Although the 44th-Annual Mount Airy Bluegrass and Old-Time Fiddlers Convention doesn’t officially begin until tonight, this hasn’t kept a steady stream of musicians and fans from getting an early start.
Recreational vehicles and tents could be found all over the convention grounds at Veterans Memorial Park Thursday, set up by folks from near and far. A quick scan of license plates revealed representation by states including New York, Massachusetts, Georgia, Kentucky and West Virginia, along with many from areas of North Carolina and Virginia.
But whether folks are Northerners, Southerners, Midwesterners or even foreigners, all seem to become one with the music each year at the local convention that typically attracts about 10,000 people. Geographical or cultural barriers somehow don’t matter when tunes such as “Sally Ann” are wafting through the air from hillside campsites, as was amply the case on Thursday.
“There’s such a fraternity here,” Beckley, West Virginia, resident Robert Davis said during a pause at one such site. Normally, Davis, 60, works as a chiropractor, but for one weekend every June the fiddle, guitar and bass player of 20 years can be found in Mount Airy.
“I can’t remember how many years I’ve been coming,” added Davis, who also has been driving from West Virginia to Surry County each week to attend a violin-making course at the community college.
Davis, who considers himself “strictly old-time” as opposed to bluegrass, said the local event has a way of attracting serious musicians as opposed to a festival atmosphere geared more toward frivolity.
“This is truly a convention,” he said. “I don’t even like the word festival.”
Age is another barrier that music tends to erase — judging by the huge numbers of both young and old who are drawn to Mount Airy each spring. And Davis is impressed by the skills possessed by a new generation of performers who increasingly seem to be embracing the traditional musical genres.
“These young people are something to be reckoned with,” said Davis, who won’t be competing onstage at the convention but mainly just reuniting with old friends for impromptu music sessions.
Alex Kramer is among that younger breed of musicians, who journeyed all the way from New York City with his friend Ben Lussier, arriving in Mount Airy Wednesday evening.
“This is my first time,” Kramer said of being at the convention, although he is aware of its reputation as a mecca for old-time music, which he also prefers rather than bluegrass. “It’s talked about in old-time music (circles),” explained the Big Apple resident who’ll call a tent his home for the next two days.
“Everybody talks about it,” he added of the annual gathering in Mount Airy.
Kramer, who plays the fiddle, banjo and guitar — while Lussier favors the ukulele — said he loves old-time music because of how it lends itself to jams in which a group of musicians engage in a continuous rhythm.
“Bluegrass kind of puts you on the spot,” he said of its familiar pattern of highlighting each instrument at a time, while when playing old-time tunes everyone kind of “blends together.”
Kramer plans to enter the individual convention contests in the banjo and fiddle categories and play banjo in band competition with the group Hoot n Holler, after meeting members of the band who are camping nearby.
The 2014 fiddlers convention drew 344 entries for band and a dozen individual categories including fiddle, guitar, banjo, dobro, folk singing, dance and others, but totaled many more musicians in all considering the bands contained multiple members.
Forty-six old-time groups were registered for competition along with 18 bluegrass bands.
Last year, Crossroad, a Dobson group, won the bluegrass band competition and The Slate Mountain Ramblers, based in Mount Airy, took top honors in the the old-time category.
Participation figures for this year were unavailable, with the registration deadline not scheduled to end until late Thursday afternoon.
Prize money totaling $2,630 awaits the winners along with ribbons and trophies.
The onstage performances of the convention get under way today at 7 p.m. with band competition slated all evening. The convention will resume Saturday and run all day, possibly into early Sunday morning.
Contests for folk singing, youth dancing and individual instruments Saturday will lead up to the start of more band competition at 6 p.m., with adult dancing slated afterward.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.