Someone looking for good music in Mount Airy — or good times — didn’t have far to go Saturday, when Veterans Memorial Park was serving up heaping helpings of both.
Sunny weather and temperatures in the lower 80s added to that mix which proved to be music to the ears of organizers for the 43rd-annual Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention who were hoping for — and got — sizable crowds of both musicians and spectators.
While the centerpiece of activity was the official convention bandstand, dozens of “mini-bandstands” dotted the grounds where musicians of all ages could be found performing in small groups constantly. They rivaled the Pied Piper in their ability to attract listeners, drawing them under tent canopies and other makeshift structures shielded from the sun’s rays — where smiles seemed as much in abundance as the tunes.
Gary Edwards of Austin, Texas — a first-time visitor to the Mount Airy convention and one of the many out-of-towners on hand — used words such as “mellow,” “peaceful” and “tranquil’ to describe the event as several musicians cranked out a lively old-time instrumental nearby.
“That is what got me right off the bat,” Edwards said of his impressions of the convention that attracted noticeably higher attendance than previous years. That included thick contingents of RV and tent campers covering the lower grounds and hillsides of the park.
“And that’s what you find here — peace with the natural setting,” Edwards added of the laid-back atmosphere prevailing at Veterans Memorial Park. “It’s hard to explain.”
Also A Reunion
On its surface, a fiddlers convention is a place where a musician or group can go to showcase their talents through formal competition — and maybe take away some cash, a trophy or bragging rights for having been judged one of the best.
Those vying for such honors were in abundance at the convention, which boasted 344 entries for band and individual instrument categories for fiddle, guitar, banjo, dance and others, but totaling many more musicians in all considering the bands contained multiple members.
Forty-six old-time groups were registered along with 18 bluegrass bands, according to convention spokesman Mike Thorpe.
But to understand the full texture of the Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention, one had to peel away the veneer of competition and realize that the event is also a reunion of people who see each other there year after year. That includes local musicians as well as those from far away.
“It’s an excuse for us to get together,” said Surry County fiddler player Andy Edmonds, who was mentored by the late Benton Flippen.
Even though they live near each other, some local artists don’t get that many chances to fraternize with others on such a wide-open scale — and this is certainly true for out-of-town associates.
Edmonds cited his friend Steve Arkan, a banjo and guitar player from Valley Cottage, N.Y., who comes to Mount Airy every year. “This is the only chance to see him,” he said.
“I started coming here in the ’70s,” Arkan said in a heavy New York accent in between songs while enjoying a cigarette, joking that he is definitely drawn by the musical style to be found — “not funnel cake.”
And while some might consider traditional “roots music” — as he called it — a Southern phenomenon, “there’s a lot of people in the North doing this,” Arkan added.
Kelly Epperson, owner of local radio station WPAQ, which has broadcast the bandstand performances live since the convention’s beginnings — and through Internet streaming in more recent years — said traditional string music is undergoing a resurgence.
“I think that each year, more people are wanting to be identified with it,” Epperson said, which at one time wasn’t the case.
Along with his radio station that has kept those sounds alive, the Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention is playing a big role in this, Epperson said.
“It continues to influence and cultivate new generations of old-time and bluegrass musicians,” he remarked. There are people who come here every year specifically because of the convention and they return “and they’re bringing more people with them,” Epperson observed.
“The Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention is an ideal presentation of our musical identity,” he continued.
“I feel like the (convention) has become a cornerstone of the region’s cultural identity,” Epperson added.
While the Galax, Va., fiddlers convention is considered the granddaddy of them all, Edmonds prefers the local event from a jamming standpoint. “I feel like here in Mount Airy, the music’s more accessible,” he explained.
“Here it seems like you can luck out on good jams almost constantly.”
Arkan, the New York musician, said he has come to favor the old-time variety more than bluegrass — a trend evident in the registration numbers for band competitions in each.
While the two styles are similar, bluegrass emphasizes the melody through close harmonies and solos by the mandolin, fiddle, banjo or guitar. Old-time musicians play in a style that many would call “jamming,” which stresses rhythm — with no instrument gaining a particular dominance over the others.
Arkan had his own definition to explain a preference for the old-time variety:
“Number one, the people are nicer; two, you get to sit down; three, the beer is better; and four, you get to play all the time — not wait for your turn.” Everyone plays together, unlike bluegrass, which is “competitive,” Arkan described.
“When you play old-time, you just play your heart out.”
Fun For All
Casual fans also seemed to appreciate the setting for the Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention. That included Ronnie Pruett, a former Mount Airy resident now living in Charlotte, who was attending for the first time with his wife Burgl, a native of Germany.
Pruett was spotted in the shade at a dining area on the park grounds, while a group played in a gravel pathway nearby.
“Just sitting here around these guys is wonderful,” Pruett remarked. “It’s been a wonderful afternoon.”
While an overall attendance figure was not available Saturday, with a full night of band competition just getting under way leading to the convention’s conclusion, organizers believed it would exceed that of past years when the crowd has hovered around the 10,000 mark.
“It looks to be a bigger turnout than we’ve had in the last few years,” said Gary Willard, the president of the Veterans Memorial Park governing board, including more tent and RV campers. The pleasant weather was the main factor, Willard said.
“It’s been excellent.”
“It was up yesterday (Friday),” Thorpe, the other convention spokesman, said of attendance, “and probably will be again (Saturday) since the weather’s good.”
But Gary Edwards, the first-time visitor from Texas, said the pleasant, peaceful atmosphere of the Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention was strong enough to trump any kind of weather.
“Even if it were raining, you would still have that kind of peace.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.