Surry Arts Council’s weekly jam sessions, held at the Historic Earle Theatre, are a musical showcase of the culture and heritage of the region.
That talent is being rewarded by John Rees, a veteran of the Nashville music scene, who has been attending jam sessions for months, taking note of musicians he would like to work with. He has now narrowed the field of talent down to four, and one winner will receive the chance to launch his or her career to the next level, with free studio time offered by Rees, as well as post-production work, translating to around 20 hours of free studio time.
The four finalists in Rees’ jam session contest are Daryll Atkins, Paula Dellenbach, Jack Holt, and Ann Miller.
Daryll Atkins, of Mount Airy, said he started playing guitar when he was 11 years old. “I started off with a guitar. My family and my brother played music, but I didn’t get into singing until about 11 years ago. I had always played bluegrass music, but I was bashful and wouldn’t sing until I started singing in church.”
Atkins is a regular member of the Thursday-night jams at the Historic Earle Theatre, which he said he loves attending. “I really like what the Surry Arts Council is doing with that, putting it on for us, and I try to go to every one that I can, when I’m not driving a truck.”
“When Tim told me I was a finalist, I was really surprised and tickled to be chosen from all those other great musicians. There are a lot of good ones in this area that have not been recognized, a lot of great talent around here,” Atkins shared.
Rees said that he has been watching Atkins at jam sessions for six months, and “every time he just gets up there and sings straight from the heart.”
“Atkins is what you look for in a singer, someone who really gives it everything they’ve got.”
Paula Dellenbach, originally from Mount Airy, lives in Aarat, Va., is a member of the band Paula Dellenbach and Fox River. She has recorded two CDs, is a singer/songwriter and also plays guitar — she even owns a guitar made by renowned guitar-maker Wayne Henderson. Dellenbach works as the finance officer at B.H. Tharrington Primary School.
Dellenbach said she didn’t start writing and playing music until her kids were grown and her husband was on the road with his job. “I just decided to try something I’ve always wanted to do, so I started with taking guitar lessons. I’ve always loved poems, but when I started taking guitar lessons and as I got a little better, my guitar teacher offered to help me record a song…after that he asked if I wanted to do an entire CD and suggested I start writing my own songs,” she shared.
The second song Dellenbach wrote and recorded won WPAQ’s songwriting contest — a tune called “Jar Gap.” Dellenbach said that playing music is a “dream come true” for her, and said she has been “very blessed” and loves the opportunity to meet other people involved with music.
Before Dellenbach started her own band, she said she went to the Merry-Go-Round every Saturday and also attended Thursday-night jam sessions. “That helped me more than anything when I first started playing music. In fact, that’s where I met my band members. You can learn so much by going to these jam sessions, and will meet so many people.”
Rees shared that Dellenbach “just looked like a songwriter” when he first saw her, and really enjoyed the two albums that she shared with him. “She is really well on her way to be a successful singer/songwriter…very talented musician there.”
Jack Holt moved to the Pilot Mountain area with his family when he was 12 years old, and said his dad was “the real musician in the family,” but Holt did not start playing music until his wife, Amity Holt, and his son, Zerick Holt, bought him his first guitar as a gift in 1998, when Holt was 30 years old.
Holt shared that his wife is “the poet in the family” and he loves to use what she writes and create songs, and has even copy-written 22 songs with his wife. He is a water treatment plant operator by day, and busy musician by night, as a member of multiple bands — Cranford Creek Bluegrass, Harvest Time Singers, Crossriver with Melvin and Gloria Snow, Sounds of Bluegrass, and Mountain Road Bluegrass and Gospel. He added that when he is not playing with one of the bands, he loves to attend the Thursday-night jam sessions, as well as other jam sessions in Lambsburg, Willis Gap, Tobaccoville. He also plays every Monday night at McDonald’s in Pilot Mountain.
“Studio time is so expensive,” Holt said. “If I could win this studio time, maybe I could get three or four songs recorded…if they are radio quality I could go and ask radio stations to play them, and who knows where this might end up.”
“Holt is so supportive of everyone on the stage at the jam sessions. He works as hard for everyone as he does for himself,” Rees shared. “He’s a good team player, and at the same time, when he does his own music he can sing, play, and write good. Plus, he’s a multi-instrumentalist.”
Rees said that Ann Miller is a talented singer, songwriter, and piano player: “Ann came out and jammed, and brought her husband along to play guitar. She is really a strong singer and her voice is what I think of when I think of the mountain singers. She sang a piece in shape notes, which was so enjoyable. I have been here for six months, going to jam sessions, and she showed me something new with her voice alone.”
Miller said that she was “honored and humbled” to be chosen as one of the four finalists. “My mother says I sang before I walked,” Miller shared. “Coming from a musical family, I believe her. As the baby of four siblings, I can tell you that we sang everywhere, and I mean everywhere, we went — in the car, on the tractor in the field, church, home…I attribute my ability to sing harmony parts to my Mom, whom I stood beside in the choir growing up.”
Miller said she started playing piano at age nine, played at church “from then on,” and still attends the same church, serving as the pianist for the past 40 years. Helen Church, from Boonville, was Miller’s piano teacher, and Church taught her to sing shape notes. Miller added that she did not start writing songs until she was in her 30s, and has written several gospel songs, which have served as a “catalyst for healing” after the tragic murder of a “much loved first cousin,” which she wrote a song about, called “It was Worth it All.”
Her husband, Everette Miller, is her “biggest supporter and a top-notch musician.”
“Being able to record in a professional setting would be a dream come true,” Miller said. “It would make my Mom and Dad proud, and I would give all the glory for that opportunity to God.”
Nashville veteran John Rees
Even though Rees has been in the music business for “going on 50 years,” he said he had never been to a jam session before returning to Mount Airy. He said he had discovered “many talented musicians who would be truly worthy of receiving the free session,” by attending Thursday-night jams almost every week for the past six months.
Many musicians love to jam, he added, but Rees said he is involved in more of an end result, a session recording, experience from “typically working toward a job or something that will bring in an income.” Jamming, Rees said, is more of a “free flowing” experience — “more of a ‘here’s what I feel playing today, right now’ kind of thing.” Rees described himself as a “babe fresh in the woods” when it comes to this type of music experience, a jam session, which he said has added to his enjoyment, as if he is exploring new territory.
He added that the overall talent level at the weekly free jam sessions was “splendid,” and also mentioned that he was impressed with host Tim Chadwick. “There’s just a lot of integrity on that stage.”
Rees emphasized the fact that the recording session would not mean instant fame and fortune, but could get the musician “at least one nudge closer” to a music career.
Tanya Jones, executive director of the Surry Arts Council, said she was delighted when John Rees stopped by Surry Arts Council when he moved back to Mount Airy.
“He has a real passion for the music and the community…this is a huge contribution on his part, not only to help the arts council and to help promote our area’s fantastic music, but also to really help local musicians have opportunities they may not otherwise have. This is a win-win situation and a really great thing for everyone. We are hugely grateful to John for what he is doing, this new approach to the local music scene,” Jones said.
Gene Rees owns and operates a gospel music label, Godschild Records and has played with Donna Fargo and Skeeter Davis. He was also a member of The Occasions.
Surry Arts Council’s free jam sessions are held on Tuesday and Thursday nights at 7 p.m. and Saturdays at 9 a.m. at the Historic Earle Theatre in downtown Mount Airy.
Thursday-night jam sessions are open-mic, and anyone is welcome to attend and participate. Tuesday-night jam sessions are a new addition to the schedule, with host Ivy Sheppard of the SC Broadcasters. Saturday jam sessions are held prior to WPAQ’s Merry-Go-Round live broadcast at 11 a.m. Anyone is welcome to attend and participate, play, sing, dance, or just listen and enjoy the music. More information is available by calling the Surry Arts Council at 786-7998.
Reach Jessica Johnson at 719-1933 or on Twitter @MountAiryJess.