Driving out of Charlotte, North Carolina, I scan the radio for the quick picking of a banjo, the croon of an Appalachian singer—but I can't find them. There's plenty of polished country and western, there's rock and roll, and there's talk, talk, talk. But the music known as "old-time," and its showier cousin, bluegrass, are not to be heard. They're hiding in the hills.
I aim to track them down. I've brought along my fiancée, Cathleen, who plays a mean Irish fiddle, and my own arsenal of harmonicas and flutes. Who knows?Maybe we'll learn some mountain tunes, even get to play a little.
A passage into a more innocent era of American tourism, Route 74A winds through villages and resort areas with names like Chimney Rock and Bat Cave, past shacks where hand-painted signs announce quilts, wood crafts, and boiled peanuts. We head west and south along the Blue Ridge Parkway, a justly famous road punctuated by so many scenic turnouts that we stop to gape at the mountain views six times in 20 miles. It's twilight by the time we check in at the Balsam Mountain Inn, a beautiful old wood-frame hotel.
That night we find music in Maggie Valley, at the Maggie Valley Opry House, a hangar-like building in a parking lot beside a motel. The place was opened 10 years ago by singer Josh Crowe and banjo legend Raymond Fairchild. When we walk in, the tall, weather-beaten Fairchild is onstage, tearing through a solo with a deadpan scowl. Tired as we are, our feet begin to tap.
The show, designed for tourists but fiercely true to its Appalachian roots, has a little of everything: lightning-fast guitar playing by Fairchild's son, Zane; the uncanny vocal harmonies of Crowe and his son, Quentin; even a cornball comedian. When a couple of locals get up to buck-dance—it looks like a cross between Irish and Native American traditions—we whoop right along with the audience.
Late in the evening, Fairchild performs "Whoa, Mule, Whoa," his signature number from his days at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. Cathleen and I head into the night with its skewed cadences percolating in our heads.
In the morning, we linger in the sun-bathed rocking chairs on the inn's front porch, gazing across the valley at ridges emerging blue-green from the mist. It's the kind of place where I'd be happy to stay all day, or all year for that matter; but I've caught word of a "pickin' session" in Drexel.
The musical gatherings in Lawrence Anthony's barbershop have been going on since 1970, when the town police chief, a mandolin player, began stopping by on slow afternoons to jam with the guitar-playing barber. Nowadays, when the music gets started, Anthony sits in an armchair with the side-view mirror from an old Buick taped to the armrest. Facing away from the door, he watches the mirror for customers.
Anthony springs up to greet us and introduces us to the players seated in easy chairs at the back of the shop. A country jam takes on a bluegrass edge when Ray Abernathy puts down his electric guitar and picks up a fiddle. I mention that Cathleen is a fiddler, and Anthony pulls a battered case off a shelf and hands it to her. She feels her way into a few of Ray's tunes; I get out a harmonica and follow suit. Cathleen and Ray play together on "Devil's Dream," a Vassar Clements tune, and it's hot.
From time to time a customer comes in and Anthony goes to work. If the front half of the store is a classic small-town barbershop, the back is like a bachelor's living room, with a Crock-Pot of pinto beans, a fridge full of sodas, and musical instruments mounted on the wall. Pride of place is given to an old guitar that traveled through Europe with Anthony in 1944, in the belly of one of George Patton's tanks.
Before we leave, Anthony snaps Polaroids of us to hang alongside shots of other musicians who've stopped by. "Come back and see us," he says.
In the morning, north of Linville, we take a hike at Grandfather Mountain. Like many natural attractions in this region, it has plenty of parking and a gift shop and snack bar within 100 yards of the best viewing point, but also lots of rugged trails into the backcountry. It's with sore muscles, then, that we head north to Boone and to Deep Gap, hometown of the great guitarist and singer Doc Watson. At Thompson's Seafood, a roadside restaurant, we chat with a waitress who points out the spot where Watson sits when he plays there. Unfortunately, he's on tour, and anyway, we've miles to go and a dance to attend.
Route 221 takes us through farm and ranch country, passing hillside fields of tobacco and rocky, sloping horse pastures. The sun is setting as we check in at the Allen Farmhouse B&B, in Piney Creek; then it's off to Sparta for the Alleghany Jubilee.
At the Sparta Theater, we get a warm welcome from Agnes and Ernest Joines, who sell us tickets and introduce us to a few of the regulars. This is the sort of community dance that used to take place all over the mountain South-a barn dance, really, even if it's in a converted movie theater. The Whitetop Mountain Band, an old-time combo with stand-up bass, guitar, fiddle, banjo, and washboard, plays for a hooting crowd of dancers; the banjo player, Emily Spencer, sings with an unvarnished expressiveness that calls to mind the bluegrass great Bill Monroe. The dancers fall into two categories: cloggers, who wear shoes with metal plates on the soles; and flat-footers, who wear ordinary shoes. It's easy to join in on the dances-especially the two-steps-and the night passes in a whirl. Eventually, the band members get wind of the fact that Cathleen and I are musicians, and they ask us to stand in for a few numbers. Trying to put a mountain swing into some Irish reels, we figure we must be doing something right when the cloggers leap up to click out the rhythm.
It's a five-hour drive from Sparta to Norris, Tennessee-first north into Virginia, then west past White Top Mountain to I-81, then 110 miles southwest, past Knoxville. But it's worth the trip to visit the Museum of Appalachia, whose extraordinary collection includes artifacts, homemade musical instruments, and carefully restored backwoods buildings.
Cathleen and I meet the museum's founder, John Rice Irwin. A mandolin player, he's running off to a rehearsal with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, but he pauses to pick a tune for us. White-haired and distinguished-looking in a three-piece suit, Irwin stands beside Wailin Wood, a tall, muscular harmonica player in jeans and a T-shirt. A peacock struts at their feet as they play a quick breakdown. Then Wailin rips into a jaw-dropping showpiece called "Race Between the Steam Engine and the Model T." After a back-and-forth struggle, the steam engine wins.
Our last stop is the 16th Annual Great Smoky Mountain Fiddlers Convention, held at a Little League field in Loudon, Tennessee. We arrive in late afternoon as the finalists are competing—in a tent pitched over the infield—for championships on guitar, mandolin, and fiddle. Meanwhile, in the outfield, amid Winnebagos and crafts booths and hot dog stands, musicians and listeners mingle; locals and visitors meet and renew acquaintances. Wailin Wood shows up with his wife and daughter, and astounds us some more with his harmonica. As darkness falls, there's a kick-out-the jams band competition.
The moon is rising. The tired, smiling winners and tired, smiling losers gradually disperse into the outfield along with the rest of the crowd, and the jam sessions begin. Cathleen and I roam about, listening to the players, chatting with the people we've met. As we do, I realize why it's so hard to find this on the radio. Real mountain music is not about recording and broadcasting—it's about people getting together to dance and listen and play and talk, to warm the cold winter evenings and milk the pleasure of the perfect summer nights, like this one, till dawn.