Bluegrass and Music of Appalachia-Cultural Heritage

Instruments of bluegrass


An Overview of Bluegrass and Country Music

Bluegrass or Mountain Music is the music of Appalachia having roots in Scotland and Ireland and was brought to the mountains of WNC by the early settlers. Many of the tunes have been preserved here in our beloved mountains played and sung in living rooms or porches. Most tell a story sometimes sharing emotion within the music and lyrics. The guitar, fiddle and banjo along with the addition of mandolin, upright bass and Dobro have been added by musicians to give us modern day rendering of those old those tunes. It has been through the efforts of pioneers like Bascom Lamar Lunsford,Wayne Erbsen and David Holt, bluegrass and old-time music is now better preserved and has gained a notable prominence in the 20th century. Events such as the Swannanoa Gathering and Shindig on the Green in Asheville NC. also add a certain ambience to the cultural aspects of our heritage.

The Victor Talking Machine Company with producer Ralph Peer began to record music within a studio setting and between 25 July and 5 August 1927, Peer held a series of recording sessions on the third floor of the Taylor-Christian Hat and Glove Company on State Street, which is the state line in Bristol. These became known as the Bristol Sessions and introduced to the world music that would quickly gain popularity and the birth of country music. Those early sessions in Bristol gave us our first artists who were ordinary folks with extraordinary talent. The Carter Family, Jimmy Rodgers, the Stoneman Family were the first of what would become many.

The Grand Old Opry WSM in Nashville, Tennessee brought in a band that would forever tag a genre of music known as bluegrass. Bill Monroe and his band, The Bluegrass Boys took the stage that night in October 1939 singing Muleskinner Blues that brought encores.A new era began and Monroes Bluegrass Boys took the industry by a storm. Folks who sat by battery operated radios listening on Saturday nights fell in love with Monroe’s high tenor voice and harmonies. Monroe was a genius on mandolin and some of his tunes in minor keys became classics.

As often happens within bands members come and go on to form a new band. This happened when two members of Monroe’s band left the Bluegrass Boys and started a band of their own. Lester Flatt who played guitar and sang vocals along with Earl Scruggs with his unique three finger syncopated style of playing banjo, formed the band called the Foggy Mountain Boys. This union would begin a long career that would take bluegrass to another level. Appearing in eclectic venues from school house auditoriums, county fairs and onto festival stages and having the distinction of the first bluegrass band to appear in Carnegie Hall in 1962, the bluegrass genre of music joined hands with country music, allowing the artists to be close to fans. Fans looked forward to meeting the artists after their performances with the proverbial "shake and howdy" at their record tables.

Beginning in 1953, Carlton Haney began booking bluegrass bands and organizing bluegrass festivals and thus began an illustrious career which has grown over the years. Festivals to showcase the bluegrass bands and artist began to appear all over the South and ultimately all over the USA. It would not be long those bands would become household names and families would pack up their lawn chairs and head off to a festival to enjoy live performances by their favorite groups.

In recent times movies such as Oh Brother Where Art Thou (singing in a can), Cold Mountain and Song Catcher reintroduced to the world bluegrass and who can forget Foggy Mountain Breakdown in the movie Bonnie and Clyde and the classic Arthur Smith Dueling Banjo’s featured in the movie Deliverance. The popular television program Andy Griffith and the Darling Family (Dillards) and Beverly Hillbillies (Flatt and Scruggs) and of course Hee Haw!

In the mountains of Appalachia as well as here in WNC, we have so many wonderful musicians who have enjoyed the simple pleasures of just getting together in informal jam sessions and playing the tunes of our heritage. Gary Ballard and Cabin Creek Revue are just that, a group of amateur musicians who enjoy playing acoustic instruments and the old bluegrass tunes of our heritage. The band members are Robert Ballard a retired machine technician who plays fiddle and guitar. Gary Ballard, son of Robert who plays mandolin and guitar and does many of the vocals, Robbie Gilbert plays the upright bass and works for Hobart during the week and last is Robert Capps who plays banjo and often sings. Banjo Bob as we affectionately call him is also a Baptist minister currently serving as Pastor of Bearwallow Baptist. Robert has a long history playing his banjo; initially,playing with the Gold Rush Band from Hendersonville, NC a band that also that featured the beautiful voice of the late Arlene Kesterson Heaton and The Picking Parsons.

Down in the Willow Garden (Rose Connelly)

Carter Family

Bluegrass Festivals in WNC

We are blessed here in WNC to have several nice bluegrass festivals. Beginning early in the year Milton Harkey puts on a great bluegrass show. Each year Asheville First Class draws huge crowds with lineup of artists that are sure to please the most die hard bluegrass fan. The venue is in the main ballroom of the Holiday Inn. There is ample seating and the sound men do an excellent job.

The Red/White and Blue Bluegrass Festival in Morganton is another fantastic venue. As most festivals, pickers and grinners can find a spot to pick and grin and still enjoy main stage performances.

Sugar Grove up near Boone has been haled as Doc Watsons Festival and the lineup is always super with plenty of local talent. Small enough to negotiate easily and the vendors are great. Workshops add to this small venue.

The North Carolina Bluegrass Festival in Marion is another festival within driving distance and offers camping. Adjacent to Tom Johnson Camping Center, this venue offers top bluegrass bands. Artists are easily accessible after their performance and enjoy meeting their fans.

The Mountain Song Festival in Brevard is another nearby festival. A project of the band Steep Canyon Rangers, this festival helps a charitable organization and the weekend is found in one of the most beautiful settings in Western North Carolina. The venue is easily accessible but beware, this one sells out fast.

I would be remiss not to mention one of the largest festivals in North Carolina and possibly in the United States. Merlefest held on the campus of Wilkes Community College draws fans from all over the world. Of course, there is an eclectic variety of music including, jazz, blues, Americana, country, gospel and bluegrass.

This festival was begun to commemorate the son of Doc Watson. Merle was tragically killed when a farm tractor he was operating turned over crushing him. Doc wanted to do something that would not only honor Merle but also benefit students seeking to further their education.The festival hosts numerous artists, performing on 13 stages during the course of the four-day event. The annual event has become the primary fundraiser for the WCC Endowment Corporation, funding scholarships, capital projects and other educational needs.

On a personal note, my son who is vision impaired and I have attended this festival of several occasions. The atmosphere is electric. Sunday morning Creekside has always been one of our favorites. We especially loved this day because when Doc was living he always came down and performed with the Nashville Bluegrass Band and quality time was spent as he would reminisce about stories of his life and the life of his son, Merle.

Artists and Bands from Western North Carolina

We have been blessed here in Western North Carolina to have many great bluegrass bands. It would be hard to name them all but I will name a few. First is the band, Balsam Range. The musicians who were already accomplished in their own right got together in one of their homes just to have an informal jam session. That session imploded with a unique sound with Mark Pruitt on banjo, Caleb Smith on guitar, Buddy Melton on fiddle, Darin Nicholson on mandolin and Tim Surrett on bass. They have taken the bluegrass world by a storm.

The Steep Canyon Rangers from Brevard also are a great band. The band was formed while they were students at UNC. The band opened for Earl Scruggs at the Western North Carolina Fair and has gone on to record many top rated bluegrass songs.

Cody Shuler and Pine Mountain Railroad is another great band from the mountains of WNC. Another new band, Carolina Blue is from Brevard, North Carolina. This band will soon be heard and are already making the circuit of local festivals.

As one moves East, family bands are numerous including the Snyder Family Band and the Cochman Family Band. The Snyders are a young but have already made themselves contenders for instrumental awards at the larger festivals which have competitions for a variety of instruments. Zeb Snyder for his awesome guitar playing and Samantha for her fiddle playing skills.

The duo of Darin and Brooke Aldredge and Mountain Faith are also making many bluegrass fans happy with their musicianship and songs. Mountain Faith appeared recently on the popular television program America's Got Talent.

Shake and Howdy

Well it has been a good long while since I have undertaken to write a hub but I hope you might have found something worthwhile reading these few words and enjoying the music videos. Bluegrass or mountain music has been a part of my heritage. Weekends of driving to the mountain and playing music till the early hours of morning with family. Some would keep on playing all night and bake a pan of biscuits, fry up some cackle fruit, make a pan of gravy and a pot of stout coffee. We loved it. The whole experience didn't cost a dime but the memories are treasures to my heart and soul.

For the last ten or so years, my son Gary and I have enjoyed playing bluegrass music at my son's barber shop near Hendersonville, NC. At first it was just the two of us but soon other retired fellows would join us. A relocation to a different shop happened about five years ago and we moved our jam there on Saturday mornings. As luck would have it a fellow came in for a haircut during the week and ask if we might like to have a bass player. The answer was a definite yes. Gary had always said we played "naked" without a bass. It wasn't long before Robbie Gilbert an industrial heating and air/appliance man who works for Hobart joined us on those Saturday morning jams.

My family was invited to sing at a church homecoming and a minister who had been Pastor at a church in the Piedmont of NC had just moved back to this area. Robert Capps a former mortician had played banjo for an area band and we invited him to come join us at our Saturday morning jams. Our chemistry was so good we decided to form a band, Gary Ballard and Cabin Creek Revue.

Although Robbie our bass player cannot always be with us, we currently are playing monthly at two health and rehabilitation facilities and a weekday home for the developmentally challenged. In addition we play at a restaurant twice monthly and are doing concerts for our local branch libraries to introduce the bluegrass cultural influence and heritage.

Gary Ballard and Cabin Creek Revue

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Comments 15 comments

breakfastpop profile image

breakfastpop 6 months ago

Welcome home! It is lovely to read your wonderful hubs again. I hope all is well.

Fiddleman profile image

Fiddleman 6 months ago from Zirconia, North Carolina Author

Hello breakfastpop, thank you so much for your nice comment. I have not written anything in a while although I sometimes have long posts on my FB page which is easier. The grandkids take much of my time now and we now have 2 boys and 2 girls. The boys are 7 and 9 and are into youth football. Our girls at 11 months and 19 months. Now that took some getting used to after Jane and I had all boys but we are loving every minute with them. Hoping you are also doing well.

ThelmaC profile image

ThelmaC 6 months ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA

Robert I enjoyed this hub very much and I look forward to following you. Have you ever visited the Earle Theater in Mt. Airy, NC for their live Bluegrass radio show on Saturday mornings? I wrote a hub recently titled "Rural Radio in America" and talked about WPAQ and the program.

If you haven't visited the Earle Theater, you need to do it sometime. Very enjoyable show.

Fiddleman profile image

Fiddleman 6 months ago from Zirconia, North Carolina Author

Thank you ThelmaC! No we have not been to the Earle Theater in Mt Airy. We will definitely have to check it out. We love WNCW 88.7. On Saturdays is a full day of bluegrass and Sunday mornings bluegrass gospel. Are you also a musician?

ThelmaC profile image

ThelmaC 6 months ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA

No, I wish I did have musical talent though. I love small radio stations. My husband was on the radio for several years and I would sometimes be on the show with him. I also love rural America and enjoy writing about it. We go to Mt Airy a couple of times a year and always visit the Earle Theater for the bluegrass show and stop by WPAQ.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 6 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

This is an enjoyable hub, Robert. It was interesting to read about the history of bluegrass music in your part of the world. Playing bluegrass sounds like a lovely tradition. Music of any type can be very powerful.

Fiddleman profile image

Fiddleman 6 months ago from Zirconia, North Carolina Author

Hi AliciaC, thank you for your nice comment. Yes indeed, bluegrass or mountain music is so much fun. Our little band plays for two health and rehab facilities near where we live and the interaction we have with the residents makes it all worthwhile. We also play for a group of developmentally challenged folks who attend a daycare facility near here which is a ministry of a local Baptist church. These folks bring us so much joy and are proactive when we play sometimes singing with us on songs they know or dancing, whooping it up! I was blessed to have been exposed to bluegrass, oldtime and gospel music for most of my 67 years, it just gets godder and gooder. lol

William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 6 months ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

Nice hub. I enjoy Bluegrass. I listened to country music on radio as far back at the 1950's when we called it Hillbilly music (That, to me, was anything I heard on radio station WWVA Wheeling, W.Va.) Now my daughter is a musician with the Windy Ridge Band of Maine so I get to hear a lot of it (as well as Irish music -- she also plays with a Irish group called Bitter Brew.) But my favorites were Hank Williams and Ernie Tubb.

Fiddleman profile image

Fiddleman 6 months ago from Zirconia, North Carolina Author

Hi William, my it has been a while but I remember you commenting on my previous hubs and you sharing about your daughters musical endeavors. Thanks for stopping in and commenting on my hub. I also like the old country and my favorites were Hank Sr, Jim Reeves and all those early artists I would see on tv programs in the late 50's and early 60's. My how this genre has changed and seems to be video presentations. Hope all is well and wishing continued success to your daughter. I will definitely be looking her up.

Fiddleman profile image

Fiddleman 6 months ago from Zirconia, North Carolina Author

Found her William on you tube! Great voice and a really cool band. I watched the Gibson Brothers tune she sang.

William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 6 months ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

I'm glad you found her, Fiddleman. Thanks. I'm in New York and she's in Maine, but I get there every now and then to catch her and the band (and I even get to see and hear some of the practice sessions.)

DDE profile image

DDE 5 months ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

New to me and so interesting to have learned about this unique topic.

Fiddleman profile image

Fiddleman 5 months ago from Zirconia, North Carolina Author

Welcome to the wonderful world of bluegrass! Thanks for stopping by to read and for your comment.

vocalcoach profile image

vocalcoach 5 months ago from Nashville Tn.

I love, love, love bluegrass music! Both my son and his girlfriend play blue grass in local pubs, etc. here in Nashville. Jennifer is an awesome fiddler and Randy plays stand-up. They are both Luthiers - Randy - Bass and Jennifer - Violin.

PBS - Tennessee Crossroads recently did an interview with them at their shop where they build instruments.

Just thought you'd like to know. And your hub his spectacular! Sharing.


Fiddleman profile image

Fiddleman 5 months ago from Zirconia, North Carolina Author

Thank you Audrey, your comment means much,Wow having your own personal luthiers is so cool!!! I play fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin and electric bass. Wishing your son and his girlfriend great success.

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