Celebrating the song of the mountains

By Keith Strange

June 7, 2014

Walking the grounds of Veterans Memorial Park Friday afternoon, it was easy to be struck by two things: The sound of music wafting through the air, and license plates on vehicles from far and wide.

The park was the site of this year’s 43rd Annual Bluegrass and Old Time Fiddler’s Convention, and for the thousands in attendance it is a rite of spring.

Musicians from near and far are drawn to the convention, as well as fans of the more traditional genre that seems to be undergoing a resurgence and attracting younger listeners who appreciate its special quality.

The event, which officially kicked off Friday, began seeing attendees arriving early in the week.

It features a music workshop, vendors selling instruments, two band and 12 individual contests.

Old-time and bluegrass band competitions, usually one of the more popular attractions at the convention that began in 1972, featured first place prizes of $400 in each category. Band performances begin Friday at 7 p.m.

The contest resumed Saturday at 9:30 a.m. with folk sing and categories for individual instruments: bluegrass and old-time banjo, bluegrass and old-time fiddle, which will continue until 2 p.m.

Guitar, mandolin, dobro, bass fiddle, dulcimer and autoharp contestants will occupy the stage from 2 to 5 p.m. today, with youth dancing and awards set for 5:45 p.m.

Band competition resumes Saturday at 6 p.m. Adult dancing is slated after that.

Between 600 and 1,000 contestants usually participate in the convention. A total of $2,630 in prize money will be awarded along with ribbons and trophies.

General admission ticket prices are $10 for Saturday and $15 for contestants, according to a website for the convention. Children 6 and under will be admitted free with a paying adult.

But for many attendees, it is less about contests or prizes. It is about the music.

“I’ve been coming for 20 years,” said Linda Cabe of Wilkesboro. “I just love old-time music, and have played banjo for years.”

Strumming a guitar under a vendor’s tent, Cabe said the music of the region is a treasure that should be preserved and celebrated.

“It’s really important to me to preserve this regional music,” she said. “It’s unique to this area and really is the song of the mountains.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Joe Overton of Smithville, Tennessee.

“Coming to this festival is kind of an annual tradition for me,” Overton, 29, said. “When I began playing old-time music, one of my friends brought me to this festival and I’ve been coming ever since.”

Overton said the festival has become something of a tradition.

“This is a special community,” he said as he looked over the sea of campers and tents. “There is just lot of great music here. My year just isn’t complete without coming.”

Walking through Veterans Park, visitors are struck by the numerous “jam sessions” that seemed to crop up wherever there was a patch of shade. Some featured six or seven musicians, others two or even one.

But there were always smiles.

“How long have we been playing together?” asked Shay Garriock of Pittsboro.

He looked at his watch.

“We met about 45 minutes ago,” he said of the group sitting under a canopy holding banjos, fiddles, mandolins and an upright bass.

“Coming here is like coming home,’ Garriock said. “This music is in my blood and every time I come I make new friends.”

With that, he began tapping his foot and the music started flowing once more.

Keith Strange can be reached at 336-719-1929 or via Twitter @strangereporter.