Musicians from near and far are tuning up instruments and rosining bows in preparation for the 45th-Annual Bluegrass and Old-Time Fiddlers Convention in Mount Airy this Friday and Saturday.
The competition doesn’t begin until Friday night, but that hasn’t stopped some participants from arriving early at Veterans Memorial Park on West Lebanon Street, site of the convention.
“They started coming in this past weekend,” said Gary Willard, event manager, in reference to campers who set up shop well in advance on the park grounds to stay for the week. About 800 to 900 campers are expected to wind up there in all.
“I’ve got a right smart there now; they tend to come in earlier each year,” Willard added Tuesday, saying campers do this to get the best spots.
This also provides plenty of opportunities for the musicians among them to engage in impromptu jam sessions that are a major attraction throughout the convention in addition to the “official” performances onstage.
The Mount Airy convention has built a loyal following that not only includes attendees from North Carolina, Virginia and additional states along the Eastern Seaboard, but other nations.
“We have a variety of people there,” said Willard, which usually includes visitors from seven or eight different foreign countries.
“Yesterday, a couple from Sweden came in,” he added Tuesday.
The local convention has been an event that many practitioners and fans of string music circle on their calendars for the first weekend of June each year.
“It seems like it continues to grow,” said Willard, the president of the governing board for Veterans Memorial Park, who has managed the convention for “close to 15 years.”
He believes one of the factors for this is the heavier participation by old-time musicians rather than the bluegrass segment, which is not found everywhere.
In one recent year, for example, 83 old-time bands competed, compared to 33 bluegrass groups.
Many out-of-town visitors interviewed also have commented favorably on the laid-back atmosphere the park provides, describing it as a perfect setting for a fiddlers convention.
“It’s a unique place,” Willard agreed in commenting on why more and more people seem to show up every June.
“Most of them have been coming for 20-plus years; they come out to meet with old friends and also to jam with them.”
Sometimes “celebrity” musicians can be found mingling or performing within the confines of Veterans Memorial Park, including members of the groups Donna the Buffalo and The Carolina Chocolate Drops in recent years.
The convention schedule calls for the onstage part of the event to get under way at 7 p.m. Friday, when all bands perform.
Then on Saturday at 9:30 a.m., the event resumes with folk singing in the grandstand to last until noon, with bluegrass and old-time banjo and fiddle competition slated from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
From 2 to 5 p.m., guitar, mandolin, dobro, bass fiddle, dulcimer and autoharp contests are scheduled, with youth dance and awards set for 5:45 p.m.
At 6 p.m. Saturday, all bands perform, with the adult dance segment to start after the band competition is completed.
In all, the convention includes two band and 12 individual competition categories, with $2,630 in cash prizes to be awarded to winners in addition to ribbons and trophies.
In 2015, a Mount Airy group, The Slate Mountain Ramblers, won the old-time band contest, with Uncle Touchy and the Feelers, from Lewisville, judged as the top bluegrass band.
The event’s general admission tickets, available at the gate upon arrival, will cost $10 for Friday, $10 for Saturday and $20 for contestants (with $10 refunded on Saturday after performances).
Admission for children 6 and under is free with a paying adult.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.