As an ancient and integral part of the culture of Appalachia, I have a feeling songs perpetually echo across the mountains of West Virginia; but from August 2-6 a symphony rang through them from Camp George Washington Carver where over 3,500 voices and thousands more strings lilted over Clifftop during the 17th annual Appalachian String Festival. There West Virginia masters, along with traditional and non-traditional musicians and dancers of all levels from around the world competed with, learned from and entertained one another.
It was as though everyone had gathered to celebrate life as a song and a dance. Even butterflies, bluebirds and canaries joined in, fluttering everywhere. During the event, some of the nation's finest string band musicians and old-time dancers won prizes in four old-time "traditional" contests; fiddle, banjo, string band and flat-foot dance; plus one "non-traditional" string band contest. This category is growing. This year, for the first time, ribbons for best original song and best original tune were awarded and next year it will be re-vamped with a new name, "Neo-Traditional".
"We think this name more accurately reflects the reason the contest was invented in the first place – that is, to celebrate the relevance of old-time music traditions and their connections with new musical voices and styles.", the official site of the Festival states. Welcome to the new Folk Revival.
The food was fabulous, and music and miscellany vendors displayed diverse, unique and eye catching wares. Activities for children and adults alike were abundant, from basket weaving to tie-dye making, yoga and dancing. Somehow, the atmosphere and accommodations were truly, seamlessly maintained and organized in such a way that everyone from infants to the elderly, families to college students had an equal place and was equally comfortable, physically and viably.
I couldn't get to the Festival until Friday. This meant, I was certain, no parking, no camping without quite a long haul up the road to the stage, the 'normal' (i.e. not port-a-potties, too much of a city girl to get but so into that) bathrooms, the food, above all the coffee (it takes about a pot to wake me up) – all that roots of jazz. Alas for poor me! I thought.
Unbeknownst to me, (and a good thing, or I would have been really crying, "Alas and alack!" , this is exactly what I've been working on with my own music), old-time fiddler, songwriter and tunesmith Mark Simos hosted "New Tunes and Songs in the Old-Time Tradition" that afternoon in the Main Lodge from 11am-12:30 pm. It wasn't a workshop, wasn't a contest, but uniquely an open sign-up to share original compositions based on old-time tunes with the Clifftop Community.
Now, I didn't know I'd missed that yet so I was at least not utterly distraught. Still, there wasn't a campsite to be found, near or far as I could see. I noted there was a bus that went regularly up and down the mountain and that would have been fine, but I was late! I had to get photos! The Non-Traditional Music competition was in full swing! What was a wayfaring stranger to do?
I thought well, maybe I can squeeze into a space near the stage and explain to the campers that I'm moving the car soon /what I'm up to. I did that, and that worked fine for a time. I saw some of the competition, and then tore myself away with conscience nagging that someone really might need to get out for whatever reason and I should find a better place.
There was a sort of triangle by a tent where a woman was standing by her car so I again, explained myself and asked if I could park there till the competition was over. She was leaving! Instant Karma just got me – I laughingly told her and little did I know how right I was. It was then that I ran the car straight over a block of concrete that I couldn't figure out how to back it off of.
The two of us sat there trying to figure out how to get it off, finally trying to use my Yoga mat as a ramp when Keith Garvin walked by and said, "What on earth are you trying to do?" "Get my car off of this" I said "And you're trying to do that with that?" he asked, pointing to the mat. "Yes" I said. "Is that made for automobiles?" He laughingly replied.
I had to admit that it both wasn't and that I had no other ideas, he helped me get it off, reminded me to sleep with my head up hill, (I was right on the edge of the cliff) and told me a little about himself. I discovered that he was from a town in Eastern Kentucky that I had visited frequently when I lived in Western KY, coincidence followed coincidence and I ended up spending most of the weekend as a lucky fly on the wall of the tent of the Garvins, (Keith and Michael), and Billy Wright of Kentucky Memories along with their friend Jeff Walburn.
We agreed to meet the next morning, (their tents were the ones I'd just parked my car to begin with), and I set off to watch the rest of the contest on the stage I was now within earshot and plain view of from my tent.
I went on to watch the Non-Traditional competition and was delighted by the rich diversity of the music when presented region by region. My ear and eye particularly caught by a band from North Carolina called the "Dixieland Travelers" who played Ragtime based tunes with Fox Nichols on Washtub, Chris Kefer on banjo and guitar and Seve Kruger on fiddle, Jeremiah Campbell on washboard.
Last years winners, the Red Stick Ramblers, played that night, bringing bayou bounce and flashing fiddlesticks into the mix. Then came the finals, where the polished harmonies of Cold Cat Creek, jumped out at me from the rest, (apparently to the judges too, they won first place).
Though they placed fourth, a huge monarch butterfly picked, the Ukrainian String Band to dance to, flying around the head of the lead singer as she sang a hauntingly beautiful combination of Ukrainian and West Virginia sounds.
Afterwards, I set out to find Aaron and Josh from Special Ed and the Short Bus, who I knew were somewhere around...
A rollicking ruckus from a building to my right caught my ear. I stepped in and found myself in the middle of a square dance. People of all ages and cultures, some who were masters of the art and some, who were learning, moved in kaleidoscopic patterns as a band played and a caller taught and gave steps. Just as I was getting ready to leave, I saw Josh.
After a dance with him, followed by a waltz with a gentleman from Lexington, VA, (I felt very Scarlet O'Hara), we set off to find Aaron and soaked in the sounds that poured from tents of musicians from Louisiana, Canada, Virginia, North Carolina – everywhere you can think of really, each with their own unique energy and voice.
"People tend to camp by region here" Aaron said. "That's funny," I replied, "My music comes more from my time in Kentucky than anywhere else and I didn't know that but just ran my car straight into Eastern Kentucky and Nashville." I turned in early as someone sang "Jack of Diamonds" nearby and from the window of my tent on the edge of one of Clifftops' steep hills I gazed at a sea of twinkling diamonds in the sky…
It seemed I woke up in a place where all time was keeping time and none was actually kept. The hours flew by like the bluebirds. Around 9 are (I think) I went to talk and play with my new found concrete helpers. I kept trying to wake up, never feeling like I completely did, though I drank coffee upon coffee upon coffee. Eventually, I asked what time it was, and was told, after some effort (hardly 100 out of those 3,500 people there had a watch), it was 3. "When did it get to be 3?" We all asked.
Time for me to go watch the Traditional Music Contest, where the Georgia Jug Huggers and other fantastic bands played, again, each reflecting unique regional differences underneath a unified theme, (kind of like America itself). That night, finalists Whoopin' Holler String Band won first place but I thought the encore performances of Downward Dogs, Nanny Goat Vibrato and Orpheus Supertones of Avondale, Pa were equally engaging.
Then I went back to playing, this time listening to an incredible dulcimer player from Virginia and joining a group in a tent with Mr. Walburn and Kentucky Memories that also included everyone from yours truly to a retired Circuit Court Judge from Virginia. Again, I fell asleep looking at a window of stars and listening to those who played into the morning light.
My new friends remarked that it would be nice if life were like that all the time and I agreed. In retrospect, I think perhaps it is, we just don't always notice because we're too busy watching the time rather than keeping it.
I kept a journal while at the festival and wrote, after the 2nd day, "Here you see firsthand that life is a dance. We are a song. Within individual groups, like cultures, societies, we bear marks and draw our individuality from, our steps so to speak. Some choose to go as far as they can publicly, some privately, but within yourself, you can't help but do it. Some people stay in one place. Some people travel and take it wherever they go, sometimes adapting and immersing themselves to and in different traditions too. But wherever they go, there they are.
"It's not so different now than it was before, when the songs and traditions we now know as old-time were formed. A sense of timelessness is therefore heard in the music, traditional and non-traditional. A sense of timelessness pervaded our environment and the transitions could be seen right there, in the generations present. Music is a living, breathing thing, growing as it flies, sings, skips and echoes across the mountains."
ARTIST SPOTLIGHT JEFF WALBURN
Jeff Walburn, a singer/songwriter living in Greenup, Kentucky, who records on Jeff records on Hopalong Recordings Label, BMI and Channelcat Productions. Inc. didn't win at Clifftop but has some other fish to fry. He'll be playing Sept. 20, at BB Kings' Nashville for Outlaw Americana Nite along with Michael O'Neill, Jen Cass and Douglas and Talisha Williams.
A member of the Americana Music Association, he's had songs recorded by Carla Van Hoose, Nancy Apple, (formerly ZZ`Tops' Road Manager) and Rob McNurlin. His new CD features with Grammy winning mandolin player Don Rigsby. And these are just a handful from Walburns' bucket of distinctions.
I asked him what inspired his songwriting and he said something like, "Well, I try to tell real stories; stories of relatives, murders, current events; even stories I make up are real in a way…when you write, when you use your imagination, you can be anything. You can be a sailor, a bayou hoodoo man…" And his new CD, Coast to Coaster, (named in part, he says, because of people's inclination to turn CDs' into coasters) reflects what he describes well.
Like most old-time or new old-time musicians I've met, he starts with, "It's in my blood." when asked how he started playing. His grandmother wrote songs in the early days of recording, sending them off to labels and others recorded them. "She said", Jeff told me, "and I'm inclined to believe her, that she wrote, "I Could Have Danced All Night". There's a big trunk in the family full of her records, I'd love to go through it one day."
Some of his stories come from his family background. His great-uncle was a prize-fighter who worked in the quarries. Other family members were sharecroppers. "At night", he said, "They'd go down to the locks to fish. They'd pass around water, whiskey and a guitar." A family fiddle hung on the wall of his childhood home no one was allowed to touch because it bore the muddy handprint of one of these relatives who fell as he died leaving his mark there. "I used to try to reach it", Jeff laughed.
Like many teenage boys, he picked up a guitar but not only started singing and playing but writing. "While his friends played rock I played Americana. They gave me a little heat about it but I kept right on anyway." He was 'Country When Country Wasn't Cool'. Stop at the song title when thinking of Barbara Mandrell as relates to his music. Think more 1% each Dylan, Cash, Neil Young, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger with the remaining 95% Jeff Walburn.
A remarkable lyricist, he is also a talented guitar and harmonica player. His music reflects a variety of sounds, from Cajun to the hills he lives in. In addition to musical influences like the above mentioned artists, some ragtime and jazz seems to creep in every now and then as well in his groove and chord progressions. When I asked him how that was so he said, "Well, it's a river thing. A lot comes up and down the Ohio."
Seems to me, above all, it's a Jeff Walburn thing. And that is something. Keep an eye on him, I have a feeling he's going to keep on going places and cross more than a few rivers as he goes.
ARTIST SPOTLIGHT MICHAEL GARVIN, KEITH GARVIN AND BILLY WRIGHT, KENTUCKY MEMORIES
Michael Garvin from a musical family and plays a variety of stringed instruments, (I imagine most of them, and his distinctions include placing in the National Merle Travis Thumb picking Guitar Contest in 2000, at age 17). He has chosen the fiddle as his primary imagination extension of the moment. For Michael, this means he's learned over 200 old time songs, each minutely different in style, by ear in less than 4 years.
He's just launched a group called Kentucky Memories with his father, jaw-harp and bass guitar player Keith Garvin and mandolin virtuoso Billy Wright, (who also plays a variety of string instruments). They'll be playing with Jeff Walburn at B.B. Kings' on the 20th.
However, the main focus of the group is Michaels' goal of accurately representing Old-Time fiddle styles from Eastern Kentucky, honoring greats like Buddy Thomas, George Hawkins, Bob Prater, Jimmy Wheeler, J.P. Fraley, Ed Haley, and Kenny Baker.
When I asked him why old-time he said, "Well, I could be playing just about anything, rock, metal, bluegrass, but it seems very important to me to keep these old songs alive. The people who kept them before my generation weren't recorded until they were so old, it was a loss. I'll be recorded from the start." And he is too. Via a 2004 grant from the Kentucky Arts Council he is apprenticed to master fiddler Roger Cooper. He is featured on Coopers' Rounder CD and the two have played at various events sponsored by the Council.
Keiths' father, Bert Garvin, met and ultimately played with Bill Monroe through his brother, who kept his hunting dogs. The two often hunted and played music together and, when he was around Michaels' age he went to Nashville, along with John and another brother, Erin and played with him there. "Monroe told Bert that if he wanted to stay, he'd be the best banjo player there", Keith said, and "That he'd see to it that he was. But He had a railroad job and a family and decided to stay in Eastern Kentucky." Bert also played with Blind Ed Haley and recorded with the Fraleys on Rounder Records "Kentucky Old-Time Banjo" a few years ago.
With that background, it's no surprise that Keith and Michael are the remarkable musicians you'll find them to be when you listen to Kentucky Memories. Add Jeff Walburn and something even more remarkable seems to happen.