Contributed by: Ron Greene, firstname.lastname@example.org
My plan for this series of articles is to explore the opportunities for listening to or playing Folk/Old Time/Bluegrass/Singer-Songwriter music in and around High Cove. I’ll refer to this extended category as “FOBS”. This is not to say that other music doesn’t exist around here; within the area there’s certainly country, rock, blues, classical, and jazz, but I know little about them. My primary interest is folk and folk-inspired music, so I’ll stick with FOBS. I don’t intend to write concert reviews, though I may occasionally stray into that domain. Rather, I’ll talk about the music, musicians, and musical events in our region that contribute so much enjoyment to my living at High Cove.
Some topics that I do anticipate discussing are local and area venues, musicians, festivals, house concerts and other concert series, workshops, open mics, jams – the list of possibilities is extensive, and I invite you to add to it. For our purposes, think of “local” as referring to locations within a half-hour of High Cove; that includes the region roughly demarcated by the Burnsville-Spruce Pine-Bakersville triangle. By “area” I mean places outside the local region, but within a few hours of High Cove – generally western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, and southwestern Virginia. Understandably Asheville is prominent in the area, but so is Wilkesboro, where Merlefest, one of the truly outstanding music festivals in the world, is staged. (You can bet that a future article will focus on Merlefest.)
So, with the preliminaries out of the way, let’s get on with it. In this premier column I’ll touch on the local venues that feature FOBS with reasonable frequency.
Although not in the same category as other places to be mentioned, author’s privilege allows me to tout Sing Out, a monthly get-together of people who like to sing, happens at Jane’s and my “Wintergreene House” at High Cove. We use the songbook Rise Up Singing, which contains words and chord sequences for about 1200 songs, most of which fall into the FOBS category. During a Sing Out evening the participants take turns selecting songs from the song book, which the group then (surprise!) sings, often to the accompaniment of a guitar or two. There’s usually a bit of imbibing of wine and snacks to go along with the singing. Although the size of the group (drawn from various places around the local area) is typically in the range of 6-8, the most recent gathering, a special winter/holiday affair, drew 17 participants. All who have an interest in singing or listening to others sing are welcome – no particular vocal talent is required.
I’m open to the possibility of jams or open mic nights, or a House Concert series at High Cove; however, currently the only other organized musical event here is the High Cove Music Festival. The first annual was held in August 2012, and featured Sarasota, FL band “Passerine” and a number of excellent local musicians. I’ll say more about it and other festivals in a future article.
The local music venue that we visit most frequently is the Burnsville Town Center. It has music many, maybe most, weekends, even in the winter. Typically the music lies within the FOBS category, though rock and country bands also appear, along with some that can only be termed sui generis, such as “Bandana Klezmer” and “Hot Duck Soup”. One of the crowd favorites is “Balsam Range”, thought by many around here to be the best bluegrass band in the world. They appear 2-3 times a year, and always draw a big audience. The Town Center also hosts a couple of annual music festivals – Riddlefest (February), and the Music in the Mountains Folk Festival (September). The former honors African American Lesley Riddle, the Burnsville native who was instrumental in collecting songs for the Carter Family and in helping Maybelle Carter achieve her notable guitar style.
Other venues in Burnsville that regularly present music are the restaurants Mary Jane’s and In the Garden. Each often has local individual singer-songwriters, duets, or small groups, typically on Saturday evenings. Mary Jane’s also offers music at noon on Fridays (currently featuring outstanding musicians George Giddens, Kenny Jobe and Keith Cole with another musician or two), while In the Garden has sponsored an open mic regularly this past summer.
One final venue in Burnsville should be mentioned, and that is the Parkway Playhouse. Although it doesn’t host regular music events, for several years running the resident theater group has performed original musicals on subjects native to western North Carolina. These have featured local musicians, and have been quite good.
To find out what’s coming up (musically) in Burnsville, the best source is the Yancey Common Times Journal, the local weekly newspaper. They do a good job reporting on upcoming events at the above-mentioned venues, and occasionally in Madison and Mitchell Counties as well.
Bakersville, Spruce Pine, and Little Switzerland
So far as I am aware, Bakersville has no venues that regularly feature music. There are, however, occasional special concerts or mini-fests held at the Old Mitchell County Courthouse. I’ve attended several musical events there and enjoyed them all. Learning about them, though, is problematical, since the Mitchell News Journal (unlike it’s Yancey County counterpart) does a very poor job of reporting on upcoming entertainment events in the county. No, actually it does almost no job at all. I have been more likely to learn of something going on in Mitchell County from the Yancey paper.
Spruce Pine, which was the home of the Carolina Barn Dance radio program held in the Carolina Theatre, was apparently once an active center for live music. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. The Carolina Theatre is currently for sale, and although there have been a (very) few concerts there in recent years, there no longer seems to be any effort to continue the tradition. The Foxfire Downtown restaurant occasionally has music at night, but the publicity is poor. For a while now Kenny Jobe and Keith Cole (who play on Fridays at Mary Jane’s) have played informally on Thursdays around noon.
Elsewhere in Spruce Pine, The Pizza Shop and Dry County Brewing Company hosts a monthly open mic. Although there are some excellent performers there (particularly the MC, Polly Lorien, about whom I’ll say more in a future article), it is not a good place to listen to music because the crowd is far too noisy. Finally, on Saturday mornings, Dixie’s Emporium hosts a “jam and biscuits”, typically attended by a handful of guitarists and a banjo player or two.
The most interesting venue for live music in Mitchell County is Little Switzerland’s Zackery’s Pub. Although closed in the winter, during the rest of the year they host an outstanding variety of local (and occasionally, regional) performers of FOBS music. In addition, they hold an annual songwriting contest and bimonthly open mics.
Out in the Counties
Two venues that frequently offer FOBS music are not within the city limits of the significant towns of our local counties. The first of these, Young’s Mountain Music, is the closest of all the local venues to High Cove – about 10 minutes away. Young’s is open year-round, has music and dancing every Saturday, and occasional special events on Friday. Up to 10 bands may play on a given evening, leaning more toward Country and Old-Time in comparison to the other venues that have been mentioned.
Just off the Blue Ridge Parkway a few miles north of Little Switzerland is The Historic Orchard at Altapass. Though open only May to October, they host local musicians Wednesday through Sunday afternoons, sponsored by the non-profit Altapass Foundation. During this time the dance floor in front of the stage is often occupied by enthusiasts following the Altapass dictum, “Dance like nobody’s watching.” It’s a fun place to have an ice cream cone and listen to very good Old-Time and old style Country music.
A third location that has music pretty frequently is the Celo area. In the Celo Community Center, the Lucky Candle Café holds an open mic and jam twice a month. In addition, the nearby Celo Inn occasionally has concerts. The most reliable information about these and a variety of other events can be found in the “Celo List”, available by email.
Finally, several private individuals in the local counties bring in nationally known singer-songwriters via House Concert Series. The outstanding musicians and the intimate settings of these concerts (often in conjunction with a pot luck supper) make them special treats. I’ll talk more about house concerts in a future article.
So that’s a brief overview of places near High Cove that you can go for generally outstanding acoustic music. There are also special concerts that pop up now and then – e.g., in private homes, at the Celo Inn, at local art galleries, in local churches; you can learn about some of these in the Yancey Common Times Journal or from flyers posted at various places.
Surprisingly, considering the small population of towns in this area, there is a lot of music available. Many weekends Jane and I find ourselves having to choose from among several desirable destinations – it’s frustrating sometimes. When combined with the regional venues that I’ll talk about in the next newsletter, and the festivals and house concert series, and exceptional local and regional musicians that I’ll address in future articles, it is amazing. We truly live in one of the great sites in the nation for the convenient availability of outstanding FOBS music.
Burnsville Town Center – http://www.burnsvilletowncenter.com Parkway Playhouse – http://www.parkwayplayhouse.com Switzerland Café (Zackery’s Pub) – switzerlandcafe.com Young’s Mountain Music – http://www.youngsmountainmusic.org The Historic Altapass Orchard – altapassorchard.com