On Friday Chris and I teamed up with Blake Saunders to provide the music for the Reformation Weekend Ball at Providence Church in Lynchburg. We arrived at the hall around 4:30pm, set up our equipment, went to get something to eat, and returned just before the ball began at 7pm. Chris and I played tunes while folks arrived and mingled for about twenty minutes, then the dancing began. For each dance the three of us would play a medley of two or three songs, lasting about ten minutes. Then folks would break to mingle or eat for ten minutes or so, while Chris and I would sing songs. So we played pretty steadily for three hours, until the ball ended at 10pm.

We liked the formality of the event; the band wore dress shirts and ties, and may have been underdressed. There was no caller, but each time someone would walk the group through the dance before it began. Lots of children attended, and they were extremely well behaved (as we packed up and loaded the van, we listened to a group of 8-to-10 year old boys having a quiet, serious discussion about guns as they waited for their parents to take them home). The dancers seemed to enjoy having live music for the dance.

Chris and I wondered how challenging it would be to play for ten minutes at a stretch, keeping a steady tempo. It turned out to be a breeze; as Chris pointed out, when 100 people are keeping rhythm for you, it’s easy to get into a groove. By the time we got into bed it was 11:30pm, and we were sleepy but not tired at all.

It’s a 4-hour drive to Lynchburg. One unexpected benefit was that the drive home was mostly sunny, and the fall colors are at their peak, so it made for a gorgeous drive.

Old-Time Banjo Day

Saturday Chris and I drove to Whitesburg, Kentucky, to attend the Old-Time Banjo Day being put on by Appalshop. There were four workshops—one beginner, two intermediate, and one advanced. Chris was there for the advanced workshop, of course, and I surprised myself by signing up for the beginner workshop.

The event is a fundraiser for WMMT, Appalshop’s non-commerical radio station. The bad news for them was the good news for us, namely that it was lightly attended; there were two students in Chris’s class and in my class, maybe four or five in the other classes. We worked in class for two hours in the morning, broke for lunch, attended a 90-minute performance by the teachers (which was broadcast on the radio), worked another 90 minutes in class, then finished the day with a jam.

Chris’s teacher was Jimmy McCown, whose clawhammer playing is much more melodic than usual (i.e., he sacrifices rhythmic elements in order to get more melody notes). Chris was especially pleased that the focus of the workshop was being able to play in as many different keys as possible from a single tuning.

My teacher was Larry Webster, who is apparently known for getting people hooked on old-time banjo playing. He was very good at explaining how to think about banjo playing. I wouldn’t call it an enjoyable experience—every time he taught us something else I wanted to go practice it for an hour or two, and by the end of the class I was juggling so many unfamiliar techniques that everything I played was a hash—but I came home confident that with lots of practice I’d be able to do it.

We really like the Appalshop folks. It’s a vibrant musical community. If we lived any closer than a two-hour drive, we’d probably hang around with them quite a bit. As it is, we can only afford to visit on special occasions.

Home Craft Days Festival

Today Chris and I went to the 33rd annual Home Craft Days festival in Big Stone Gap. We mostly wanted to see two performances, one by the Blue Ridgerunners (with Rayna Gellert and Carol Elizabeth Jones) and the other by Ron Short and his old time stringband class. But since the two performances were at either end of the day’s schedule, and because the music tent was the only somewhat warm and enclosed space available on a cool and blustery day, we ended up seeing a lot of local and regional bands perform.

Which was good. The music was in general not world class, but all of it was pretty good, and some of it was very good. Some of the folks we had seen perform before, others we hadn’t. There’s a particular musical community in this pocket of southwestern Virginia/northeastern Tennessee/southeastern Kentucky, and we’re beginning to learn our way around it.

We chatted with Ron Short after his band performed. He still wants us to join him at the Pickin’ Porch in December, and he wants to take us to an Old Regular Baptist singing around the same time. And there was a third opportunity whose details I’ve already forgotten, except the date (December 16). Ron seems to like us as much as we like him, which is a lot. And he wants to help integrate us into the local music scene, which we greatly appreciate.

Dance band rehearsal

Last night Blake Saunders came by and we had another rehearsal for the dance we’ll be playing on October 29. The main task was to make sure that we would be able to mike ourselves so that Blake’s much quieter instruments would be balanced with our much louder ones when run through our little PA system.

Originally we were going to set up outside, but the weather prevented that. So I set up the PA system in the downstairs garage, with the microphones and instruments inside the house. Chris and Blake played the combinations of instruments we’ll be using, while I fussed with microphone placement and PA settings in the garage until it sounded good.

When that was done, we had half an hour left, so we ran through short versions of each song set we’ll be doing. That went smoothly enough that we decided another rehearsal wasn’t necessary; we’ll just try to arrive early enough to set up the sound system and do a final run-through on the evening of the dance.

Over the hill

Yesterday we got a call from Roy Andrade, who wanted to know if we would like to schedule a lesson for that day—in Asheville, where he is visiting for the duration. Asheville is in North Carolina, but is only a ninety-minute drive. It is also ‘over the hill’ , i.e. up in the North Carolina mountains, and the drive from here to there is quite pretty. We agreed, of course.

To make it worth the trip, we had a double-length lesson, three hours rather than the usual 90 minutes. It made for a pretty relaxed time, and still a lot was accomplished. The focus was on teaching Chris to do what is called “up-picking”, an old-time style which is similar to clawhammer but allows for both faster playing and a fuller sound. We also spent some time discussing our plans for the next year with regards to becoming better performers.

After that, we ate a quick meal and then headed downtown to Jack of the Wood, where an old-time jam is held every Wednesday night. It was our first visit, and I was happily surprised to find that smoking was not allowed. Last night the jam was abbreviated and under-attended, I think due to the debate being on television. But Chris did get to play for an hour with a number of good Asheville musicians, including Meredith McIntosh on fiddle.

Old-time jam

Tonight Chris and I went to Johnson City for another old-time jam at the Acoustic Coffeehouse. Hans and his wife came, and Richard Blaustein as well, which made for a nice ensemble: two fiddles, banjo, guitar, bass. We played for about two hours, then packed it up just as the hardcore musicians were showing up. We all agreed to reconvene next week at the same time. The playing has been very helpful for me and Chris; we’re at the point where copious amounts of jamming with other people is just what we need to make progress.