Travels with MaryE

Most things I love best are about good light and good timing. That's where the adventures start. Don't be in no hurry here. Here you'll find a little bit about bluegrass music, fox hunting, life on the road, time on the mountain, and a whole lot about other things, too.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Winding Ways of the Road

So yesterday morning I set out from southwest Virginia from Sam and Susans' fantastic 200-year-old poplar and wormy chestnut two-story log cabin and headed down 19E to visit my friends Bill and Janice down near Roan Mountain. Bill has a junkyard and you never know what you'll find there, but there he was pulling parts out of old trucks and stuff. Janice and I sat in their living room trying to find some comfort in the wake of the full-bore fans but they never quite cooled us from that hot Tennessee afternoon. Later, we all headed up the mountain toward North Carolina on Route 321 to a place I've forgotten the name of but what I did remember was that I actually had a $1.79 grilled cheese sandwich with lettuce and tomato and I can't think of the last time I paid that little for a nice sandwich, maybe back in Salyersville Kentucky (home of Charlie Sizemore) about 20 years ago.

Anyway, we said our goodbyes after a nice meal and I headed on up the mountain past the place the Old Crow Medicine Show used to live a few years back before they hit it big-time on the national Americana scene....those boys used to be good pals of mine way back then. Anyway, these places in the road hold memories and so I relived a few yesterday at the log cabin, at Bill & Janice's, passing over the NC line an onto 421 and so forth.

Through Boone, a really cool town, and on through Wilkesboro to visit my friend Becky who's about to move to eastern Kentucky (lucky girl). WELL...the drive was superb. It was that time of day when the light goes all golden and then flushes orangey and finally into a rich pink. The sun was this huge glowing orb in the sky behind me (yeah I was lucky I was heading east) as I wound through North Carolina past farmers doing what they've done so well for as long as I can remember - making hay while the sun shines (at nearly 100 degrees it surely was shining). Is there anything that smell better than freshly cut hay? Perhaps, but I'll have to say that it's one of my very favorite scents. Maybe it brings back those memories of summer days on Grandpa's farm proving my mettle as I threw those rectangular bales (I tried to make it look effortless but I was a small and skinny kid) up on the hay wagon. I remembered meeting this old boy who had a big tote sack on his back and when I asked him what was in it he said he was frog giggin', still not sure what that meant exactly but I reckon it meant he caught frogs and then cut off their legs to eat, or sold them to someone else who did.

The sunset was spectacular and I felt myself longing to stay on the road awhile longer, but I was already nearly two hours later than I'd said I'd be getting to Becky's. There's just something so special and fulfilling about driving through farm country in the mountains as the day draws to a close with the windows open, all alone, listening to soaring music by Eva Cassidy (if you don't know her music, check her out!) and Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole...geez, I'm turning into my parents (they always said it would happen). But back to that feeling.....ever had it? It's at once the most exhilarating, "free" feeling to be out on a steep, winding road alone, all by choice, listening to music you love, yet little twinges of lonesomeness may break through, just for a moment, and you sort of wish there were someone there to share all these sights and sounds with, someone to talk to. 'Course that would change it all, wouldn't it? So I'll just say how full I felt to be FREE - to start, to stop, to listen, to breathe, to watch, to smell. Life is good.

Later, I pulled up to Becky's and found that she'd decided to invite a few friends over and as I walked through the door there was a jam session underway which I soon joined. We had a nice meal of some cheese pasta and fresh tomatoes and herbs - yum, yum (never mind I'm on a low carb diet). It was a nice evening. And a big surprise for me was that old pals Charlie and MJ were here, too, down from their home in Virginia to greet me.

Life alone is just fine with me but it is the company of friends and the sounds of good music, the sights of life in the countryside and those timeless scents like that of horses and new-mown hay that bind it all together and make it joyful.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Ola Belle Reed Festival

So last week's theme was Swingtown, a jazz enclave nestled in the midst of the Galax old time fiddlers' convention...and this week the theme is Roan Mountain Hilltoppers (an authentic mountain old time string band featuring primitive fiddling and a washtub bass) and the Ola Belle Reed festival being held in Lansing NC this Friday through Sunday. I'm heading that way from here in the Birthplace of Country Music (Bristol Virginia), stopping off to see some old friends, the Hilltoppers in Roan Mountain, then over to Becky in North Wilkesboro, then up to Lansing NC for the festival on Friday. Bill Birchfield, who normally plays left-handed fiddle is shown above playing a right-handed guitar which he holds upside down and backwards. Notice how he also plays overhanded -- and he strums UP instead of down. Despite his unconventional approach he manages to pull a lot of sound out of a dreadnaught guitar.

Some of my favorites will be performing there - if I had to choose one all-around musician in the world whose body of musical choices, voice, picking and songwriting I adore most, it would have to be Tim O'Brien and guess what! Tim is featured at the Ola Belle Festival. To add further incentive, Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass, my current favorite bluegrass band, will also be there on Saturday. And some very fine old time bands are playing there as well, so I see it as a festival I can't miss. If you're in western North Carolina or the surrounds it might be a good idea to get yourself down to hear Tim and Danny and the Lundy boys, too. Whatcha got to lose? Check out the website at ; it's gonna be a good'un.

A Taste of the Past

A few weeks ago I was invited by an old friend to spend a few tranquil days at one of the Adirondack Great Camps, an amazing place that's been in her family for several decades. I've been meaning to get up there for about 20 years, but this has been my summer for doing things a little out of my ordinary. I guess there were about 16 friends staying in rustic little cabins, meeting at meal times to be served the most fantastic food by Mary, the woman who holds it all together, spending nights at the round table with a massive lazy susan in the middle, only budging from our plates to spin the center for another glassful of wine. Funny, there were 4 of us Marys and 3 Georges there so things got kind of confusing.

Now this photo of the rocking chair is from a tiny cabin on a nearby island; one I got to visit one afternoon. There a lady well up in her 90s was holding court with her daughters. I found them hanging out on the giant rocks and one was laying on a fresh bed of pine branches under an Adirondack leanto. The scent was divine. This island has none of the trappings of modern day - no phone, no electricity and no plumbing, but a whole lot of peace and quiet.

While the cabins were rustic at my friend's camp, they had showers and all the things a person might need. The camp sports a huge game room with a GREAT fireplace - even a tall person could walk right inside - and there are benches in there too if you want to sit right by the fire for added warmth. This game room has a pool table, ping pong, a piano, many trophies (heads of moose, elk, bear skins and the like) a bandstand, a stereo system and even two bowling lanes that were installed somewhere around 1900! The game room looks out onto the lake and over at some lovely mountains. The porch features a giant Adirondack-style settee that must be 40 feet long. And back in the day they held square dances to which many folks were invited, arriving by boat.

The main cabin has a lovely fireplace and that's where we enjoyed cocktail hour(s) most evenings, coming together from our various pursuits - lazing in the sun with a book, walking the nature trail, out on one of the boats or canoes exploring the lake, playing tennis, bowling, sitting in the gazebo playing music or whatever. It was all good and the air is so fresh and sweet there at the camp that we all felt envigorated. I know I felt like life just couldn't be more perfect than it was there in that mountain lake paradise. My mind was content, my stomach was happy and I spent my time sometimes alone sometimes in the company of some of the nicest people anyone could ever meet. It just doesn't get better.

One night we all piled into a couple of boats and headed across the lake to a church on Long Point where they regularly have concerts. There's something really special about heading out on boats in the gloaming and cruising over to a church glowing in all that late-day golden light. Our friends Mary, John and Trish played a show there that night and the pews were packed to overflowing with folks who enjoyed their own special brand of old time music. After the concert, we all got into speed boats, pontoons, canoes, kayaks, and Adirondack guide boats and headed back to our respective quarters as the sun set in the red sky over the lake.

The "winter cabin," located near the boat houses was where we shared our meals at the Round Table and often a game of cards or backgammon after the nightly benediction. Many warm conversations took place in that wonderful spot and some folks adjourned to the great, high front porch to watch the moon over the lake. In the mornings and afternoons it was a popular spot for reading the newspaper or a good book from one of the brimming Adirondack bookcases while the whir of hummingbirds feeding overhead lent a homey air to the day.
Let me tell you, it's a hard place to leave. Think of Shangri-la and you won't have missed the mark by much. Only thing that might have made it more paradisical would be if a merman had popped up out of the sandy swimming area and winked at me. Didn't happen, but I didn't feel lacking for anything in the world as I spent so many happy days in the presence of air, water, trees, friendly conversation and, at times, solitude.

The days passed slowly, yet sped by quickly, and soon it was time to leave. As I boarded the boat that took me back to the mainland I couldn't help but feel like a big piece of my heart had been torn out and left behind in that idyllic spot where the sunsets over the lake take the breath away from even the hardiest souls.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Fly Me to the Moon! and I Survived Galax 2007

Well, the last month or more has been an absolute (good) blur but I've finally lit for a day or two with some friends in Bristol Tennessee and this morning seems like a good time for reflection. Suffice it to say that the last few weeks have been incredible and have really gotten me thinking about settling down once again, you know taking some of my things out of boxes for the first time in six years!

So I'm just back from a terrific week at the old fiddlers convention in Galax VA, and while there still ARE some old fiddlers there, it's really a misnomer for a gathering of fine musicians whose tastes span many genres and whose endurance is surely unsurpassed in this world. I don't even want to know what the heat index read those 8 days I spent in Galax but it was clear off my own scale. Still, the company of kindred spirits and the melodic sounds that wafted through the sweet mountain nights of Galax are not to be underrated in my presence!

While one might think that an old time music enthusiast such as myself would surely immerse herself in the very depths of mountain old time at a place like Galax instead I found myself camped next to a pink flamingo and other "camp" items and right across from an encampment known as Swingtown - home of the Starlight Lounge. The disco ball there, illuminated by a proper spotlight was, well, unprecedented in my old time fiddlers contest experience, but you never do know what you might find at these conventions. Suffice it to say that through the kind and kindred spirits of Swingtown I rediscovered a long-lost passion for old time jazz music. These boys were keen to play day and night, and though I have never had the jazz chops (and sadly probably never will) I sure have appreciative ears for the sounds of jazz and western swing music, and both were to be found in abundance for many listening ears.
Sometime during the course of the week Jeff Jenkins, surely one of the finest jazz guitarists I've ever heard, convinced me that I should give a go at jazz singing and came up with the idea of "Fly Me to the Moon," so one of those nights around the (wholly imagined and unnecessary under the circumstances) proverbial jazz campfire I lent my voice to the song to the accompaniment of fine and tasteful jazz guitarists, a doghouse bass, a couple of mandolins and even a tenor was a magical time for me and though I cringe a little bit to hear the recording I made of that moment in my life, I'll admit to mostly being thrilled to be a part of that warm scene for just an instant of my life. Thanks guys for your encouragement - and for all the wonderful hours of sweet jazz.

If I had been a 3000% better guitarist I could have taken good advantage of the willing teaching spirit that pervaded the doins' at Swingtown; but I had to settle for a lesson with Jeff Jenkins who makes his living teaching jazz guitar (thanks Jeff); if you're around Knoxville Tennessee and want to master the guitar, he's the guy to call! During this lesson he had my fingers trying to do things that aren't humanly possible unless you have no bones in your fingers. I gave it my best but fell flat on my face. How do some people manage to make things seem so easy!

If you like old time music or sort of modern bluegrass music or swing music or even just a gathering of friendly folks in a really hot place then you owe it to yourself to go to Galax for that great fiddlers convention. You won't be sorry! There's something there for everyone. There was even a really good singing jam (mostly kind of old time mountain songs and brother duets) the fire fueled mostly by one Tom Mindte, a recent discovery for me, but I'll not soon forget his wonderful mandolin playing and strong voice....a real keeper. That particular jam was special to many on Friday and Saturday nights when none other than Ronnie Stoneman graced the jam with her bright new smile and a banjer. Good stuff and all the folks gathered around that big tarp were lit up by her hilarious stories and southern charm. I reckon she was having as big a time there as ever she had on Hee Haw!

Probably I could go on for several more pages about all the things I did and saw at Galax but you really just need to experience it for yourself. It combined all the things I love about people, music and camping (and I really love all those things) -- short and long conversations, moments of inspiration, beautiful sounds, seeing kids joining together to pick, passionate about the music I love (hope for the future), meaningful moments among friends, glints of discovery, the sparkle of a disco ball and the lights it threw in interesting patterns all around the folks and earth as we escaped to a world of sweet jazz sounds...what a magical week in Galax as we joined forces to beat the heat and rise above physical discomfort to share the music we love with friends and strangers alike.

Leaving, the feeling of joy at sharing and loss at parting, and still the hope for next year to come when more memories are made and the past is relived and expanded upon.