I decided to beat the heat by beating it out of town on Saturday, June 7, 2008. I set my GPS for 231 W Lebanon Street, Mt. Airy, North Carolina, Veterans Memorial Stadium. I was heading up to Aunt Bea and Andy Griffith country to cool my heels and take in some bluegrass and old time music at the 37th Annual Bluegrass and Old Time Fiddlers Convention held annually the first weekend in June.
The traffic dwindled and slowed the farther I traveled towards the blue hills. I tuned in my radio to 98.1, Blue Ridge Country, listening to Kenny Roger’s “I Feel Sorry for Anybody Who isn’t Me Tonight,” and Dolly Parton’s ” Nine to Five.” I already felt better.
My GPS told me to turn right at the Galax/Mt. Airy exit and turn right I did. I sped past Mayberry Mall drove a few miles and turned right a couple more times until I heard my little machine tell me I was “arriving at destination on right.”
I didn’t know what to expect. This was my first time and my first day. I was not able to attend the opening day Friday. According to the poster advertising the event, Veterans’ Field holds 3,000 vehicles. It was nearly full. So, the exorbitant gas prices deterred the bluegrass and old time musicians and fans? Apparently not.
I paid two dollars for parking and five dollars for a ticket. The sun was beating down on the hundreds of fans but country sun lacked the severity of the city sun. It was tolerable and a breeze swayed back and forth between the hills. Green grass covered the convention floor where a semi truck, minus the cab, served as the stage. Canopies were stationed randomly over the grounds. Tents were stuck under every tree on the steep hillside. Harleys, SUVs, compact cars, BMWs, Jeeps, and luxury RVs filled the grounds. Surry County and Mt. Airy police secured the campground. All ages, races, hair color, weight, stature and physical condition were present.
Since this was a competition, judges were on the front row under a canopy closest to the stage. I arrived in the early afternoon, so competition was well underway by the time I had taken my seat on the ground near the judges’ table. I wanted to get close so I could take photographs. The judges had a paper on a clipboard in front of their chairs. They took their jobs seriously, listening and marking their charts. A quart jar, Mason, filled to the top with light honey and honey comb sat in front of the judge closest to me. I was reminded I was in tobacco country as I watched several people light up.
WPAQ, an AM radio station, was broadcasting live and the show was streamed on the net all over the world. Ralph Epperson’s son told us about his dad, the founder of WQAP, the old time mountain, bluegrass and gospel music radio station. It all began in 1948. Epperson wanted to give back to his community. He believed in the local people and local talent. It is 740 on your radio dial. Ralph Epperson died May 12, 2006 at the age of 85. WPAQ lives on.
Erin Rogers rings out the Arkansas Traveler on her dulcimer. WPAQ, a community treasure started by Ralph Epperson, broadcasts from the festival.
Photo: B. L. Dotson Lewis
The competition was divided into categories: bluegrass or old time, instrument ““ banjo, mandolin, guitar, autoharp, dulcimer and bass. There could have been some I missed. I never did get a program. The categories separated out the adults from the youth.
Vendors peddling their wares were on the outskirts of the music.
The emcee announced the category and whether it was bluegrass or old time music. The musicians gathered under a canopy near the stage waiting for their name and number to be called. They were seen and heard tuning and practicing as they waited.
“Leather Britches,” “Arkansas Traveler,” and “Wayfaring Stranger,” played by Lebanon, Virginia's George Kiser, filled the air. Time was of little importance ““ a steady breeze by early evening was blowing and the sun was setting behind the blue hills. A drop of rain fell here and there. At the completion of all individual contestants, the emcee announced a short break before the evening events began. I headed for the Veterans’ Concession stand for a plain cheeseburger, homemade fries and a drink. I took my food to one of the nearby tables. A man played tunes on an instrument that looked like a banjo but much smaller. He played old time tunes. I finished off my meal with homemade strawberry ice cream. Three or four men and women sat behind the ice cream containers. They were picking and singing while a Hercules Engine, Model E, 1.5 Horsepower, manufactured in 1920 and restored in 1990 by Daniel Bolt of Willis, Virginia, churned out homemade ice cream.
Strawberry ice cream and music — who needs more?
Photo: B. L. Dotson Lewis
When the evening session began, the emcee polled the audience, asking where people were from and if they had attended the event before. A few of the fans raised their hands signifying this made their 37th consecutive year. When asked where people came from, one gentleman responded he came from the “southern part of Heaven, that being Surry County, Mt. Airy, North Carolina.” He was a local, James Kemp.
Old time mountain, bluegrass music and flat footin’ were not the only entertainment on the venue that day. I was standing in earshot of two captivating natural born story tellers reliving their early days in the area. It happened like this: While I was up at the concession stand having my lunch/supper, I struck up a conversation with a nice looking couple who were having their meal at the next table over. We were discussing the odd looking banjo instrument the musician was playing nearby. We went back to the competition and I stood with the man and his wife while we were waiting for the music to resume.
Two men — they were dressed in overalls, one bibbed, both wore hats and both had grayish, white beard which was long and came to a point — began talking to the couple. I stood nearby. I don’t know if they were acquaintances or not. They were all locals. The men began telling about their lives growing up in the North Carolina mountains.
The man seated on the left told about driving when he was only 14 years old. They broke out into laughter when he recounted his entanglement with the law in the old vehicle he was driving that had no license or registration.
Following that story both men began telling fight tales. During one fight they were beaten with chains by a gang who came in to where they lived. They were beaten with logging chains about their feet and ankles until they could not walk and had to crawl to the house. They told how they finally came up with a plan to get even with this gang of thugs. I didn’t get the full gist of the story but I did hear them say they used rubber hoses and mounted two men with guns on the fenders of their car.
One man told more than once what a good shot his friend's daddy had been, about how he had shot a man at a great distance.
The man on the right side became emotional as he described how he found one of his buddies lying in the road one night cut open from his throat to his belly with his guts out on the road. The man tells how the put the guts back in the friend, carried him in his arms to a vehicle and transported him to Winston Salem for medical treatment. He kept asking his friend who had cut him and the only response he got was, “You don’t want to know. You don’t want to know.”
They told how each little town had a bully. They lived in Crossroads but they mentioned Poplar Creek more than once. The joints where the townspeople gathered at night had bar stools but no tables. One night, the men made their regular visit to the joint and a tiny guy was sitting on the bar stool generally occupied by the town bully. A big, burly man walked in and wanted to know where the bully was. The little guy swirled around on the bar stool and told the big man that the bully had the night off and he was taking his place. Just as he finished his last word he flew into the big guy and knocked him to the floor.
The two men decided it was about time to go to the truck and get some refreshment.
I was entertained not only by excellent music and dance of Appalachia, but also a dose of Surry County folklore.
B. L. Dotson Lewis is a writer who lives in Summersville, West Virginia. She is the author of Sago Mine Disaster and the forthcoming Sunny Side of Appalachia: Bluegrass from the Grassroots. You can find out more about the author at her website, Appalachiacoal.com.