The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music
It’s Tuesday morning and we’re having a lazy start. We grab a coffee or two in the Black Water Loft and catch up on our emails, blogs and facebook. That’s modern life for you. Two young kids come in for some ‘pop’; one wears a bright yellow and green t-shirt – ‘I’m so Irish I Shyte Green’. We’re impressed. Then we pop over to The Floyd Country Store. This place is a mecca for old-time musicians on the Crooked Road Trail.It regularly hosts some of the best local music in weekly concerts and is the site for Friday night’s street jamboree. Just a quick look at the old-time and bluegrass posters on its walls gives you a quick idea of where its heart is. It’s reminds me of one of those general stores you see in Westerns, all wood paneling with glass cases full of every ointment available from pine tar soap to what looks suspiciously like snake oil. Just for all my nephews and nieces I’ve included a photograph of the barrels of candy and sweets that greet you as you walk in. Enjoy! I buy a few cds to add to the growing collection and we grab a take-away picnic as we’re heading for the Galax Old Fiddler’s Convention.
On the way we take a detour to Château Morrisette, one of the growing number of wineries sprouting up in this area. We’ve never been to a winery before, and most of what we know comes from watching the excellent film ‘Sideways’. The girls are in good form and I get the feeling I’m about to have my own sideways moment soon. We’re greeted by Jim, a convivial bartender (can you call them that?) who, for a five dollar shout each, gives us and another group of Virginians the full wine experience. Our Virginian friends (one from New York too) have cleverly convinced Jim that they’re actually from California, the wine capital of the US. So right from the get go he’s on the back foot and is feeling a bit under pressure to impress. What this actually translates into is many, many extra servings of very good wine. You’re poured a measure (just short of an optic of spirits) into a glass. You swill it round, breathe in a nose-full, and down it. When you come across a wine you don’t like (that hasn’t happened yet) you throw the contents into a spittoon. We Europeans are reminded that they don’t spit here. Tell that to the plug tobacco salesmen. As the designated driver, I get to swill, sniff and basically alternately pour my share into Mary and Catherine’s glass. The measures are small, but ten or so in (plus my additions) and the girls are getting decidedly merry. As we move from through the whites, roses, reds, and into the sweet desert wines I’m beginning to think this is the cheapest and best round I’ve ever bought. Jim is doing Trojan work trying to marshal our international melee, but he’s obviously enjoying it. An hour and a half in and it’s all over. We buy a couple of bottles, a glass of wine each, and join our Virginian friends for the chat outside. They’re a great group and it’s so nice to sit down with the locals and just get an idea of what day-to-day life is like here. The father is a history buff and he gives us a run through of the history of these neighbouring states. Too soon we have to be off but it’s been a great day so far and we’re again impressed by the easy hospitality and generosity of the people we meet.
Galax is another forty minutes drive but it’s well worth it. Today is day two of a week-long fiddlers’ convention and when we arrive in the town we’re greeted by the sight of literally hundreds of people, campervans, stalls and musicians crammed into what looks like a sports field. Real old-time mountainy music is pumping out over a huge PA and being played live on a stage below us where literally hundreds of spectators have taken root and are obviously being thrilled by the proceedings. It’s a competition format on the stage and the music we’re listening to is not the highly polished, refined music of the commercial world. Instead it’s hugely energetic, raw, undiluted and exciting. Many of the fiddlers are locals or from states nearby and there are literally hundreds of them. When we arrive, number one hundred and forty is taking the stage. Each fiddler is, more often than not accompanied by a single guitar player, occasionally a double bass player, or sometimes plays solo. The accompaniment is more rhythmic than harmonic and it reminds me of the early piano playing on Michael Coleman’s 78rpms. But the huge variety of fiddle styles on display is staggering. Each player sounds absolutely unique. Very often a player will take the stage and sound out a tune is an almost atonal fashion only to be greeted by whoops and cheers from the audience. It seems the more players stray from the seeming perfection of western tempered tuning the more the locals love it. There’s definitely a different understanding of music at work here and it can only make you wonder, was this what local fiddle styles were like in Ireland before sound recordings made such an impact? We’re blown away by all the fantastic players we see. In the bowing styles, the tunes, the rhythmic drive, right down to the many and varied ways that people hold their instruments, you can see the roots of a strong and healthy tradition stretching back into the past. It’s something we’ve really come to appreciate here. Music isn’t just loved by the players; the whole community obviously thrills to it. That night we stop late at a fast food joint on the way home and get chatting to a young local girl behind the counter, “Sure, we don’t play music but we love it. Every Friday night me and my friends come into town to listen to all the old players on the street. Everyone here loves the music.” It’s great to hear this and we drift off to sleep with tunes ringing in our ears.