There are people who go the extra mile for something they love, but John Sky Starkey has traveled more than 4,000 miles to experience old-time music in a special way.
Starkey came all the way from his home in Anchorage, Alaska, to participate in the Mount Airy Old-Time Retreat being held for the first time this week in conjunction with the annual fiddlers convention today and Saturday.
The Anchorage resident is one of 15 people participating in the retreat, which also has drawn a woman from Berkeley, California, and students from many other locations. All share a common interest: trying to learn more about a musical genre, which has captivated them, from experts in the old-time variety deeply rooted in the Round Peak area of Surry County.
“I really like the Round Peak style of music,” Starkey said Thursday afternoon during a break in retreat activities in the “bingo building” at Veterans Memorial Park, which is hosting the 47th-annual Mount Airy Bluegrass and Old-Time Fiddlers Convention.
“Just that pulse and drive of it all,” he added in explaining his love for old-time music in general.
The retreat was organized for this year’s convention by the Surry Arts Council to offer musicians more chances than ever to learn about the music they admire.
“It’s another way to extend the old-time experience for the folks who are coming to the fiddlers convention and give them the opportunity to play with old-time master musicians,” council Executive Director Tanya Jones said Thursday.
The seven-day retreat began last Sunday, offering multiple classes in fiddle, banjo, guitar, bass, mandolin, singing and songwriting, along with the slow jam teaching technique, playing well with others, the Round Peak style, old-time rhythm and body mechanics.
Those classes have provided the opportunity to learn from award-winning musicians in an informal, relaxed setting.
Instructors are Paul Brown, John Herrmann, Carl Jones, Erynn Marshall, Meredith McIntosh, Chester McMillian, Terri McMurray, Joe Newberry and Kirk Sutphin.
“Just getting these folks together, the musicians participating, is really a positive outcome of this,” Jones said.
“Most of them have skills,” Jones said of the pupils participating. “Some of them are accomplished and just wanted to learn from the instructors.”
That is the case with Starkey, the visitor from Alaska.
“I play the clawhammer banjo and I’m learning the fiddle,” he said.
“This has been fantastic,” Starkey added regarding the retreat, which he was partly attracted to due to the presence of Kirk Sutphin, who is widely known for his prowess on both the old-time banjo and fiddle.
“People have been so generous with their knowledge and the history,” the Anchorage man said of Sutphin and other instructors. “They talk about the history of the music.”
Starkey said he appreciates “being around the people who have always played this music,” and that the retreat couldn’t be any better in this regard.
Although Starkey now lives in Alaska, where he is an attorney who works for tribes there, the retreat participant is familiar with this part of the country due to attending Wake Forest University for a year.
This was while legendary Round Peak fiddler Tommy Jarrell, who died in 1985, was still active, and Starkey actually got a chance to meet him through a buddy, Dick Tarrier.
“Dick was friends with Tommy, and we came up” to Mount Airy, Starkey recalled. “I was learning, and it was a big influence.”
Starkey also has been to the local fiddlers convention one time previously before this year, in the 1970s. “And it was very small, as I recall.”
The retreat also has included multiple jam sessions, a dance Wednesday night with music by the award-winning Slate Mountain Ramblers and admission to the convention.
“We’re certainly hoping that folks find out about it,” Jones, the arts council official, said of the first-ever retreat, and that it will get bigger and better each year.
“There are a number of old-time retreats, but this one is a more personal experience,” she said.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.