Truckload of Enigmas Sighted and Sounded
For Swiss pickers and park rangers pecking like chickens, you have to get in your truck and drive past the mouth of Wilson, to Wayne Henderson's guitar fest
When it came time to dance, Fina Mae, 88 years old, was first up, with her son Randy.
All Photos by B. L. Dotson-Lewis
When traveling the winding, narrow, dangerous roads into the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, North Carolina or West Virginia, you may encounter more than a black bear or ring eyed raccoon. You may run into enigmas.
I already knew a handful in West Virginia, way up in the mountains where I make my home. Dr. Paul Conley said that he was viewed somewhat as an enigma while doing his internship at prestigious St. Luke’s Hospital in Philadelphia. His peers who belonged to wealthy Philadelphian families would say, “Hey, Hillbilly,” or “How Y’all?” He became more of an enigma when he walked away with top honors to return to his small, coalmining town of Summersville, West Virginia, to practice rural medicine, where payment is on a sliding scale.
Management at WCWV 93.1 Gospel Radio Station in Summersville reads obituaries over the air, a practice abandoned by other stations to make time for money-making ads.
Ralph Roberts is one of the last old time fiddlers playing authentic pre-Civil War tunes handed down from his family. He grew up in a remote section of West Virginia.
An enigma, the dictionary says (as does wikipedia), is something or someone that is mysterious or puzzling. Baffling, inexplicable. One of nature’s secrets. I encountered a whole truckload of enigmas on top of Grayson Highlands State Park June 21 when I went to the Wayne Henderson Music Festival and Guitar Competition.
Master guitar-maker Wayne Henderson, in the green t-shirt, sat in the crowd listening to the music played at his festival.
After reading about Wayne Henderson, luthier (guitar maker) and musician, in a story posted on Daily Yonder, I needed to meet him, see his guitars and hear him play. Well, as fate would have it, the Wayne Henderson Music Festival and Guitar Competition was just around the corner; the one-day affair was scheduled June 21, 2008. Perfect timing for me. The shindig was slated for Grayson Highlands State Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains (a physiographic province of the Appalachian Mountains), only ten miles from Whitetop Mountain, Virginia’s second highest peak. The park is situated past the Mouth of Wilson, and almost equal distance from Marion and Damascus, Virginia.
My trip was pleasant. I felt right at home after turning off at Sparta, North Carolina, and winding upward around the mountainous roads. If no oncoming cars were coming, I cut off the middle of the switchback curves. My dad used to do that. I wanted to pull off several times to look at the blue valleys below but traffic was in front and behind me, so I traveled on.
A two-feet-high split rail fence and a couple of signs reading “Performers Only” were the only barriers separating musician and fan.
Wayne sat on a grassy bank with other fans to watch the guitar performances. He wore a green t-shirt advertising the Wayne Henderson Guitar Competition and Music Festival. I saw 40 or 50 more of the same shirts walking around. They were volunteers. Wayne wore comfortable looking jeans, tennis shoes and a navy blue baseball hat with an “A” on the front. He also wore a deer hunter’s beard. I wasted a few precious minutes trying to picture Wayne in some type of formal attire standing before the Queen of England last May and playing a bluegrass number to welcome her to the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Jamestown Colony in Virginia, or playing at Carnegie Hall (which he has).
There were 20 competitors in the guitar competition, with the initial round lasting one hour, from 10:30 till 11:30 a.m. The event was staggered with bands playing while the competitors were narrowed down. Harold Mitchell, who emcees bluegrass events at Fairview Raritan Club in Galax, Virginia, acted as master of ceremonies. He was dressed up — a wide, white Stetson hat, light blue sports jacket and nice tan pants. He stood out from the crowd.
Competitors were all ages. They were called by number, and then Mitchell announced what each would be playing, mainly tunes in the bluegrass or old-time music genre. No names were called during the initial round.
No Speed Limit Band, the first band to perform, are a high-energy, hard-driving bluegrass group. Their music career started out as a couple of kids jamming and a 16 your old lead vocalist out of Saltville, Virginia. When they played on the streets at the Old Time Fiddlers Convention in Galax, the response was so good, they decided to make music their livelihood. They are on the fast track, having played with well known bands such as Del McCoury and the Lonesome River Band.
George Hamilton IV was another musician to take the stage. George had his new-looking, silver-colored SUV backed up the hill close to the stage, which was the front porch of a one-room rustic cabin. A bumper sticker stuck on the back window read “Viva Nashville.” Mr. Hamilton IV didn’t dress down for the event. He wore his usual Grand Ole Opry clothes: a red plaid shirt, navy blue vest and dress trousers. He wore a gold watch on a chain.
He sings mainly about the way things used to be and talks during his songs quite a bit. He played one of his hit tunes from 1956, “A Rose and A Baby Ruth,” accompanying himself on his new Wayne Henderson Guitar. The fans liked him — he is a local boy. He said that most of his family was there, including his wife, son, George Hamilton V, and his brother.
The Harris Brothers from Lenoir, North Carolina put on a spectacular show. Their music was bluegrass, bluesy and jazzy. These two young brothers used to work the Tweetsie Railroad (anybody who has driven through western North Carolina has seen signs for the Tweetsie). Their CDs sold out immediately.
A funny thing happened during the Harris Brothers performance. They were playing a hard-driving bluegrass tune while a sober-looking park ranger and companion wound their way through the crowd letting people know they were on the job. All of a sudden, the professional looking park ranger broke out into a chicken-reel dance. He was in full dress uniform. His head and neck started moving in fast, short jerks in a chicken-like motion that hens use when picking up their cracked corn. His feet and legs flew out in the air as if they were on puppet strings. He bent up and down in time with the music. Everyone broke out in laughter.
I walked down after the Harris Brothers' performance and ordered the box supper lunch: about ¼ of a chicken roasted on an outdoor grill, coleslaw without dressing, home grown green beans and a roll for $6.00. They simply put a thin rubber band around the box supper/lunch to secure it, took your $6.00 and you were set. Drinks were available all around. No alcohol was permitted.
Wayne Henderson moved back and forth, sitting on the ground watching the performers to going back stage (backdoor of the cabin) to make sure things were going smoothly. He could not walk two steps without someone wanting to meet him, have him autograph baseball hats, CDs, programs, hands, wrists, shirts and arms. He did so in a quiet and awkward manner. It was easy to tell that fame and recognition were the least favorite part of his job.
The concrete slab poured in the grass near the stage served no purpose except for a photographer or two to stabilize tripods — until the dance fiddle tunes began. Suddenly an ordinary concrete slab became a smooth dance floor with 88-year-old Fina Mae gliding back and forth, up and down the length of the rectangle. Her arm was outstretched in Ginger Rogers style. She wore flaming orange ““ a tall hat, without the plume, long sleeved blouse and ankle length pants, wedge high shoes and bright orange lipstick.
Fina Mae found a new dance partner.
She would stop halfway through a dance step to do what I would call the brush step ““ one foot is lifted and brushed across the other foot to the floor two times. Her son, Randy, was her dance partner. She was joined on the dance floor by obviously trained cloggers. These dancers would move around on the floor prancing, standing tall. Movement was from the waist down. Their knees were bent. Their feet flew, tapping heels and toes as if the Nike tennis shoes were sporting taps worn on their traditional clogging shoes. Fina Mae left the dance floor to the cloggers but returned for one last dance before the fiddle tunes were over. A two year old girl, obviously a natural born dancer much like Fina Mae, cut in on Randy to take Fina Mae’s hand as her new dance partner. As many as possible crowded around the dance floor standing sideways and touching shoulders to get a glance of Fina Mae and her tiny partner dancing to a fiddle tune.
It was nearing the end of the day with only the Kruger Brothers and Wayne Henderson and Friends remaining on the program when the guitar competition winners were announced from fifth place down to the first place (winner of a Wayne Henderson Guitar). Harold told the audience a portion of the proceeds from the festival would go toward scholarship funds for young musicians. Henderson was on stage to congratulate the top five and present the first place winner with a guitar he had made.
The winners were as follows: 1st place winner ““ Brian Howse of Springfield, Tennessee; 2nd place ““ Eric Hardin of Warrensville, North Carolina; 3rd place ““ Josh Bailey of Victoria, Texas; 4th place ““ Zeb Snyder of Lexington, North Carolina; 5th place ““ Austin Mikeal of Lansing, North Carolina.
The Kruger Brothers, who make their home in Wilkes County, North Carolina, took the stage. It was late afternoon. They are from Switzerland originally but made the move to Wilkes County, North Carolina, in the fall of 2003. Yes, more enigmas.
Their music is like thunder and lightening, rain and sunshine. I, like the others, was mesmerized by the sounds coming from the fingers flying up and down the strings. The late afternoon sun was beating down on us by this time but no one moved. A fan sitting on my left explained to me that Jens Kruger, banjo payer, was picking in an unusual way: “Watch his fingers, listen to the sound. This is not ordinary. My opinion is, Jens Kruger has been trained as a classical musician.” Brother Uwe, playing a Wayne Henderson guitar, made mention several times he was worried about his guitar being in the sun and of course, Mr. Kruger, being of ample size, repeatedly wiped sweat from his face between breaks on his guitar. They had picked up New York City musician, Joel Lansburg, as bassist. I can’t remember the individual tunes they played because I was caught up in the music. It didn’t matter what tune they played.
The Kruger Brothers moved to Western North Carolina from Switzerland.
When their performance finished, the crowd would not let the band leave the rustic front porch stage. A standing ovation with whistles made by folding your thumbs and holding them against your index fingers, brought the Kruger Brothers and Joel to the front edge of the porch. They turned, walked the few feet to the back of the stage to leave when Harold Mitchell, emcee, directed them to do another tune. The Kruger Brothers resumed their playing positions, sitting on small chairs. They motioned to someone in the back to join them on stage. It was Maynard Holbrook, a local Wilkes County man. He sat in the middle, half way between Jens and Uwe. The brothers talked a little bit about their new project, which involves playing bluegrass with a symphony orchestra in Bangor, Maine. They asked Maynard how he felt about performing with the upscale orchestra. He simply said. “I was scared to death.” Maynard wore the customary dress of hill folk, bibbed overalls. The talk subsided and Maynard broke into “Amazing Grace, How Sweet Thy Sound.” This brought the house-hillside down with applause.
I learned that Jens’s biggest influence was Bill Monroe. He crossed the Atlantic in 1982 to see Bill Monroe at the Bean Blossom Festival in Indiana. Bill took Jens to the Grand Ole Opry. Uwe’s influences range from Doc Watson to Eric Clapton to Beethoven, Bach and Brahms.
Wayne Henderson and Friends played until after dark.