Pickin’ and Grinnin’

There are a lot of places to listen to hard-drivin’ bluegrass and old time music, but few, if any, can match the annual Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention. 

Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention from Jeff GREENOUGH on Vimeo.

It is 11:30 p.m. on a cool, cloudy August night, and I am squishing through mud between rows of vehicles at the Felts Park fairground, smack in the middle of Galax, Virginia. I’m headed for a little encampment known as Billville. That’s where Bill Guthrie, a masseur and musician from Danbury, North Carolina, along with his friends and his five-piece band, Kill-Basa Bill’s Roadshow, can be found. The camp’s focal point is Guthrie’s 1982 baby-blue school bus, which provides not only transportation for the group but also serves as a motel, massage parlor and staging ground for impromptu musical jams involving anyone and everyone who stops by. When I arrive, Guthrie and his cohorts are kicking out “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” a well-known bluegrass number. Fiddles are squealing, banjos are twanging—and Guthrie, a bushy-bearded, middle-aged man in bib overalls, is thumping his big bass. Throw in some beer and some food, and this is pretty much how Guthrie and hundreds of other musicians will spend the next several days.

As devotees of a certain musical genre may have surmised by now, I am in the heart of the annual Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention, held the second week of August every year in southwestern Virginia. It’s the oldest, biggest and, arguably, most gen-u-ine fiddlers’ convention in the country—and this year marks the 75th anniversary of an event renowned for its vast range of musical talent and serious down-home vibe. Indeed, Galax is something of an American mecca for both fans and practitioners of mountain music, as well as those who just like a multi-day, often muddy outdoor party that features more musical action offstage than on—and that is saying something, given that hundreds of individuals and bands compete officially for prizes and a modest moment of glory. Says Guthrie, “Some of the best pickers in the world show up here.”

Galax has just fewer than 7,000 residents, but come festival week every year, the town’s population swells by an additional 40,000 people or so as music fans and music players pour into the area. Many come from nearby hills and hollers, others from big-name cities and anonymous villages, from up and down the East Coast and far beyond. Most have been here before. I meet people from Oregon and California, even Sweden and Japan. As Warrenton resident Kevin Roop puts it, fingering his banjo, “This time of year, I get the urge.”

And the urge prompts a surge. The Felts Park gates open on Sunday, August 9 at 7:00 a.m.—but some 2,000 cars, pickups, RVs, vans, Airstreams and funky buses are usually in line at the gate 24 hours earlier. Once opened, the fairground is transformed into a maze of vehicles, EZ pop-up tents, tarp “porches” and makeshift hovels jammed up against one another. Many camps are decorated with whirligigs, twinkling lights, windsocks, carpets and an occasional Confederate flag. There is commercialism, of course—vendors hawk instruments, CDs, songbooks, caps and T-shirts. Grizzly and Skoal give away chewing tobacco, and there is a cornucopia of food. But music is the draw. Nearly everybody, it seems, is carrying a instrument or two—everything from “geetars” and custom-made fiddles to washtub basses and spoons.

Galax is unlike most outdoor music events, in a couple of ways. First, while hundreds of individuals and scores of bands perform onstage over the course of the six-day event, competing with each other in various musical categories, all of the musicians are amateurs. Galax has never featured big-name stars. “The professionals can participate, but they’re afraid they’ll get beat,” quips Tom Jones, who coordinated the event in 2009. The most famous person who shows up at the convention regularly is Galax native Veronica Loretta “Roni” Stoneman, best known from the old television show Hee-Haw, last broadcast in 1993. On it she was the toothless, banjo-playing Ida Lee Nagger. This year, fans stand and cheer when she prances out onstage in a pink t-shirt and rhinestone-studded jeans, banjo askew. “I’m just up here to pick and grin for my friends,” she announces before belting out “Wake Up, Darling Corey.”

The second reason Galax is unique is that visitors don’t have to flock to a stage to hear great music. It can easily be found, at any time of day, around tents and campers, where people spontaneously gather to play and listen to bluegrass and old time music. Indeed, many of the Galax faithful never sit; they wander. Rainey Cellars (“wet basements,” he jokes), from Charlotte, North Carolina, is a retired textile company executive and 30-year Galax veteran who says he doesn’t play a lick. He roams the campground for four days with a porcelain duck under his arm (his conversation starter), looking for his favorite musicians. “I come for good music,” he says. Drew Donnell, a towing company manager from Oakridge, North Carolina, is not a musician either, but he’s been coming to Galax for 37 years for the music and the people. He camps in the nearby town of Dugspur with 30 friends.

That’s probably about the number of people who showed up when the Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention got its start in 1935. That year, members of Galax Moose Lodge 733 were casting about for ways to raise money and settled on the idea of organizing a music festival. The flyer for the first convention read, “Keeping Alive the Memories and Sentiments of Days Gone By and Make It Possible for People of Today to Hear and Enjoy the Tunes of Yesterday.”

With the exception of one year during World War II, the convention has been held every year since. And, Jones notes, over the decades it has hardly changed at all. The organizers are rebuilding the stage this year, and a youth fiddle competition has been added to the agenda, but otherwise, he says, “Galax is pretty much the same as always. It’s been going on for 75 years, so we must be doing something right.” Working hard, for starters. Jones, a 65-year-old property appraiser, says about 100 of his Moose Lodge 733 colleagues work year-round to stage the extravaganza, all as volunteers.

Galax is different precisely because it’s so democratic, meaning open to all comers. Many of the folks who perform are very talented musicians, just unable to make a living as a full-time performer. Most of the musicians insist they come to Galax to hone their skills with other seasoned performers, not to grab a slice of the $20,000 in prize money that is awarded to the winners in numerous stage competitions. Says North Carolina trial lawyer Locke Clifford, a bass fiddle and banjo player, “I’m not interested in winning. I can’t play at the warp speed it takes. … I come to have fun.” He camps under the “third sycamore” tree—there are only three trees on the fairground—every year.

At Galax, there is no musical hierarchy—it’s completely egalitarian. “Here, the 13-year-old boy can play with an 80-year-old grandfather,” says Marc Kinley, a bank technology manager and father of four from Fort Mill, South Carolina, who plays the guitar. When Kinley first watched from the grandstands in 1989, he had never played an instrument. Captivated, he vowed to play on the stage someday. He took lessons and now competes individually every year. “I’m here for nothing but the music,” he says. Banjo player J.K. Godbold from Creston, North Carolina, comes to Galax “to see all my pickin’ friends,” he says. “It tickles me to death to teach a youngster to play.” Galax, to him, is “the ultimate. No one is a stranger here.” Turning to the guitar player next to him, he commands, “Rip me off one now!”

The formal side of Galax, if there is one, is the competition that takes place onstage every night under the Moose Lodge’s bright yellow tent. Over the course of the convention, several hundred people will perform. In 2009, 167 bluegrass bands registered to compete, along with 101 old time bands. Many more take part in individual event competitions. Fans set up thousands of lawn chairs around the stage to watch and listen, among them a North Carolina group that comes every year and ropes together 40 chairs. A concrete grandstand can accommodate another 4,000 people.

The stage schedule is the same every year. Youth fiddlers compete individually on Monday night. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights, there are separate competitions for adults performing as individuals with specific instruments—old time fiddle, bluegrass fiddle, dobro, mandolin, dulcimer, bluegrass banjo, clawhammer banjo, autoharp and guitar. On Saturday afternoon, folk singers and flatfoot dancers go before the judges. The talent level is all over the map. “Some of the singers can hardly carry a tune,” says James Hyler, a bass player from Culpeper.

On Friday and Saturday nights, the musical action intensifies. This is when the band competition takes place. It’s a brief opportunity to shine, for groups named “Slim Pickins” and “Whooping Holler String Band,” “Virginia Creepers” and many more. Onstage, a Moose master of ceremonies announces each band by number and name; the musicians walk out briskly, carrying their instruments, and whip into a tune, usually playing with a fast tempo. They play hard for three minutes—that’s the time limit, and it is strictly enforced. The crowd responds and the band quickly exits stage right. Enter the next band, from stage left, another three-minute jam, and it’s on to the next. The MC moves the bands through very quickly. It’s a constant stream of music from 6 p.m. until midnight or so, by which time close to 90 bands will have performed.

On Friday night, old time bands compete first, then bluegrass bands. On Saturday night, the order is reversed. Perhaps hoping to improve their chances of winning, many bands will compete in both genres. Some groups are slick machines, with skilled musicians and strong vocals. Others are ad hoc and both look and sound off-key. “We’re just a made-up band,” one fellow says as he prepares to walk onto the stage with a few buddies, “so we don’t have a name.” Several times a night, cloggers provide a break from the band music.

Certainly, there is no shortage of the funny sentiments we’ve come to expect from country music. Kill-Basa Bill’s Roadshow rouses people out of their seats with songs like “I Met My Baby in the Porta-John Line” and “I Just Don’t Look Good Necked Any More.” Tight, lightning-paced renditions of “The Orange Blossom Special” are always met with a roar of approval, no matter how many bands crank up that popular standard.

There are surprisingly few rules. Aside from the three-minute time limit, the only major stipulation for bands is that each must have, at a minimum, a banjo, fiddle and guitar. Unsurprisingly, some groups take advantage of a loophole to snatch their shot at fame. They’ll bring someone out who just plinks at the fiddle, picking rhythmically at the strings, but doesn’t really play. Another rule bars boom boxes and amplifiers. In 2009, officials broke up four groups that were using amplifiers. “It’s called the “old fiddlers’ convention, not the new fiddlers’ convention,” Jerry Steinberg of Salem told the Roanoke Times. “I’d rather be around the swine flu than an electric bass.”

For most here, the real Galax is the mingling that occurs in the labyrinthine campground, first with music, and then food. Campers haul in crates of vittles for the week—everything from chips to whole turkeys—and prepare meals for pickers, friends and “neighbors.” New arrivals often bring fresh vegetables. Sharing is the rule. One doesn’t have to bring food, of course, as there is plenty for sale—funnel cakes and fried pies, pinto beans and onions, corn on the cob and Polish sausages buried in greasy green peppers and onions. Mary Edna Thompson of Hillsville opened her free soup kitchen in 1976 for late-night musicians who need to get recharged. The Women of the Moose sell hotdogs. Batter-coated “blooming onions” and deep-fried Oreos are hot sellers. Lines form at Outback Kate’s for gator burritos, alligator bites and chicken on a stick. A church offers free coffee.

Sufficiently fueled, pickup bands pick and sing around the clock. The music ripples through the campground and bounces off the RVs—Galax acoustics. Even in the rain, fans huddle under tarps with knots of intensely focused musicians, plaintive sounds and dulcet vocals in perfect harmony. The musicians call on a vast repertoire of songs, most of them decades old. All day and night, “bands” form and dissolve. Aspiring novices try to pair with veterans—and all the while the aromas of charcoaled steaks, venison soup and boiling new potatoes fill the air.

It is, as many Galax attendees emphasize, a week of camaraderie and reunion. James Hyler first went to Galax in 1973 at age 18—mostly to party, he admits. But he now lugs his bass around until 4 a.m. every night looking for a gig. A federal employee, he says he learned to play the bass at a pickin’ party when the usual bass player got drunk and Hyler was recruited on the spot. “The first time I walked over that hill and down to the fairground, someone was really drivin’, wearin’ it out. I was hooked,” he recalls. “At Galax, we build friendships over the years and learn about each other’s trials and tribulations.”

Rachel Blankenship, age 23, has been to Galax every year of her life. “My year is not complete unless I come here,” she says. “It’s like coming to see family.” She started singing as soon as she could talk and started playing the fiddle at age 5. She clogged and sang onstage as a youngster and now plays the fiddle and guitar with pickup bands.

Julian Lillard, who runs an auto repair shop in Brosville, agrees with Blankenship’s sentiment. He’s been coming to Galax for 27 years—and like practically all the musicians and fans at the convention, he doesn’t plan to stop. “This is better than a family reunion,” he says. “This is real.”

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