Musicians near and far are tuning up their instruments in anticipation of the 42nd Annual Bluegrass and Old-Time Fiddlers Convention in Mount Airy next weekend.
The convention will be held on Friday and Saturday at Veterans Memorial Park on West Lebanon Street. Along with helping to preserve the traditional music of this region, the well-attended event provides a big boost to local tourism.
It attracted as many as 10,000 people in 2012, according to Michael Thorpe, the treasurer of Veterans Memorial Park’s board of directors and a chief organizer for the event.
Though not as mammoth as the Galax fiddlers convention just up the road in Virginia, Mount Airy’s gathering seems to become a little bigger each year, Thorpe added.
“We’re almost getting to the point we can’t handle much more,” he said.
“We usually have somewhere between 600 and 1,000 contestants,” Thorpe said, including about 200 bands — old-time and bluegrass combined. This year contestants will be vying for prize money totaling $2,630 along with ribbons.
Band competition will kick off the convention Friday at 7 p.m., with Saturday’s activities beginning with folk singing and bluegrass and old-time banjo events at 9:30 a.m.
In addition to old-time and bluegrass band contests, for a top prize of $400 each, 12 individual contests are scheduled for adults and youths in instruments and dance.
Many believe the quality of music to be found at the Mount Airy convention rivals that of Galax, and in a more user-friendly setting.
“Even though the competition is intense, it doesn’t seem to be as stressful,” said Kelly Epperson, owner of Mount Airy radio station WPAQ, which has broadcast the entire convention live from the stage since it began in 1972.
“It seems to be more laid-back,” Epperson said of the local convention. “It reunites musicians both young and old.”
The Mount Airy fiddlers convention benefits this area on multiple fronts, according to Tanya Jones, executive director of the Surry Arts Council, which also is involved in the event.
“It is hugely important to Surry County and to Mount Airy, not only for economic impact but also for the preservation of our musical heritage,” Jones said.
“A large number of people worldwide look to Surry County as the Mecca of old-time music.”
Thorpe said he is continually impressed by the variety of musicians and fans who journey to Surry County each year during a weekend in June, and the camaraderie they display.
“I just like the idea that people come from all over the world,” he said of attendees from such places as Japan, France, England and Canada.
Despite their various nationalities, they are drawn together by a common interest in string music. In addition to on-stage performances, musicians will mingle throughout the park grounds for impromptu concerts during the convention.
The fact many choose to camp at the park, which offers trailer hookups as well as wooded sites, is conducive to informal jam sessions popping up at all hours of the day or night. The campground is open the entire week before the festival.
Along with those who attend the convention, it also enjoys an international following due to the local radio station providing live streaming on the Internet at www.wpaq740.com. “I can tell you that many countries are in the listening audience,” Epperson said, such as China, those in Great Britain and throughout North America.
And in addition to the music emanating from Veterans Memorial Park, those who attend the festival bring sweet sounds to local cash registers.
“Many of these visitors will start coming in earlier in the week and stay here for many days, and while they are here they are looking for places to eat, purchase gas and shop,” according to tourism official Jessica Roberts of the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce.
“The fiddlers convention is a positive impact on our local tourism industry and the community of Mount Airy because of the amount of people who come and attend this amazing event,” added Roberts, the chamber’s director of tourism and marketing.
She thinks it is becoming increasingly popular due to a trend in which younger adults and college students are developing a “passion” for traditional music.
Among the various musical opportunities the convention offers, Jones said the Surry Arts Council seeks to provide access by visitors to local figures who have played key roles in perpetuating the traditional sounds.
This will be accomplished through an annual music workshop Friday at noon, usually held in tents behind the stage. It will be facilitated by local fiddler Jim Vipperman, with those scheduled to participate including Verlon Clifton; Chester McMillian; Andy Edmonds, who played with the late Benton Flippen, a local music icon; Nick McMillian; and Richard Bowman.
Immediately after the music workshop, one for dance enthusiasts will be led by Marsha Todd.
The workshops are free to convention ticket holders.
General admission tickets will cost $10 per day, with children 6 and under admitted free if accompanied by a paying adult. Those attending are asked to bring lawn chairs.
Thorpe said proceeds go toward the upkeep of the park, which is used for a wide range of community functions, and for veterans’ assistance programs.
The convention will be held rain or shine.
The Mount Airy Tourism Development Authority is working with the Surry Arts Council and Downtown Business Association to promote the use of a trolley for those attending the fiddlers convention.
That service will be offered free between the downtown area and Veterans Memorial Park Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on both Friday and Saturday.
It will include stops at various sites downtown.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.