By Hank Hollensbe
Last year, when I had only begun my career at the Pickens Progress, I asked my elders for ideas about which I might write. One of the suggestions concerned a gathering of musicians outside Jasper that I could visit and describe. Dandy, but then I pressed on to other matters.
Months later, one of the elders issued a challenge: he would buy my dinner if I would join him in a visit to this mythical meeting place - provided that I would bring a pen, paper, tape recorder and camera. Given the attitude toward money and how it is to be dispersed, it seemed an unlikely event, but I accepted before he could withdraw the offer.
Another of these self-same elders overhead the conversation and, ever ready for an adventure, agreed to join us as impartial observer. The date was set: Saturday evening, May 3, 5:30 p.m.
The trip itself was a mini-adventure: drive toward Canton on 515 for 5.8 miles, turn right on Lower Dowda Mill Road (note the sign for Rock Creek Manor); another 0.4 miles to the birdhouse (yes, birdhouse) and turn right onto a partially paved, finally dirt road. At the dead end we found a variety of trucks, sedans and motorcycles. Farther on we found the Music Barn. Well, not exactly a barn, but of this more later.
Institutionally, the Barn is a weekly event - Saturday night, rain or shine, year ’round, wood stoves at the ready - gathering of bluegrass musicians and fans. Until I entered the Barn, bluegrass music had not been among my favorites. That has changed. No way for me to describe the music - one must listen to learn.
The musicians varied in sex, age and dress. What was not a variable was skill level and ability to perform on the guitars, mandolins, a violin and a double bass. The first amazing variable to me was that, other than the violin, the musicians passed the instruments back and forth, each seemingly able to play any and all of them. And a second amazement was that the performers don’t rehearse (I don’t believe that).
The audience - ranging from oldsters in bib overalls all the way to well-behaved teens and the occasional baby - was best described as noisily appreciative. Clapping was the basic response - there were higher levels.
We arrived in time to listen to warm-up sessions outside the theatre, with players moving in and out of the ad hoc ensembles. The star of one was Mr. Ronnie West playing a Dobro guitar, an instrument that appeared to have special innards and the ability to produce the sounds of today’s electrified string instruments. (No electrified instruments at the Barn!)
Supper was next. My host had indeed provided my dinner by bringing our share of a covered dish dinner. There was a wide variety of foods, most of which I tried and some of which I never recognized, and desserts. A refrigerator was full of bottled water and soft drinks and there were plastic dishes and utensils.
On with the show then! We moved into the auditorium - a former automobile repair shop - now fitted with a stage, stage lights, PA system, microphones for each performer and perhaps a hundred seats, ranging from comfortable side chairs to plastic ugly to metal lawn to wooden church pews.
The performers were excellent and tireless (and never seemed to need a bathroom break). The music went on non-stop and was mostly old English, Scots and Irish tunes that had made the trip to Appalachia and been modified to some extent over the years. There were outstanding renditions of Ashokan Farewell, Maiden’s Prayer, Blue Moon of Kentucky and many old gospel favorites.
While the music usually continues as long as there is an audience, old age finally drove us back to the birdhouse, 515 and home.
My challenger had explained some of the history and current status of the Barn to me as we watched the performers, but I had taken only a few notes. He spoke and I wrote on the drive home.
The Barn was established by two brothers (and musicians), Jaral and Joey Free, on land lent to them by an aunt. It has been in near continuous operation for the past 20 years. There is no admission charge and no alcohol.
Additional visits are planned. It won’t require a challenge for me to return.