The Fiddling Dills Sisters — Amanda and Sharon, two Jackson county musical staples who’ve gone on to play with the likes of Ricky Scaggs — gathered with their band in the far corner of the room to turn a song, while the Timber Rattlers — led by Americana icon and player of all things stringed, Marshall Ballew — plucked away a few chords, and a student film crew interviewed a member of the Liberty Baptist Church Choir.
The evening’s concert would mark the culmination of more than a year’s work to bring Jackson County’s musical talents together to record an album and put on a show that would be filmed and turned into a DVD.
The goal was for ticket, album and DVD sales to raise money to help pay for the construction of a new Jackson County library.. But the result was something more — a coming together of the community and aural recording of its history in the making.
“I think it’s really important. One thing it illustrates is the kind of variety we have around here,” Ballew said.
The idea for the Sounds of Jackson County came about as many ideas often do — from one woman to another in the hair salon. Community volunteer Linda Watson, who has been a driving force in moving the library project forward, was having her hair cut at Creative Edge Salon when owner Tammy Brown mentioned that a good fund-raising project might be to record a CD of local musicians and title it “Sounds of Jackson County.”
The idea stuck with Watson, and she approached Grammy-winning songwriter Bruce Frazier, who holds the Endowed Chair of Commercial and Electronic Music at Western Carolina University.
“I knew they had a new recording studio and I wanted to see if they would be willing to do a volunteer project like this,” Watson said.
Western’s Center for Applied Technology boasts a state-of-the-art studio and a professional staff — including Frazier, and major network producer Pat Acheson, Director of Studio Operations — who are training students how to use the equipment. Upon Watson’s proposal, Frazier asked Acheson if he would be willing to develop some projects that would get students involved in the production.
“My answer, of course, was yes, because I like to involve my students in some real world activities,” Acheson said.
Using a list of musicians Ballew and Dillsboro-based blues singer Karen “Sugar” Barnes helped come up with, Watson invited 40 different groups from across the county to participate by donating their time and their talents, and committing to both recording the CD and putting on a show to celebrate its release.
Along with the Dills Sisters, Timber Rattlers, Liberty Baptist Church Choir, Ballew and Barnes, spiritual groups the Webster Shape Note Singers, Heaven Bound Quartet, and Bound by Grace; mountain music players Matt Stillwell, and The Pirates of the Tuckaseigee; and contemporary groups Ashley Chambliss and Chris Cooper, classical and jazz pianists Andrea Wlosokova Adamcova and Pavel Wlosok, the Smoky Mountain Brass Quintet and Western’s Gamelan Gunung Biru (Blue Ridge Gamelan) also signed on.
Studio students and staff began recording the groups at outdoor performances such as Western’s Mountain Heritage Day, which is held annually in September, and in the recording booth. As the album began to take shape, Frazier and Robert Kehrberg, Interium Chair of the College of Arts and Sciences, began tossing around the idea of pushing it even further — using the planned concert event to record a DVD.
The problem was that the concert would be held just as students were getting back to school. Finding a volunteer group with the training to step-in and step-up was done through a flurry of emails sent out over the winter holiday break. Recent graduate David Phillips and junior Erik Malay agreed to take on the two cameras stationed in the Performing Arts Center’s balcony, while sophomore Michael Rymell managed sound equipment and junior Sarah Kepley worked as an interviewer and production assistant for visiting professor and cinematographer Arledge Armenaki, who filmed from stage level.
While the CD was released at the concert, production of the DVD should finish up this summer.
However, Acheson said his students and those of his fellow professors may have learned something more than just about how to use technology in the process of helping to create the Sounds of Jackson County.
“There is in the present generation a very strong and sad tendency to look forward too long and not look back at all. And at some point in time they’re going to look back and wish they knew about ...,” Acheson said, pausing to allow silence to fill in for any individual’s topic of interest.
Singer-songwriter Matt Stillwell is one member of the younger generation who has taken his family’s history lessons to heart and incorporated them into his music. In 1884 Stillwell’s great-great-great grandfather was killed and a part Cherokee man, Andrew Lambert, accused of his murder.
“It went through a couple different trials and he always claimed that he didn’t do it,” Stillwell said.
Lambert was convicted and hanged, his own death going down in the history books for being the last man hung in North Carolina. Fifty years after the hanging, another man, Willy Jones, signed a confession on his deathbed that he was the one who killed Stillwell, not Lambert.
The story seemed destined to go down in song, and Stillwell — now a Nashville-based professional musician — recorded it on his first album The Couch Sessions.
“It’s just been in the family for a long time so the story’s gotten passed down,” Stillwell said. “The angle we took on it was writing it from the guy who had to live with that.”
“Guilty,” also featured during the Sounds of Jackson County concert, is one of several locally based songs Stillwell has authored. Others reference landmarks such as The Coffee Shop on Main Street and the Nantahala Gorge.
“Any song you write you use what you know,” Stillwell said.
Following the Sounds of Jackson County concert and album release, performers and audience members have called for the event to become an annual occurrence, and a continued effort to celebrate and archive local talent.
“Music lives on and it evolves,” Acheson said. “Some of the groups that were available this year may not even exist next year.”