Performers and fans craving a full diet of old-time and bluegrass music will get their fill this weekend when the Mount Airy Bluegrass and Old-Time Fiddlers Convention is served up for the 46th year.
Always held on the first weekend in June at Veterans Memorial Park on West Lebanon Street, the convention will include two days of competition on Friday and Saturday, jam sessions, dancing, singing, family entertainment, educational workshops and more.
“It’s kind of like a family reunion,” said Eric Marshall of Mount Airy, who took first place in the bluegrass banjo category last year.
On Friday starting at 7 p.m., all bands will perform on the Veterans Memorial Park stage, with the convention resuming at 9:30 a.m. the next day — featuring individual competition leading to more band performances at 6 p.m.
There are two band and 12 individual contests scheduled, which include both adult and youth competitions.
More than 90 bands took part last year.
Along with the old-time and bluegrass band categories, individual contests will be held for bluegrass fiddle, old-time fiddle, bluegrass banjo, old-time banjo (clawhammer), guitar, mandolin, bass, dobro, dulcimer, autoharp, folk song and dance.
Musicians might attend from such places as Texas, Colorado, New Jersey, Georgia, Illinois, Nashville and other areas of Tennessee, based on last year’s entry list, in addition to a good number from North Carolina/Virginia and even internationally.
Although the fiddlers convention doesn’t officially get under way until Friday, some attendees arrived this past weekend at Veterans Memorial Park to set up camp and enjoy informal jam sessions until the event concludes.
Gary Willard, the president of the park’s board of directors who helps coordinate the event, is expecting a good turnout for it this year, based on early demand for campsites.
All RV (recreational vehicle) camp spots at the park have been taken. “So that’s a good indication” for attendance, Willard said Friday.
The event usually draws about 800 camper units and tents combined on its 10 acres of wooded and open sites which average two to three people each, he added.
More than competition
While it’s great to be recognized among one’s peers for excellence, much of the allure of the Mount Airy fiddlers convention emanates away from the stage — where camaraderie trumps competition as musicians and fans reunite with old friends and pick a tune or three.
“You see people you haven’t got to play with in years — or at least since last year,” Marshall, the local banjo player, said of the impromptu jam sessions that can be found throughout Veterans Memorial Park.
“For me, that’s as important as any of the competition,” added the local musician associated with The Marshall Brothers bluegrass band, who has been attending the Mount Airy convention for about 25 years.
“I usually don’t compete,” Marshall said in discussing his victory in the bluegrass banjo competition in 2016, which he described using words such as “excited” and “humbling” due to all the great banjo players involved.
“The main part for me is the picking all week long,” he said of the non-stage activities.
“We go out there from Sunday night on,” Marshall said of his usual game plan for Convention Week, which includes every day it’s not raining.
He has picked on the park grounds with musicians from places such as England and Switzerland, in addition to many locals.
Marshall said one never knows what musical variety he or she might stumble onto — bluegrass and old-time, of course, or something unexpected — “it might be somebody playing a trumpet.”
“That’s the main reason I come,” a Colorado-based musician who goes by the name Henry the Fiddler said of how events such as the Mount Airy fiddlers convention allow fellow musicians and fans to reconnect.
“These festivals are the only time we see each other,” added Henry the Fiddler (aka Henry Tarrson, a Chicago-area native), who won first place in old-time fiddle competition at the 2016 convention.
Last year was not the only time the 68-year-old musician has made the trek from out West to the local event.
“My first time in Mount Airy was decades ago — I think the first time I came over was in 1973,” he said.
Some well-known figures in the music world have been known to inhabit Veterans Memorial Park during the convention.
Jeb Puryear, a member of the band Donna the Buffalo — which specializes in genres ranging from zydeco and country rock to reggae and bluegrass — usually sets up shop on the park grounds and holds a number of informal concerts with additional Donna the Buffalo personnel and others.
Mark Schatz, a bassist, banjoist, mandolinist and clogger who has recorded and toured with artists such as Bela Fleck, Nickel Creek, Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice, John Hartford, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, also has attended the local convention.
Members of The Carolina Chocolate Drops, a unique African-American string band, have showed up at the convention from time to time as well, including meandering on the park grounds with instruments poised and sometimes competing onstage.
When Henry the Fiddler won the old-time competition in 2016 — edging out acclaimed Mount Airy fiddler Richard Bowman — it came as a surprise.
“That was quite an upset for me to win anything last year — it was almost unheard of,” Henry said, explaining that a local fiddler almost always prevails at such events.
“I thought if I had any chance at all, I needed to play a local tune.”
Henry chose “Polecat Blues,” a song popularized by Benton Flippen, the late legendary fiddler of Round Peak fame, one of many accomplished old-time musicians that area of Surry County has produced.
“I played it pretty much like Benton did,” Henry recalled.
A “laid-back” event
Marshall, the local banjo player, religiously attends three fiddlers conventions each year — Galax, in Virginia, and Sparta in addition to Mount Airy.
Mount Airy tends to offer a more intimate setting, especially compared to Galax.
“It’s more laid-back, there’s not as many people, it’s not as tight,” Marshall said.
“Because of it not starting (officially) until Friday, it’s a whole lot more laid-back atmosphere.”
Henry the Fiddler says that despite the wide variety of practitioners on display during the Mount Airy Bluegrass and Old-Time Fiddlers Convention, everyone shares a common thread: the music.
“It’s the universal language.”