The 46th-annual Mount Airy Bluegrass and Old-Time Fiddlers Convention held Friday and Saturday could go down in history as the largest ever — and for the most countries represented there.
Gary Willard, a convention organization who heads the board of directors at Veterans Memorial Park where the convention is staged, used words such as “excellent” and “great” Saturday afternoon to describe this year’s gathering of musicians and fans.
“I think it’s probably our best event as far as attendance based on (what) we’ve seen here at the gate,” Willard said as vehicle after vehicle headed into the park on West Lebanon Street. “I’ve been doing the convention for 15 years.”
The event coordinator mentioned two factors that can be credited for its 2017 success.
“We doubled the prize money this year — and excellent weather,” Willard said. “Warm days, cool nights — everybody loves it.”
Another good early sign for the convention’s turnout involved the number of people who arrived at the park early for the event, which Willard said was a surprise. “The first one came in last Thursday (May 25).” That was eight days before the convention got under way officially.
Those arriving Saturday afternoon were anticipating an evening of old-time and bluegrass music, not only performed from the official stage but throughout Veterans Memorial Park — where mini-concerts were ongoing all over the main convention grounds and atop a nearby hill.
Many nations reflected
And while many local residents were among the assemblage, it also included visitors from many faraway lands.
“So far, Ireland, Australia, England, Germany, Japan, Canada,” Willard said while counting the number of different nations on his fingers, adding that there were two more he couldn’t readily name.
And yes, for those who might be curious about the matter, a man who was with a group from Australia said, upon his arrival, “thank you, mate,” according to Willard.
Camping areas around the park seemed full Saturday as individual competition was under way on the convention stage, featuring such instruments as guitar, fiddle and mandolin.
A woman who coordinates convention registration reported that about 400 competitors had signed up altogether. Among their numbers were 50 old-time bands and 22 bluegrass groups, a popular part of the convention with band performances featured both Friday and Saturday night.
The Slate Mountain Ramblers, a Mount Airy-based group, was an early favorite for the old-time band competition, having captured first place in that category in 2016 at both the Mount Airy and Galax, Virginia, fiddlers conventions.
Along with a strong presence by musicians and fans from North Carolina and Virginia, and the international participation, attendees were drawn from seemingly unlikely parts of the United States.
One was Chris Nye, a young old-time musician from Cincinnati, Ohio, who had come to the Mount Airy fiddlers convention for the first time.
Nye explained that he learned of the local event by word of mouth. “Just some old-time circles that I play in,” he said, specifically mentioning a group called The Rabbit Hash String Band.
The visitor from Ohio said he had been having a “pretty cool time” here. “The jam sessions at night,” was one thing he has appreciated, referring to a popular attraction that draws musicians and fans to the park all during Convention Week.
Nye said he had used that networking opportunity to learn many new tunes — including some he didn’t even realize had lyrics.
Meanwhile, a musician closer to home, Paula Dellenback of Ararat, Virginia., a longtime convention attendee, had just finished her performance onstage in adult guitar competition, where she rendered an instrumental called “Angeline the Baker.”
Dellenback explained that participating in an individual contest represented new ground for her, as she normally performs with the band Paula Dellenback and Fox River.
But her perspective in being an ongoing fan of the Mount Airy Bluegrass and Old-Time Fiddlers Convention remains a constant.
“I love the food, I love the people, I love the jams,” Dellenback said. “I love it all.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.