DOBSON — They came from different places Saturday, all drawn to the same spot in Dobson to share their common appreciation for music known as “old” that is attracting new fans.
The occasion was the ninth-annual Surry Old-Time Fiddlers Convention at Surry Community College, which for Saturday’s purposes could be described as a Mecca for that musical genre.
Things got off to a spirited start Friday night with a traditional square dance in the college gymnasium featuring music by two bands, The Slate Mountain Ramblers and The New Ballard’s Branch Bogtrotters.
“We had a huge crowd — over 200 people,” said convention co-organizer Tammy Sawyer. “It was really, really great.”
That enthusiasm carried over to Saturday, when a daylong slate of competition was scheduled in the gym in categories including guitar, folk song, banjo, fiddle, dance and band, for both youths and adults. Activities also included instructional workshops for fiddle, banjo and guitar, as well as open jam sessions across the SCC campus.
While most fiddlers conventions cater to both the old-time genre and its younger first cousin, bluegrass, the Dobson event is devoted entirely to the former.
The sounds of old-time tunes filled the air Saturday, including those produced by Matthew Allen, 12, of Dunn in Harnett County, a fiddle player who was attending the convention for the first time.
Matthew was practicing the familiar tune he planned to play later for the competition, “Old Joe Clark.”
“Honestly, I started off when I was four playing classical (violin),” said the youth, who also plays piano.
However, old-time musical roots run deep in Matthew’s family, including local ties to a great-great grandfather, Joe Anderson, according to Matthew’s mom Lisa. She said Anderson performed at Mount Airy radio station WPAQ, which has long specialized in that type.
“We were in town for spring break and we saw the advertisement,” Lisa Allen said of promotional material for Saturday’s convention, and thought it would be a chance “to have some fun.”
Matthew is drawn to old-time music because it offers more performance flexibility than the rigid classical type. “In classical, you play what it says,” he explained regarding instructions on the sheet.
Old-time is different.
“I feel like it’s easier to express yourself,” Matthew said of being able to perform a tune while also injecting one’s personal style or nuances into the mix.
Out of the classroom
For some convention participants, Saturday was an opportunity to apply skills learned in the classroom to a real-world setting.
This included a group from the Junior Appalachian Musicians program of the Alleghany County public schools, who jammed themselves and their instruments into a small white bus to attend the event in Dobson.
The convention also attracted interest from the college level, including Christen Blanton, the director of and a teacher in an old-time ensemble program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, which is open to all students there. “You don’t even have to have an instrument,” she said of the musical-appreciation emphasis stressed among all who participate.
Though the program does include classroom instruction of the rigid-type nature that young fiddler Matthew Allen described, students also are encouraged to go out “in the field” and attend events such as the Surry Old-Time Fiddlers Convention.
“That’s kind of the hope,” said the instructor, a fiddler who planned to compete Saturday and was accompanied by students Jeremy Glasgow of Mebane, who specializes in the banjo, and Jimmy Washington of Roanoke, Virginia, the guitar, fiddle and banjo.
They were looking forward to individual competitions and possibly as a band during the convention that was predicted to include more than 100 bands and individuals altogether.
Blanton said she always notifies students in the UNC-Greensboro program about upcoming attractions such as the Dobson convention and encourages them to participate.
“And Jeremy and Jimmy actually go out and do that,” she said of Glasgow and Washington.
One trait of conventions is a laid-back atmosphere that is a departure from structured settings — where people can come together and make magical sounds, Blanton indicated.
A lot of times, students won’t even know the songs being played during impromptu jam sessions that are the lifeblood of fiddlers conventions.
“But people don’t care,” Blanton said of the prevailing attitude among those leading the sessions, who generally encourage everyone to jump in and do what they can — learning in the process.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.