marketplace and apparently detected the possibility of lurking felons. 

It is also true that my view of bluegrass festivals has been soured by a few decidedly negative experiences, the sorts of experiences that creep into your mind while droning along the interstate.

One took place three years ago at the Graves Mountain festival near Syria, Virginia. Admittedly, I was already in a grim mood. My brother in law was dying of lung cancer and we had spent part of the day going over a song he had written for my sister and wanted performed at his memorial service (the song is called “Just Want to Know That I’ve Been Known By You” and is available for free download at I had driven from Ivy,Virginia to Graves Mountain, pitched my tent, and then stretched out in my chair to cool off and perhaps fine tune my sad contemplations.

The sun was high, the view across the wide pasture largely unobstructed, and visions of cold, medicinal beers were beginning to dance in my head. Suddenly, the spell was broken, and broken badly. Just across the way a young woman with dirty blonde hair (she was close enough to make that identification) sidled up alongside a car, slid down her brown shorts (light brown, as memory serves), squatted, and let loose a vile, withering barrage. “We are living close to the earth,”  I thought. I should also mentioned there was a pair of portolets a chip shot away. I fear this memory will be with me the rest of my days, like those bad leper jokes the mind cannot seem to relinquish.  

A more unpleasant experience occurred a few years before, also at Graves Mountain, though much later in the day – in fact, in the early morning hours. The evening was going along pleasantly enough when  without warning some of the most repugnant racist ranting I had ever heard began blaring over a car stereo. This was one of those rigs that can shake the pavement in an urban setting. This barrage went on for several minutes. While many people camped in the area were put off by the outburst,  the larger point, from my perspective,  is that the perpetrator believed he (or she) was in an environment where this dreck was acceptable and indeed constituted entertainment. I cannot imagine this sort of thing occurring at Clifftop.

As a steadfast cynic I would lock up my inventory even at old time festivals. But the level of  trust that allows  merchants to leave their instruments unattended does seem a profound endorsement of old time’s communal spirit, a spirit that is also found in, and nurtured by, the music itself.

While many listeners, especially casual listeners, have a hard time distinguishing old time from bluegrass, there is, to my ear, one crucial difference: instrumental “breaks” – those often incendiary solos that draw loud, approving hoots from bluegrass listeners and performers. These breaks are central to the music and supply a great deal of its raw energy and excitement (as does the singing, especially harmony singing). As a guitar player, I find much to admire (and with luck, emulate) in bluegrass. 

But this is in great contrast to old time music, which from what I have heard is mostly fiddle tunes of two or three parts in which the fiddles carry the melody, which is often repeated over many minutes (many tens of minutes in some cases). The other players support the melody, often with swelling volume and trancelike intensity, until the fiddler (or perhaps another other player) lifts his or her foot, which signals the end is at hand (I’m not sure of the origins of the dropping foot, but will look into it). While the fiddlers are at the forefront they do not attempt to set themselves apart from the other players with dazzling improvisations. They have the lead, but are not trying to outdo anyone.  

Put another way, and in a general sense, bluegrass is more individualistic and competitive, while old time is more communal and cooperative. These differing perspectives, it was pointed out to me at Clifftop, may also have political manifestations. “There’s an old saying about old-time musicians,” Donald Zepp told me.  “They live around universities, drive Volvos and vote Democratic,” while bluegrassers “live in rural areas and small towns, drive pickups, grow tobacco and vote GOP.” This is a generalization, of course, one to which some people, like my friend Erin, take strong exception (she’ll explain when I profile her; and thanks Erin for the photo of Pilot Mountain at the top of the column).

But enough politics (for now, anyway). As a guitar player I’m more invigorated by bluegrass, and as a cynic/individualist I am not a  natural fit with people  who are, by their nature, more communal and cooperative (I suddenly think of  Mr. Rogers). That said, I’m finding that the old time mindset makes for a better festival environment. I have not, to date, ever encountered an aggressive person at an old time festival. That has not been my experience with bluegrass. The vibe at the old time festivals is simply mellower.  And while I’m sure that old time fans pee outside, I think they tend to wait until dark.

I am sure other people have had different experiences, and it is also true that some old time enthusiasts set my eyes to rolling. Bluegrassers may sometimes (though it seems increasingly rare) display a confederate battle flag. I don’t see that as worse than the occasional Chairman Mao button, Che tee-shirts or oother manifestations of totalitarian chic sported by some old timers.  

Enough droning. This installment was supposed to be about Mt. Airy, where I would talk with Tara Nevins and Mark Olitsky, whose clawhammer banjo had cast a spell on me last year at Clifftop. I met some other intereting people there as well. Because I am keeping these posts to around 2,000 words (some readers say they have never gotten the knack for reading long pieces on their computers) I will pick up the story in a few days. Meantime, I don’t think Deputy Fife would get much sleep at Mt. Airy. I sure didn’t.

About Dave Shiflett

Dave Shiflett is a writer -- former critic for Bloomberg News and a contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and other publications -- and author of several books, including one with Donald Trump ("The America We Deserve"). He also writes and performs music and has released four CDs -- "Time Goes Rushing By" (Floor Creak); "Songs for Aging Cynics" (The Karma Farmers); "Afternoon Lamentations" (Dave Shiflett and Friends) and "From the First Time" (Dave Shiflett and Friends).
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