Exploring the South – Travelogue USA #3

by | 23 Jun, 2010

Submitted by John Werner – Victoria

Here is the third saga from John Werner and Garry Roberts as they unearth more musical pleasure on their road trip through the southern USA.

We ventured across North Carolina to southern Virginia, and a weekend stopover near Hillsville with friends. They took us out to a dance at Applewood Park in Cana where The New Ballards Branch Bogtrotters had the crowd on the floor all night, and to The Leaf & String Festival in Galax the next day. This region is over-flowing with Old Time & Bluegrass musicians and consequentially the standard of afternoon’s entertainment on Main St was very high. One young group, Mountain Thunder, comprising of 12 to 16 year old locals displayed an astonishing level of skill, which we were told was not uncommon. In the evening, we attended the famous Rex Theatre for a concert of regional Virginian folk artists.

On Sunday, we attended a rural Primitive Baptist Church with our hosts, and were graciously received by the congregation. Australian topics and Bluegrass music was discussed afterward. The love of music runs deep here.

In the afternoon we drove over to Floyd for a weekly jam held at The Country Store where a circle of 15 pickers welcomed us, with around 30 people in attendance to listen in. A slightly less community feel than Polkville, it was an enjoyable afternoon of old country and bluegrass standards, with a fine banjo player and fiddler holding things down. The area has had a recent influx of Northerners moving in, and this was reflected in the cosmopolitan feel of the session, however, everyone was very inclusive and encouraging of each other’s musical offerings. Again, it was mainly an older group of pickers.

Even though I’d brought along my loan bass, the bassist for session, Bob, gladly handed his Kay over to me and jumped on guitar (a Martin of course), and was equally adept on both instruments as we swapped over throughout the session.

The circle went around, calling tunes and sharing solos in the usual manner, with flat-footing dancing in the middle of the circle, and again there was great interest in Australian bluegrass activity afterwards. We were flooded with information of jams that night, the next and on through the week, all across the region and within 1-2 hour’s drive. Decisions, decisions.

Deciding upon a jam in Radford VA, we checked out the Roanoke Transportation Museum the next day, and marveled at the size of the J Class steam engine, before pulling into an RV campground at the Claytor Lake State Park.
We attended Radford’s River City Grill in the evening, a medium sized room with around, which had only just recently become the jam’s new venue, when the nearby coffee shop closed its doors after hosting the jam for 9 years. Initiated by Ralph, a multi-instrumentalist who spent the night on fiddle, the jam has become a mainstay and weekly meeting place for the region’s pickers, and the standard was very high. Around 12 pickers gathered in a rough rectangle at the front of the room against a large window, and we were introduced to each of them. There were over 40 on-lookers, eating meals and chatting, and the room was quite lively. Tunes went around the circle, with a variety of country and bluegrass standards mixed in with new ones (for me) by The Seldom Scene, Country Gentlemen and others I was not familiar with.

As the session evolved, more people squeezed into the room, and several jams kicked off on the footpath where it was less hot. Overall, around 25-30 pickers and singers showed up, and the various jams offered plenty of choices between styles and levels of ability. As we said our goodbyes and drove off, one last footpath session was still kicking on.

What’s been notable about attending these jams, is the new tunes that keep coming up, and different versions of familiar ones, which is a reminder that there is always something to learn. Also, the warm welcomes have been heartfelt and interest in Australian Bluegrass activity is high. Very few people knew anything of Australia, apart from maybe Crocodile Dundee, Sydney and Keith Urban, and were chuffed to know that their musical influence extends to so far away.