The wealthy suburb of Belmont, North Carolina, is proud of its “historical downtown.” Half an hour east of Charlotte, Belmont could as easily be in Connecticut or New Hampshire, or any of those states that like their houses date-stamped and their tiny town centers carefully preserved from the creep of corporate America. Belmont’s Main Street holds only a handful of shops. You can buy antiques or hardware but little else. Its two bars sit empty, even at night, while the three old-fashioned ice cream counters do plentiful trade.
On a Monday evening, the quaint stretch of brick is eerily deserted, but jaunty strains emerge from the only lit storefront, the Soda Shoppe. Peering in, you see a chrome counter where a man in a boat-shaped paper hat mixes malts and milk shakes for the clientele, as if the Fonz himself were about to make an appearance. And in rows of folding chairs, a small but appreciative audience faces the back of the store, where an ancient gentleman in a cowboy hat picks furiously at a mandolin. A haphazard collection of banjo, guitar, and fiddle players—men in their 50s and 60s wearing baseball caps and checked shirts—jams along with him.
The music is flighty, cheerful, virtuosic. Snatches of a tune percolate from a thick cloud of improvisation, and the notes themselves seem to move around the group in a swarm, settling for a short while on a banjo, next buzzing gently in the strings of a mandolin. Once in a while, they recede, and the ancient’s voice sings out among them, some simple melody with a keening edge and a lyric about an unfaithful woman. A thin, bespectacled bassist keeps the pace swift. The music seeps out into the street, coloring it with nostalgia.
Bluegrass music is the sound of the Great Depression, the prison gang, and the American railroads. Once you’ve heard it, you can never mistake it for anything else. Country music will sound slow, languid, and doleful by comparison. Folk will seem simplistic. Only jazz can offer a comparable orgy of invention, and to be played well, bluegrass has to be touched by genius.
I stand outside the Soda Shoppe, clutching my violin to my chest like a riot shield. Back home in London, I’d probably describe myself as a rusty classical player—of Bach, Mozart, and TV theme songs. Like many people, I’d never heard of bluegrass until the Coen brothers introduced it to the big screen years ago in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and even then it was George Clooney’s comic turn I remembered, not the music. But then came a wave of Americana-inspired music—bands like the Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops—that took my ear hostage. For the first time, here was a way of playing violin that could make you look, well, cool. And I wanted to try it.
My bedroom efforts to re-create the sound proved unsuccessful. An attempt to form a band with two friends collapsed when the guitar player moved away and the banjo player objected to the name. (He couldn’t tell his parents he was in the MotherFolkers.) So a new plan was born. Music is a language, right? And you learn a language best when you’re fully immersed in it. I looked up the original bluegrass states—Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Carolinas—and tried to figure out which one would suit me best for a month’s trip. Only Virginia and North Carolina voted for Obama in 2008. North Carolina was hotter and staged a National Hollerin’ Contest. Decision made. I was heading to North Carolina.
A detail like this clearly wasn’t going to stop Diane from talking to anyone. The plane had barely hit the tarmac before she was putting in calls, tracking down her former acquaintance with the ruthlessness of a Prohibition agent who’s caught the scent of moonshine. Not long after, my phone rang and a courteous Southern accent introduced the speaker as Fred Meekins, lead singer with the Southern Tradition Bluegrass Band.
“My wife, Doris, and I would love for you to stay with us,” he told me. “We have a set of guest rooms with their own bathroom and their own staircase, so you can come and go as you please. By the way, what would you like for lunch?”
After retrieving my bags, I drove to the address Fred had given me. I tried to imagine the same scenario in London. What would an Englishman do if a friend he hadn’t heard from in over a decade called him up, told him she’d met a tourist on a plane, and could he help the visitor out? Send a taut little email, perhaps, offering accommodation advice. There certainly wouldn’t be many who’d take in the person on that same day, sight unseen, without payment or even credentials.
I turned on the radio. It was the day after Osama bin Laden’s assassination, and K104.7—“Charlotte’s cool music station!”—was in a triumphant mood. Its usual request show had been replaced with an “All-American Special,” which did not mean that all the songs were by Americans, or even about America, but that all the songs were about 9/11 and kicking terrorist butt.
On Fred and Doris’s street, the mailboxes dot the road at languorous intervals, and each house nestles comfortably on a large green apron of immaculately groomed lawn. Doris greets me at the door as if I were a relative coming home for the holidays; Fred gives me a hearty handshake. He is a retired lawyer and, at 83, as old as bluegrass music itself.
The evenings are filled with music and the mornings spent learning tunes half-remembered from the night before.
He is extremely round about the middle and, due to a dodgy knee, has to play guitar sitting down. Watching him get in and out of a chair induces a moment of fear, like seeing a patched-up frigate creak out of its runners and back into the water. A gig is, for Fred, a catalog of stresses: It’s becoming impossible to lift the sound equipment, and he struggles to communicate with his bandmates, as he is deaf in one ear. He adds that he’s “not hearing too good out of the other.”
But the music is there in his fingers, in his soul, in his constantly tapping feet. And he’s visibly thrilled to have someone to introduce it to. He pops in one of his Southern Tradition Bluegrass Band CDs and we sit out back on the porch, drinking iced tea and old-fashioned lemonade.
In the still, heavy heat, the garden throbs with color—purple cone- flowers, tangerine lilies—and an occasional breeze stirs up the scent of honeysuckle. Beyond the flowerbeds extends a large, thick lawn, but I see no barbecue, no folding chairs—no sign, in fact, that anyone but the gardener has ever trodden the virgin grass. The summers are too humid, the mosquitoes too vicious, for anyone to venture beyond the reach of the overhead fans and the insect screen. Gardens here are for show, not use.
So we sit silently and watch the visitors: Red cardinals swoop between tall pines in parabolic curves; goldfinches chivvy each other from tables; and, closest to us, where Doris has hung feeders, hummingbirds descend through the air, wings fizzing, nosing out the best way to approach the water.
Fred reads the Charlotte Observer, whose front page today does nothing to dispel the Southern stereotypes I arrived with. There’s a lead story on a kid who held up his school bus with guns from his grandfather’s cache; a scare headline about gay clergy; and, further down the page, news that the state senate is introducing stricter abortion laws. We talk a little politics. Fred’s views on Barack Obama are simply and strongly felt: “I can’t stand that man.” When he grumbles that Obama probably wasn’t even born in America, there’s a mischievous look on his face—you can’t always tell when Fred is joking. Still, he seems serious when he tells me that Fox is the only news channel that talks sense, and that Muslims are trying to take over America “through procreation.”
It’s the great paradox of the South, the way it can combine hospitality and hostility. Fred is a welcoming, caring man who thinks nothing of inviting someone he’s never met face-to-face into his home and showering her with generosity. And yet, even in this haven of suburban peace and prosperity, there is a fear that outsiders will threaten the way of life. Every household has its gun—and even little old ladies, Fred tells me with a wink, carry pistols in their purses.
As I enter, all eyes look up. Even people in the audience, their backs to the door, sense a new presence and glance around. I’m not sure if it’s the fiddle case that has attracted attention or the fact that I’m the only woman and bring the average age down by 30 years. An attempt to hide behind a barstool fails, and I’m immediately ushered up to the ancient singer, where I stumble through some faltering excuses (only had one lesson, don’t know any tunes). He doesn’t reply but fixes me with a look that says, if you bring an instrument, you’d better play it.
I tuck myself behind one of the fiddlers and try to make as little sound as possible. Around me, the music hurries on. Trying to get involved is like snatching at a fish in a tank—just when you’ve grasped the tail end of a tune, it’s moved on to another key, and you’re left floundering. A banjo player appears at my elbow and smiles shy encouragement. He has graying hair and a big beard that makes him look Amish, but beneath it his face is young; he must be the only other person in the room under 40. When he plays, the little metal picks on his right hand alight on the strings momentarily, then hasten away, like a superbly trained fleet of butterflies. The rest of him never moves, and he gazes benignly into the middle distance as if engaged in nothing more taxing than drinking iced tea.
During a break in the music, the old man wanders over and asks to see my hands. He grunts approvingly. “You’ve got fiddler’s fingers,” he says. “Where you from?” London, I say. “London, England?” He ponders this deeply for several moments, then: “You…flew…from England?”
Ears prick up; questions start to fly. It transpires that this is the first time a real live English person has been seen in the town. “Did you hear that?” someone whispers. “She’s come to America on her own.” A palpable sense of adoption takes over. People want to know where I’m staying, how I’m getting home, whether I need a gun.
Two paternal types in overalls and baseball caps introduce themselves as “Bob” and “Coach.” They’ve been singing together for so long that even their conversation arrives in two-part harmony.
They invite me along to a jam in Bob’s garage the next day, and so it unfolds, an all-access pass to North Carolina’s bluegrass scene. Every session produces an invitation to another, in ever more unlikely venues: sandwich shops, day care centers, farmers’ barns. Within a few days, the evenings are filled with music and the mornings spent learning tunes half-remembered from the night before. My companions are grizzled men who wear collared shirts with shorts or dungarees; fiddlers who have never had a lesson but play like Paganini; arthritic guitarists who knock out licks that would make Jimmy Page howl. The level of musicianship is extraordinary, yet around here unremarkable, and I feel like an anthropologist stumbling across a never-before-contacted civilization.
After the Civil War and well into the 20th century, local mountain music—from church hymns to old-time fiddle tunes passed down by English and Scots-Irish immigrants—evolved within a changing, migrating population. Rural folks left their homesteads for work on the railroads, often alongside African Americans, and in factory towns and coal camps. Musical styles, including gospel and jig, ballad and boogie-woogie, met and mingled, and the mountain fiddle was paired with the most distinctive instrument of American slavery, the banjo. The sound that emerged was bluesy yet strangely upbeat, capable of switching from darkly mournful to optimistic within the course of a single song. Its lyrics told local stories of poverty and hardship, of moonshiners running from the law, of sweet girls who wait patiently for their lovers to return and naughty girls who don’t wait at all.
By the late 1940s, innovators like Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs were among country music’s biggest stars. But these days, bluegrass survives largely on specialist radio stations, passed down from father to son, and occasionally from father to daughter. It remains an indisputably macho world, where the speed of your fingerpicking indicates the contents of your trousers. The rare women at jams tend to be singers, or double bass–playing wives who’ve learned enough to help out their husbands. The good news for me is that there’s currently a statewide drought of fiddlers, so arriving at a jam with a violin means instant celebrity. Even a fledgling bluegrass technique like mine is greeted like the second coming of Stéphane Grappelli.
Bob, Coach, and Fred offer tips on where to find “good picking,” and I venture farther and farther afield. The more rural and remote the venue, it seems, the better the music. I hear about virtuoso fiddlers who live as recluses in the woods. There’s talk of an almost mythical jam that happens at a place called the Cook Shack in Union Grove.
I try to locate Union Grove on the Internet; Google Maps has never heard of it. There is, however, a website that gives elliptical directions: Turn left off the interstate and keep driving. Fred has heard that the jam begins at 8 a.m. and goes on all day. I ignore him. No self-respecting musician would get up before midmorning.
The next day, I leave Fred’s house at 7 a.m. I make the two-hour drive, and Union Grove reveals itself as a half-dozen buildings heedlessly thrown together by the side of the highway. This isn’t the middle of nowhere, it’s the existential parking lot in nowhere’s outer reaches. I walk into the Cook Shack—a tiny sandwich joint serving only food that can be cooked on a griddle. At 9:30 a.m., the place is packed. The number of musicians and spectators combined probably triples the town’s population. I join in awkwardly from the only seat left, a rocking chair that does my rhythm no favors at all.
Someone is singing a chipper-sounding song about a love affair. It’s the old story: Boy meets girl, boy gets turned down, girl is brutally killed. Murder ballads are a staple of the bluegrass repertoire; their graphic details of beatings, shootings, strangulation, and drowning rollick above inappropriately upbeat melodies. “I took her by her golden curls, and I dragged her ’round and ’round,” the singer continues, while the listeners chow down their liver sausage and grits, “throwing her into the river that flows from Knoxville town.” Yes, there’s a lot of sex and death in bluegrass. But no swearing, mind you. This is family music.
The session at the Cook Shack is run by three generations: Myles, the white-bearded owner; his son, Mark; and Mark’s 27-year-old son, Marcus, whose trilby and raffishly tailored look suggest he should be somewhere far trendier. I ask Myles why they start so early. “This way we don’t get drunks,” he replies. Back in the ’70s, the local area was famed for its bluegrass festival, which attracted thousands, including the Hell’s Angels. “It used to get wild and woolly ’round here—alcohol, drugs, shootings,” Myles says. “Then there were a couple of murders and the police shut it down.” It all sounds rather less innocent than the simple homespun idyll violence that the sound of the music likes to suggest.
After the session, Myles insists on driving me five miles to meet a couple who drink tea—“the kind you English folks like.” They, in turn, immediately offer me a key to their house should I ever want to stay. It’s getting hard, under these conditions, to keep up my liberal reservations about the South. I enjoy being called “Ma’am” by teenage boys who would, in London, be running me down on their bikes. I find myself wondering why kindness, courtesy, and community should be considered “old-fashioned values.” I haven’t yet sung “This Land Is Your Land” with a tear in my eye, but it’s only a matter of time.
Even my feminist hackles, usually on constant alert, seem to have taken a sabbatical. To Bob and Coach’s delight, a week into my visit I agree to a date with Daniel, the banjo player from the Soda Shoppe. The evening unfolds like a scene from an American high school movie. The doorbell rings. Fred hustles to the door with a turn of speed that will surely come back to haunt him. He asks Daniel where he’s taking me and what time we’ll be back. I escape a curfew, but only because I’m 32. Doris frets about whether there will be enough light on the porch when we get home.
Belmont’s self-styled “pub,” Sammy’s, is a family-friendly restaurant attached to a hard-drinking saloon, and kids drip ketchup down their chins next to thirsty bikers in road-worn leathers. A cheerful young woman called Heather offers us a choice of 99 different beers and inspects our IDs. “Wow, sweetie,” she exclaims loudly, “you look so much younger than you are! And out with a 23-year-old, too!” I’m mortified. Daniel’s ignorance of Britpop suddenly makes sense: He wasn’t even around for it. “You worry too much,” Daniel shrugs. “Same with your playing. You’re trying too hard. Stop thinkin’ about everything so much.”
After our beers, he suggests going picking, and I assume we’re heading back to his house, but when we get to the parking lot he opens up the tailgate and turns the car into an impromptu soundstage. “We can’t play here!”
We sit with our legs dangling from the bumper, serenading passers-by. I’m self-conscious, but the role of town troubadour seems made for Daniel, whose shyness retreats whenever there’s an instrument in his hands. “Bluegrass ain’t technical,” he tells me, growing unusually expressive. “It’s all about emotion. It don’t matter if you play a wrong note—all good things have imperfections.”
He hands me a mandolin.
“You play it.”
“Sure you can. It’s no different to a fiddle.” He’s right. The strings are tuned the same way, and the notes come easily under my fingers. But my right hand is at a loss without a bow. He leans over to show me how to strum, and as he closes his hand gently around mine, I thrill silently, wondering if I’ve stumbled into an Annie Proulx novella. “You’re doin’ fine,” he says, gruffly. “Don’t need to go so red.”
On Friday nights, Daniel and his dad, Max, play a regular gig in Blacksburg, South Carolina. Daniel insists I play with them. “Don’t get your pants in a wad,” he says when I protest. “It’s just a bunch of hillbillies. Half of them’ll still be in their overalls.”
Daniel lives with his parents outside the Belmont city limits, and we agree to meet there before the gig. Doris looks horrified at the address and insists I lock my car doors. The directions—“past the graveyard, over the creek, next to the abandoned shack”—aren’t particularly reassuring either. The evening is dark, and the house is hidden on an unlit, wooded street where only the mailboxes hint at the existence of humanity. A screen door creaks menacingly. I suppress the urge to bolt.
When Daniel finally appears, he shows me into a small, cluttered room where a couple of dog-eared armchairs fight for space with a cluster of instrument cases. Every surface is covered with a distracting array of books, tools, ashtrays, and old vinyl LPs. Somewhere in the background, trailer-trash felons cuss loudly at the cops on a reality TV show. It takes a while, amid the sensory confusion, to register the gray-haired woman in her dressing gown, smoking a cigarette and staring at me intensely. “Mama,” says Daniel, “this is Emma.” There’s a long silence. “Hello, Ay-ma,” she says finally, drawing out the vowels.
My initial urge to bolt begins to feel like the sound survival instinct of the heroine in a slasher movie. The drive to Blacksburg is equally disconcerting. Almost the moment we cross the state line from a wealthy region of North Carolina to its poorer neighbor, the roadside is lined with trailers, prefabs, and rotting shacks. Broken toys are scattered in front of crumbling porches. The black population, notable by its absence in Belmont, is well in evidence here, in what is for all intents and purposes an American shantytown.
Nearly 100 folks are already here, drinking sodas from the unlicensed bar. The free session is the oldest bluegrass tradition of all, blue-collar entertainment for the rural community: men in dungarees, dusty from the fields; middle-aged women with stiff perms and drooping faces; a few younger people who have brought their instruments or their boyfriends or girlfriends. Daniel introduces me around, but to my untrained ear, the deep country accents are impenetrable, and I can only smile blandly and hope I’m nodding in the right places.
By the time we head onstage, even my violin feels like a stranger. Face reddening, I scratch at the strings without enthusiasm. The crowd hollers for its favorite fiddle tunes, but my repertoire is too limited, and the songs we do play leak from my memory midway through, until the mandolin player has to step in and save me from ruin. Fingers leaden, nerves raw, I stumble offstage, avoiding the pitying glance of a 6-foot-4 biker.
“C’mon, it wasn’t that bad,” says Daniel.
“Really? Then how come the mandolin player can’t look me in the eye?”
“You need to relax. Learn to enjoy it.”
“Easy for you to say,” I retort. “It’s hard to relax when there’s a Confederate flag hanging on the wall.”
“There ain’t nothing wrong with people celebrating their history,” Daniel argues.
“There is if they’re celebrating racism,” I reply.
“I do not like that.” His eyes flash. “We’re not all stupid rednecks, you know.”
Then he sighs. “You know what makes me laugh about people who reenact the Civil War?” he says.
“What?” I ask.
“It’s not like, this time ’round, they’re gonna win.” A pause. “I know what you need to do. You should go to the mountains.”
Driving on Highway 74 west, you see the Blue Ridge Mountains an hour before you reach them. The cornflower-colored haze they give off comes from the trees, exhaling isoprene to protect themselves from the heat. To the west loom the Great Smokies, along the border with Tennessee; to the north, the Appalachians continue into Virginia. Asheville sits among them, at the very heart of bluegrass country.
Since the mountains are the ancestral home of bluegrass, I’m expecting some real-life ancestors. I arrive in Asheville on my own, imagining a small town built of timber and grandfathers, where shops sell fishing tackle and teeth are few. I’m certainly not expecting this youthful, cosmopolitan city, where the musicians are trendy-haired singer-songwriters who cut their bluegrass with a salty dose of rock.
The windows are full of contemporary art, gluten-free muffins, and T-shirts designed by local graphic artists. Every other store is a bookshop or a coffee shop, or both. In one, the walls are a fluttering mass of flyers, advertising a curious blend of rural, spiritual, and musical activities. “Aaron Welding: for all your welding needs!” sits next to the promise of “yogic enlightenment for $19 a week.” Beneath, a simple hand-scrawled message reads plaintively, “want to form a band! help me!”
To say that the streets are full of aspiring musicians is no empty cliché. The city is so thick with them that you can’t park your car without a live soundtrack. At night, downtown quite literally hums with music emanating from different storefronts. The effect is like a radio tuning in and out—a waft of a country song, a mumble of interference, followed by a sudden, unexpected blast of rock. During the day, however, the action’s all on the pavement outside.
Daniel’s words return. Enjoy it. I tell them I have a fiddle in my car and ask if I can join them. Somehow it does the trick; inhibitions slough off, and I’m playing the freest, most improvisational music I’ve ever made. When you’re standing there in the street without an audience, you can’t keep an ironic, I’m-really-a-liberal-European distance from the music you’re playing—you have to inhabit it. Admittedly, for the half-hour we play together, Chad and P.K. don’t make a single buck. Feeling guilty, I slip them a $20 bill as I say good-bye.
It’s beginning to dawn on me that my assumptions about the South are based on prejudices themselves, much like the ones I was so quick to deplore. If I’d needed proof that the South had far more diversity and liberalism than my narrow mind-set had envisioned, then Warren Wilson College, a liberal arts campus to the east of Asheville, was it.
On Thursday nights, this hive of local eccentricity hosts a contra dance—an American folk tradition that falls somewhere between square dancing and the Scottish folk dances of a ceilidh. As I arrive, a good-looking young feller unicycles past, his long red beard charmingly offset by a voluminous black skirt. Contra dancing has its origins in the French court of the 18th century, although I suspect it had a little less stamping and whooping back then. Under a wooden canopy speckled with twinkle lights, 150 or so enthusiasts, many of them students, are romping about in the open air, accompanied by rapid-fire fiddle music, while a caller conducts the chaos from the stage. The terms are baffling—“Allemande! Now a clover leaf…roll away!”—but the main aim is clear: to swing your partner till you induce internal hemorrhaging, or at least some mild bleeding from the ears.
Beat, harmony, and melody come all at once, no string wasted.
A man with a porkpie hat, a middle-age spread, and a heavy Teutonic accent asks me to dance. We join a set with two men dancing as a couple, one bare-chested and wearing pajama bottoms, the other sporting a pink silk nightgown in a state of artful disarray. Elsewhere in the South, I assume this get-up would constitute a death wish, but no one bats an eye at their outfits, or at the pair behind us wearing masks. I lean in and ask Porkpie if this is normal here. “Oh, no,” he tells me. “Usually zey vear antlers.”
Onstage, the young fiddler’s body contorts as he plays, arching, kicking, and curling into a ball, then suddenly exploding to full height, as if the music were bursting from every limb and sinew. Beat, harmony, and melody come all at once, no string wasted, and his bow never pauses, his fingers never tire: He is bound to the song from the moment it starts until its final note, some quarter of an hour later.
He’s a virtuoso in the truest sense. Change his ratty cardigan and jeans for a dinner suit and he could parachute into the Royal Albert Hall tomorrow. But he’s here, playing contra dances for a pittance and a few beers—musical genius going for cheap. When I ask the guitar player how he makes a living, he smiles: “We’re very resourceful,” he says, tugging on an old vest. “We’re very good at living on no money.” They’re members of a new generation, playing the old music, doing it for love.
Back in Belmont, four weeks after I arrived in North Carolina, the Soda Shoppe is buzzing. So many musicians have turned up that the jam has spilled out onto the street. There are three different songs going on at any one time. Daniel’s here, playing fast and furious mandolin, trading licks with a mean-looking guy with a black ponytail. Fred has put aside his animosity toward the owner and brought his own camping chair. Bob and Coach accost me as soon as I arrive.
“Did you enjoy Asheville?” Bob asks me.
“Ah, they’re a bunch of hippies out there,” Coach says.
Bob rolls his eyes, and Coach smiles indulgently, like parents proud of their rebellious children.
“Learn any good tunes?”
“Go on, play us one.”
I kick off a song and Bob and Coach follow. Fred and Daniel appear at our elbows to join in. Coach’s voice rises above the instruments. “I’ve laid around and played around this old town too long, And it feels like I’ve gotta travel on…”
The notes appear at my fingers like letters on a typewriter ribbon, and as they do, something’s revealed—the underlying simplicity of the music, a music that until now has sounded to me so complex, so impenetrable. I feel like one of the apostles at Pentecost, when they opened their mouths and heard languages come out that they didn’t understand. Daniel looks up and nods appreciatively.
“Told you you’d like the mountains,” he says with a slight smile. “Bet they wasn’t what you expected, either.”
“Yeah, well. I’m sorry we argued. Two sides to every story, I guess.” It’s my turn to be shy. I never expected to learn lessons in tolerance in the American South, or to be taught them by a 23-year-old. But here I am, hoping this card-carrying Republican will drive me home. Hoping that the porch isn’t as well illuminated as Doris promised.
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