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Mountain music in the Appalachians | Virginia

January 25, 2024

Mountain music, old-time music–this music, which has been played by generations of people in Virginia and other parts of the Appalachians, goes by many names. A banjo builder who lives in the mountains invited us to a party, and we leapt at this great opportunity to find out more about this intriguing style of music.
Words by Jonas Larsson | Photos by Anders Bergersen

There is a golden Volvo 245 parked on the meadow. This appeals to the car lover in me, for sure, but I’m even more fascinated by the quartet that is playing behind the car’s open back door: Andrew, Wolfgang, Scott, and Jay. What do a bearded, banjo picking brewer from Asheville, an upright bass thumping teacher, a fiddling cider maker from Athens, Ohio and a soft-spoken guitarist from God knows where have in common?

The same thing as all the other little groups of people who have gathered on this meadow, in the smithy, in the arbor, in the pig shack, and on the porch: they’re all playing old-time music at the unofficial Turkey Scratch festival, which is hosted by banjo builder Greg and blacksmith Cindy (who we featured in American Trails 1/2018). 

Greg and Cindy have been organizing the Turkey Scratch mini festival, a three-day event at the end of the summer, for almost twenty years. Friends, musicians, and cool people of all sorts flock to this farm under Buckeye mountain in the foothills of the Virginian Appalachians to play music, dance, eat, drink, and most of all hang out – and well, we really dig it! 

Old-Time Music

Old-time music is a catch-all phrase used to refer to certain kinds of traditional North American music. The term was originally applied to Fiddlin’ John Carson’s recordings for the Okeh record company from the early 20th century. Previously, this music, which is common in the Appalachians and in the South and has roots in the British Isles–particularly in Ireland–was called “hillbilly music”. 

The fiddle tends to take a leading role in the string bands that perform it, but banjo, guitar, bass, and other instruments are also used. The style of banjo that is generally used is an open back banjo, unlike the bluegrass banjo which has a sealed resonator. The most common banjo picking style in old-time music is the clawhammer style, in which the strings are struck with a downward motion of the nail rather than plucked with the fingertips.

Greg, Cindy, and some of their friends have a band, Farm Use Only, which performs at various festivals and nearby water holes. 

An Improvised Festival and Potluck

Andrew, the brewer and banjo picker from Asheville, has brought some kegs of beer. Greg and Cindy are cooking. It’s a potluck of sorts, and there is food and drink from morning to evening. Breakfasts are long and enjoyed late in the morning. There is lots of laughter in the air, and plenty of more or less credible stories are told. It’s very similar in structure to a Swedish spelmansstämma in Dalarna, where people gather to jam in smaller groups. 

I spend the afternoon relaxing on the balcony of Greg’s workshop with a glass of bourbon. Beneath me, in the pig shack, a group has gathered. The fiddle kicks it off alone, and the others follow it and groove their way into the tune. The notes of a banjo trickle in, and the mountains come alive, and then, a second banjo follows, then another fiddle, and finally, harmony singing to top it off. The pig shack is swinging something tremendous. 

I feel a pang of jealousy, wishing I could play too, but then again, sitting here in the front row with a glass of bourbon isn’t bad at all. 

Artistic Souls

I catch an angry look from the corner of my eye.

– Stop taking pictures, I’m wanted in three states! Joe gives me the evil eye–for two seconds, before bursting into laughter. 
– I’m just messing with you! Take as many pictures as you like. Joe is a fun guy who likes to shoot the breeze. Most of the people here very obviously go back quite a way, and it’s up to us newcomers to find our place in the group. Fortunately, this isn’t much of a challenge; the people who come to Turkey Scratch are friendly, artistic types. We have many rewarding conversations, which often erupt into huge, shared laughs.

We chat with Old Man Kelly, or Liam Patrick Kelly, as he is really called. Kelly lives in his RV, which also serves as the office for his IT consulting business. A musical vagabond with a somehow both grouchy and friendly face.

– Almost everybody here owns a Buckeye banjo, and the ones who don’t wish they did. This is also a kind of homecoming party for the instruments, he laughs. Old Man Kelly plays a modernized version of old-time music; there are moments when he reminds me of Tom Waits, and others where he reminds me of a vaudeville singer. 

Kelly went through several phases and genres as he quested for a music that he could make truly his own. In the music of the Southwest Virginian Appalachians, he found something he’d never come across before: a musical genre that was deeply rooted in a specific geographic location. Songs appeared in different variations in different parts of the region. He realized that he could travel around and learn the various variations in their respective places of origin. He found that you don’t so much bring the music with you when you leave as borrow it while you’re there and return it when you leave.

Since he grew up in a military family that was constantly moving from one naval base to another, he’d always thought of roots as something other people had. Along the way, Liam learned to listen and learn in order to fit in. Ironically, the music he plays today is a kind of roots music. 

Playing in the rain

– Here comes Greg with the pig! I don’t know who it is that announces this, but it’s most welcome news. I’ve forgotten to eat, which is something I’m very prone to do when I meet so many interesting people. Greg has made pulled pork, and it is eagerly anticipated. We all gather like a flock of starving wolves around the food, and the beer starts flowing from the tap again. When it starts to rain, we all bunch up in the outdoor kitchen pavilion. And this is no soft, warm summer drizzle; no, it’s a full-fledged deluge. One group, who were sitting down to play just outside, is soon completely flooded. They pick up their banjo cases and raise their parasols, and the music soon continues. Before long, they’re sitting in a little lake of water, but nobody stops playing. It feels a bit like watching the band on the Titanic continuing to play as the ship went below the waves. 

But what harm could a little rain do? Bring out the inflatable crocodile and swan! The beer helps us make the best of the rain, and soon, we’re paddling around in the new lake that is forming. The rain intensifies, and we have to place boards of wood over the mud to keep from slipping in it. We move the party into a camper, and I get flashbacks of the Scat Cat and his crew from Aristocats–you know, the cat jazz band that doesn’t stop playing even as they plummet through several floors of a building. 

The Appalachian Trail

– MAMAH, MAMAH! Michael hollers across the valley that lies stretched out below where we’re standing. Soon, we see motion at the far end of the meadow: some goats come running at full speed, followed by a pair of rather fat pigs.  

– MAMAH, MAMAH! The animals speed up. Soon, the expectant and very loving goats have arrived, and are given some food. The pigs Mato and Perdy (Tomato and Pretty) want to snuggle and get itched. 

– Where’s Oliver, Neville asks. 

– I think that’s him down there, Michael responds. He’s quite old now, so he’s not very fast. 

Oliver is the king of the castle. When he arrives, Perdy and Mato want to snuggle with him, and he oinks contentedly as Gagaia the cat runs around the pigs, wanting to join in. 

There’s quite a Garden of Eden vibe going on up here in Woods Hole, a hostel and mountain retreat that’s run by Neville and Michael. This is a great place to spend the night if you’re following the Appalachian trail, which passes by just around the corner. You could also come up here for a yoga retreat. When we visit, there is a whole group here practicing yoga and relaxing. 

Woods Hole is run according to an organic, holistic ethos. It is pleasantly removed from the world, surrounded as it is by the Jefferson National Forest. And if your muscles should be aching after days on the trail, you’ll be glad to know that Neville and Michael also give massages. 

– Woods Hole has been in my family since the late 19th century, and it’s been a hostel since 1986. My grandparents, Mama Tillie and Roy, bought it and started the business. I’ve been running it with Michael since 2009, she tells us. 

– We want it to be a place with a great sense of community, and if you can’t pay for your stay, you’re free to help out for room and board if there is anything we need to have done at the time. We also have a system called the “Broke hikers’ jar”, where you can leave some cash behind for other hikers who are less fortunate. 

– One hiker came here asking to work for room and board, and all she had was three dollars. I told her: “I don’t have anything that needs doing right now, but we’ll take care of you.” I took money from the jar. It’s a good way to look out for each other. I like to say that if you’re in a bad situation in life, you can either get out of it or stay there, and with the help of others, you can always get out.

Neville and Michael have big hearts and Woods Hole feels like a place for weary wanderers to heal their souls or their bodies, almost like something out of the Bible. 

Time for Goodbye 

On Sunday, it’s all over. There aren’t many of us left, and we’re all hanging out in Greg and Cindy’s living room, somewhat the worse for wear, laughing at memories from this year’s Turkey Scratch, which have already been added to festival’s own stock of legends. 

Richie Stearns, who is one of the most celebrated banjo pickers in all the US, a beautiful spirit and a kind-hearted man, sits peacefully in a corner, playfully plucking melodies from his banjo. I sink back into the couch, take another sip of coffee, and close my eyes. I’m awoken by the photographer, who’s shaking me by the shoulder.

– Come on, it’s time to leave, he tells me. 

And I suppose he’s right. We say our thank yous and goodbyes to everybody who’s still here, and promise them that we’ll return next year. Our last sight of Turkey Scratch is Old Man Kelly, sitting on the step of his RV with his banjo on his knee, playing what feels like a tune of farewell as we drive off.   

Find out more online:
Old Man Kelly | buckeyebanjos.com | woodsholehostel.com | Richie Stearns

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