Travel is a common theme in old-time and bluegrass songs — somebody’s always going down a lonely road, riding a train or headed to the mountain — and also is a key part of the Mount Airy fiddlers convention scheduled Friday and Saturday.
One would think that with this area being a hotbed for those traditional music styles, locals would dominate the proceedings at the Mount Airy Bluegrass and Old-Time Fiddlers Convention.
But that’s not the case, the event’s manager, Gary Willard, pointed out in the days leading up to the 47th-annual edition of the event. The convention is always held during the first week of June at Veterans Memorial Park on West Lebanon Street, an occasion circled on the calendar by folks near and far — especially the latter.
“We have plenty from the Mount Airy area, but it tends to be more from out of town,” Willard said, which includes both musicians and spectators. “We have a lot of repeat competitors every year who say they enjoy coming to Mount Airy.”
Convention organizers are hoping to draw more attendees from the Surry County area this week. “I wish more locals would come and enjoy the music,” Willard said Wednesday. “They will have a good time.”
Early arrivals plentiful
The convention’s starting times are 2 p.m. on Friday and 9:30 a.m. Saturday. Admission costs $10 each day.
Campers already have arrived ahead of the “official” beginning, including some who showed up last week. “I think the first ones came in on Wednesday,” Willard said, mentioning that the weather can be a dynamic in this process.
“We had a big turnout Monday night,” he added Wednesday. “I guess they were trying to beat the rain and get a good spot, also.”
While that has been true for recreational vehicles, tent campers have been a little slow to arrive. “I think they’re watching the weather,” Willard said.
After a wet start to this week, a better forecast is in store for the weekend, and the convention manager is confident about a good turnout while also being philosophical overall about the typical conditions for spring.
“You know the weather — it’s going to rain one day and be sunny the next, so the only thing we can do is hope for the best,” Willard said.
Not only do musicians and fans attend from all over the United States, the local convention is increasingly drawing interest worldwide.
“We usually have seven or eight countries represented here in Mount Airy,” said Willard, who has been involved with the convention for about 14 years. In 2017, the list included such places as Ireland, Australia, England, Germany, Japan and Canada.
“And the BBC always comes in,” he said of coverage of the event each year by the British Broadcasting Corp.
Musicians also have attended from such domestic locations as Texas, Colorado, New Jersey, Georgia, Illinois, Nashville and other areas of Tennessee, based on recent entry listings, in addition to a good number from North Carolina/Virginia.
There are multiple reasons for such a strong out-of-town presence. Willard believes one is the musical “legacy” of this area as embodied by legendary performers such as the late Tommy Jarrell. Many came to visit such musicians when they were active, and still seek out their old haunts to learn from those to whom it has been passed down.
‘Town within a town’
Another factor for the outside interest seems to be the role that travel itself plays in the music.
Just as people have journeyed to Woodstock and similar venues, there is a kind of pilgrimage aspect that fuels events such as the Mount Airy fiddlers convention — the appeal of people sharing a common interest who can gather in a central location.
That is reflected by those who arrive early at Veterans Memorial Park on Convention Week and camp on the grounds in tents and recreational vehicles.
Willard estimates that about 2,500 people camped out in 2017. “It’s like a little town within a town, so to speak,” he said.
Another factor for people being drawn there is that the Mount Airy convention is a little more compact and user-friendly than larger, more spread-out events such as the Galax, Virginia, fiddlers convention held each August.
Yet the Mount Airy gathering has a healthy following in its own right, usually drawing about 300 to 400 walk-in fans on each of its two days in addition to the campers. A sea of lawn chairs and blankets typically surrounds the stage where performances occur, with others seeking out informal jam sessions ongoing continuously throughout the park.
As with most outdoor festivals held this time of the year, the weather is always the X-factor.
“That’s the biggest driver,” Willard said of the correlation between pleasant conditions and strong turnouts for the convention that is held rain or shine.
Another reason for the popularity of the local event is that it emphasizes old-time music more so than bluegrass — which is exactly the opposite at most conventions.
In 2017, for example, about 50 old-time bands registered for the event, compared to 22 bluegrass groups. Altogether, there were about 400 competitors, including those playing in bands and taking part in 12 individual categories for bluegrass fiddle, old-time fiddle, bluegrass banjo, old-time banjo (clawhammer), guitar, mandolin, bass, dobro, dulcimer, autoharp, folk song and dance.
Winners are awarded cash prizes.
Band competitions occupy the “prime-time” slots at the convention on both Friday and Saturday nights.
Last year, Five-Mile Mountain Road, of Franklin County, Virginia, won first place in the adult old-time band competition, with Harrison Ridge, a Mount Airy-based group, placing first in adult bluegrass band contest.
The Mount Airy Bluegrass and Old-Time Fiddlers Convention is considered an educational as well as entertaining event, with workshops and youth programs sponsored by the Surry Arts Council conducted each year, including an old-time retreat that began last Saturday.
Willard, the convention manager, said those who have attended the convention in the past can expect more of the same for 2018.
“We haven’t made any changes this year — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.