Mt. Airy

The Mt. Airy festival is held at an old ballfield – Veteran’s Memorial Park – just across from an Exxon station where I stopped to refill. A couple of young women were restocking their beer supply, which caught me a bit by surprise. The festival website sternly warned that alcohol was not allowed at that the rule would be enforced. Which inspired me to bury my vino under my tent and air mattress. I would soon find, however,  that Mt.  Airy is a very spirited place.

Admission seemed cheap: three days for forty dollars, with a show by Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver thrown in for free. The park was fairly wide with some shade trees along the left side, plus a stream – or perhaps small river – also to the left as you drive in. Those camping spots were mostly taken so I drove deeper into the park, passing through a fence line where a good number of RVs were  parked. With the Andy Griffith Show in mind (Mayberry is modeled after Mt. Airy), I thought this would be the area where Andy, Barney and Aunt Bea would stay – orderly and relatively quiet, this festival’s version of the suburbs. The site’s two showers and small snack bar were also nearby, as was the office, where ice was sold for two dollars a bag.

I drove deeper into park. Off to the right rose a wooded hill – an oasis of shade and, as I would soon find out, a very lively place: the Upper West Side of this  scene. The sun was straight overhead and the temperatures were closing in on 90, with high humidity.  Not a day to be picking cotton, or picking a guitar unless you were under a shade tree or canopy. The hill was now directly on my right: a road had been cut across it partway up, creating a sort of plateau on which a tour bus was parked, with room for more. To my left was a small Airstream trailer, a Volkswagen camper (white) and the start of a tent city.

As I drove past the VW  I heard a familiar sound so  I pulled my car off the road and walked back toward the camper. When I peeked around the end of the vehicle the first person I saw was an old friend, Joe “Joebass” DeJarnette, flailing  away at his standup bass with the usual passion. But this wasn’t what had caught my ear. Sitting directly across from Joe was a clawhanmmer banjo wizard I met last year at Clifftop: Mark Olitsky, from Cleveland, Ohio.  

Mark is sturdy with a thick shock of  graying hair and a beard to match. He greeted me warmly and suggested I set up camp beside the Airstream, which  had an adjacent carport-sized canopy. I had a canopy of my own but it is very old and takes a long time to put up. Better, I thought, to be a shade Bedouin, which might also result in meeting some new people. I was, after all, here to experience the fabled Old Time communal life. As if on cue, as I started setting up my tent a mostly toothless man stopped to help and then invited me to come to his camp for dinner. He said he cooked for lots of people, perhaps like Wavy Gravy back in the good old days. He was sorta big, so maybe a good cook.

First off, however, I went over and listened to Olitsky and company. Among his compadres was Joe Thrift, who sports a long white pony tail and an interesting musical history. He was once the keyboard player for Donna the Buffalo and is now a highly respected violin maker, working out of his shop in Dobson,  North Carolina. This afternoon he was playing guitar. He also writes music, both old time and, as he put it, “stuff that sounds like Neil Young.” Also in the campsite was Jason Sypher, an excellent bass player who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and now lives in Brooklyn. He and Joebass are friends. Like Joe, Jason becomes deeply absorbed when playing though Joe can be a bit more of the showman – or at least used to be. Several years ago I watched him play and sing “Old Joe Clark” – railing and flailing with great intensity. By song’s end he was lying flat on the floor, still playing and singing. If he missed a note it’s one you didn’t notice. I’ll be profiling Joe later this year.  

When I first heard Olitsky play his banjo reminded me of a small brook running down a steep rocky run, though the notes sounded buttery as opposed to the sharp tones of the Scruggs-style bluegrass players. He also had a different sound than the other clawhammer players at Clifftop: I could easily distinguish his playing and spent many hours enjoying his musicianship, and that of his playing partners. He always had very good fiddlers – sometimes two – along with a bass and sometimes a guitar. The musicians sat in a very tight circle, their knees nearly touching, and they were clearly transported by their playing. As were their listeners.  I plan to interview Mark at Clifftop in a few weeks and file a profile in mid-August. 

For now, it was good to see Mark and share his campsite’s shade. We also continued a music ritual started at Clifftop. Olitsky would play until about four in the morning, and because I’m early to bed most nights I would fade away listening to his banjo, usually waking up a few times during the night and drifting back off again to the sound of his celestial clawhammer. I’d get up early – around six or so – go take a shower, then come back and play guitar before anyone else gets up. I’m mostly a finger picker who weaves together melodies from my own tunes along with classical, jazz, pop and whatever else springs to mind. Many years ago Joebass tagged this as “morning music” and Olitsky said he enjoyed listening to it after his long nights playing old time. So, it was a nice trade-off of sorts.

As Thursday afternoon proceeded the noise from the wooded hill grew. Mark explained that there was a party going on so up I went. Near the crest a band played Cajun music while listeners guzzled beer and drinks, making it clear that alcohol intolerance was a mere fable. The crowd was younger than the folks back in the RV suburbs and the slope was fairly significant. If you guzzled too much and fell over you might roll a while. I walked further along the road  and found several other small groups of people playing music. The campsites were very hilly: either your head or your feet would be full of blood in the morning. But the shade was deep and it was a nice place to wait out the hottest part of the day. I turned in early this first night and slept well, which is not my usual habit. My immediate neighbors were fairly quiet, my earplugs snug, though life would change soon enough.

On Friday afternoon the great purple tour bus belonging to Donna the Buffalo slowly ambled through the campsite, then up and onto the small plateau cut into the hill. That put them above our campsites – about 30 yards up a steep slope. If the spirit had moved them they could easily bombard us with biscuits. Joe Thrift told me the bus had once belonged to the PTL Club, that Jesus-exploiting fund-raising operation that had taken Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker to the lap of Mammon before the Good Lord (or perhaps Brother Fate) pulled the plug. The paint on top was peeled, as if the bus had been scorched during re-entry from outer space. 

Prior to the bus’s arrival a square  circus-style tent with a tall center pole had been erected, with a line of tables along one side. This tent hosted a raucous song circle Saturday afternoon featuring some of country music’s biggest hits, including a terrific version of “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” I stood nearby talking with Tara Nevins, who fronts Donna The Buffalo, and whose ex-husband sang with an passion that would have made George Jones proud. She pointed to several friends and former members of her band, explaining that Donna’s origins were in old time music and that Mt. Airy had been crucial to the band’s formation. She added that though she is from New York, dedication to old time formed a common bond with musicians from the Mt. Airy region. She is especially fond of Mt. Airy because it had more “local” players than festivals such as Clifftop, which she said she doesn’t attend.  She added that several of the people under the tent had known each other three to four decades; Joe Thrift later mused that he had known Mark Olitsky “only since the early 1980s.”  This community has deep roots both musically and on a personal level.

My three days and nights at Mt. Airy re-enforced several things I was beginning to learn about people who play and listen to old time music. One is that the musicians don’t seem to much care if anyone is listening. Olitsky and company often played only for themselves and one or two other people, though they could not have played with more heart, it doesn’t seem, if ten thousand people had been gathered around.  I thought they were somewhat like a religious order that is happy enough to have an audience but in the final analysis is playing for God – or in this case each other and out of devotion to the music. I tried to think what other types of musicians would be so content playing under these circumstances. Do rock, jazz, pop and blues players make a habit of traveling to fairly remote areas to sleep in tents, swat flies and play for little or no audience? I’m thinking they don’t. Those types of music seem more venue-centric while old time, as JoeBass pointed out to me during a walk around the wooded hill, basically operates without venues or a club circuit. Carnegie Hall for these players is a North Carolina meadow or the shaded hillsides of Clifftop. I also thought of bluegrass, which derives much of its power from instrumental breaks, while old timers try to do their best to blend together. Bluegrass is something like a bunch of kayakers beating it down the river, while old timers are all in one canoe.

I also noticed that it is unwise for a stranger to show up at a jam bearing a guitar and an attitude of “here I am!” This is also true of bluegrass – I’ve approached plenty of jams where the hot licks are accompanied by cold shoulders for outsiders. I also saw this at Mt. Airy, so I left my guitar in the case after my morning workouts. There is definitely a communal spirit to old time but to fully experience it, if you’re a musician at least, you need to be a part of the community, which may require a significant time commitment. In that regard, this was a dues-paying trip for me.     

To close out this segment, which has gone well past the 2,000 word mark (at no extra cost!) a few lingering memories.

Early Saturday evening there was a cocktail party under the circus tent to drum up interest in an upcoming festival.  Beside the great purple bus an all-women group called The Red Hot Sugar Babies played jazz and blues, and played well. The singer, a woman named Wendi Loomis, had a whiskey and razor blade voice and also played solos on a clarinet, all of which filled me with a profound desire to drink gin and tonic (I tend to avoid spirits for the standard reasons). I quickly fetched a highball and spent some very pleasant time listening to these women, who are based in Asheville, North Carolina (and are pictured above; photo by Allison Springer). I plan to visit Asheville in the fall and hope to catch up with Wendi there.   

As Saturday night roared into Sunday morning the festival reached full boil. While the alcohol prohibition was fully ignored a prohibition against sleeping was in full effect. I tried mightily to catch a few winks but was left amazed at how loud acoustic music can be played. It was like trying to doze on an airport runway, or inside a sawmill. There was no let-up. Friends from a Richmond-based band called The Hot Seats (formerly Special Ed and the Shortbus) returned from a gig in Winston Salem, North Carolina (about fifty miles away) at around 2 a.m. and played until dawn-plus. About that time, Jeb Puryear, who plays guitar with Donna the Buffalo and is an excellent old time fiddler, began sawing away by the purple bus. His fiddle sounded fairly happy for that time of the morning, and was quite piercing. A bit later on, Josh Berman from the Hot Seats drifted by. He said he hadn’t slept and was looking  for someone  to pick with to “keep the delirium going.” His eyes burned with the intense, manic exhaustion common at Old Time festivals. I recall driving home from Clifftop last year, almost fatally tired and seeing the dancing crocodiles in the corners of my eyes. Which brings up an interesting (to me at least) aspect of this music. Old Time is very traditional and, to many ears, violently repetitious – a type of aural dentistry to the uninitiated. But this well-ordered music has the power to unleash something akin to a deep chaos in its players and listeners, or perhaps it simply links them at a more primal, passionate level. Whatever the explanation, a few minutes into the tune and everyone’s someplace new.  By dawn Sunday I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Barney Fife wander by in his boxers.    

The final memory is of the man who owned the small Airstream camper and adjacent canopy. His name is David and he’s fairly large with a gentle bearing. He lost his wife in 2010 and told me how they had spent many years camping at festivals, including Mt. Airy. His sorrow was very much about him though he also had a positive spirit, explaining how he had learned to erect the canopy by himself and otherwise carry on despite his great loss. He declined my offer to help him take down the canopy so while he disassembled I played my guitar, weaving together a stretch of tunes ranging from the old Silesian folk song that later became “Fairest Lord Jesus” (a crusader hymn) through some Bach and jazz snippets to “You’ve Got a Friend.” His eyes brightened and a big smile came to his face as he recognized the latter. David, I learned the day before, had spent a 30-year career as a high school principal, which to my mind makes him a heroic person, a view supported by the former student who filled me in about  my gentle neighbor:  “He changed my life.” It was nice thinking the music had brightened his morning a little. Sometimes the best audiences are on the smaller side.

I’ll also remember listening to David talking to older friends, including another widower, the  latter choking up after saying how much he missed his wife. A bit later they took out their instruments and David, playing a simple ukulele accompaniment, began singing another song with definite communal origins:  

“Give me that old time religion, give me that old time religion…”

David strummed steadily and they sang lightly together:

“It was good for the Hebrew children…

“It was good for dad and mother…”

It was a quiet moment but the simultaneous mixing of sadness and hope was powerful. You don’t encounter this stuff sitting at home.

I broke camp quickly. It was nearly ten and time to go see my new friend, Erin Scholze, publicist for Tara Nevins, Donna the Buffalo and several other roots/acoustic acts. Erin had had invited me to meet her at Smilefest, which was around thirty miles away, though musically quite different than Mt. Airy. After bidding farewell to David, Mark, Jason and Joe I texted Erin to warn her I was en route. Her response  indicated she might have wished I’d waited a few more hours. It seemed the moonshine genie had been around the night before.

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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3 Responses to Mt. Airy

  1. gary reckard says:

    it’s ‘Asheville, NC’ instead of Ashville

  2. Brad K says:

    Hi Dave, just stumbled across your site. I love this piece about Mt. Airy, even if I’m a few months late in reading it. Mark Olitsky is one of my favorite banjo players. In fact, I profiled him on my blog way back in February. Coincidentally, we both refer to him as a “wizard.” Cheers!

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