Not growing up in the regions where it is popular, I must confess I really don’t know that much about the traditional music of the area.
But thanks to several recent stories I’ve written, I’m beginning to understand it a little more.
And finally, I’ve had one burning question answered.
One of the things I’ve been dying to know for the past few years is what the difference is between “old-time” and “bluegrass” music. I mean seriously — it sounds pretty much the same to an untrained ear, and I possess two of ‘em.
So it was fortunate that I was recently in the presence of Ron Ackerman, the president of the newly-formed North Carolina Bluegrass Association.
Standing around chatting with him one cold, foggy morning, I finally had the chance to ask.
“I really don’t want to sound stupid,” I said. “But could you please tell me the difference?”
“In bluegrass music, it’s traditionally practiced to allow each performer to have a little time to shine during a song,” he said.
Cool. Makes sense. Got it.
Now, I still don’t know the difference between old-time/bluegrass and the other banjo-and-fiddle-laden style colloquially known as “mountain music,” but I’ll save that for the next time I’m in the presence of an authority on the subject.
While I must confess that the genre doesn’t necessarily make my toenails curl up, as a music lover I’m always happy to listen to something different, especially if it’s being performed by a truly talented artist.
Which brings me to an interview I conducted this past Friday.
As a fairly jaded reporter, it takes a little bit to impress me, but local fiddle-maker Chris Testerman did just that.
A young fellow, he’s not exactly what I expected when I saw him for the first time.
When he began talking, softly and shyly at first, it didn’t take long for me to realize this was someone who truly loves the genre and sincerely wants to preserve the traditional music of the region.
So I conducted the interview, becoming more and more impressed with every word out of his mouth.
At the end I asked if it would be possible to get a photo or two of him playing one of the fiddles he made.
While he unpacked his instrument I turned away to get out the camera and set it up for the available light.
And then I heard it.
But bear with me for a second:
A few years ago, I was afforded the opportunity to stand a few feet away while a Juilliard-trained violinist performed Mozart on a 17th-century (I think) Stradivarius violin crafted by Antonio Stradivari himself.
You don’t just go out and buy one of those bad boys, either.
To give you an idea of how much the instrument is worth, it’s stored in a humidity-controlled bank vault and was brought to her by armed guards via armored truck. I was the only other person in the room, and she wouldn’t let me touch it or even take a photo. (Smart lady. I wouldn’t have been able to keep from plucking the strings or playing air guitar with it.)
So I’ve heard some good “fiddlin’” before (if you want to call a Strad a “fiddle,” that is).
But to me, standing in his workshop and listening to Testerman play for a few moments on the first instrument he ever made was even cooler. I could almost hear the spirits of long-dead artists coming through the strings.
I was on deadline and in a hurry, but if I’d had my way I’d have plopped down and listened for hours.
And while I still don’t really understand the genre, I can certainly appreciate a virtuoso.
And just like Antonio Stradivari, Testerman is one of ‘em.
Keith Strange is a staff reporter with The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1929.