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Wednesday, 19 May 2010 13:19

Using music to write history

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Bluegrass recording artist Buddy Melton feels like he owes Jackson County. He had never played an instrument until he started fiddling in his college dorm room in Cullowhee. He had never experienced the roots of mountain music until he found Gene Brown’s house in Cope Creek and began sitting in with the pickers. And then there’s the fact that he wouldn’t exist at all had not his parents, who both hail from Jackson County, brought him forth.

“My music career started in Jackson County, and everything I’ve done since then is the result of what happened in Jackson County,” Melton said.

In creating “Songs for Jackson County,” an informal musical history that explores some of the county’s most emblematic stories, Melton feels like he is offering some payback for what has become a successful music career. Melton recently released a self-titled bluegrass album featuring Tony Rice on guitar, a sure sign of his enduring presence as a fiddler and vocalist.

Melton and his former bandmates — Mark Winchester, who has won Grammy Awards with Emmylou Harris and Brian Setzer, and Milan Miller, a Haywood County native — created “Songs of Haywood County” in 2006.

“We were just writing songs to be writing, and there were some graves up above my house, just two graves in a meadow that no one ever came to,” Melton said. “ And I decided to go ahead and research it.”

One of the graves, as it turned out, belonged to Dave Mason. Mason was the first man in Haywood County to be hung for murder, and the detailed accounts of his trial included the fact that his father called out from the crowd as his son prepared to be dropped, “Take it to the grave, Davey.”

It’s that kind of poetic moment that makes for a good song, and Melton, Winchester, and Miller felt they were onto something.

“We wrote it and then we got talking and it was like, ‘Hey, there are a lot of stories out there in this part of the world that deserve songs,’” Melton said.

What the threesome created in their first historical album, they have tried to improve in their latest release.

Creating a collection of historic songs isn’t purely a songwriting project. Melton said his first concern was to make sure the history was the primary focus, so his song selection had to conform to the information at hand.

“You research the history and the stories, and the songs you end up writing are really based off of what factual information you’re able to find to lend themselves,” Melton said.

The music also has to fit the characters and setting of the stories that needed to be told, so “Songs For Jackson County” shows off a range of styling and instrumentation.

“I think it just came down to the feel of the song. We didn’t set out to do a bluegrass record or a country record. We just set out to make a historic record that suited the stories,” said Melton.

Singing for Jackson County

Part of the reason Buddy Melton felt he needed to create this new history record is because he wanted to preserve the stories he grew up with. He credits local historian and genealogist Bill Crawford with passing down many of those tales, but the liner notes of the record cite many other local sources, including Gary Carden, Nina Anderson, George Ellison, and the Jackson County Genealogical Society.

“The good thing about Jackson County is folks like Bill and many others have really tried hard to preserve the history,” Melton said

The subjects of the songs for the album range from characters who gained national attention in their days –– like Aunt Samantha Bumgarner who became a Columbia recording artist as a clawhammer banjo player in the ‘20s –– to characters whose fame has been preserved primarily in local legend, like Dave Hall.

Mark Winchester and Milan Miller shared the songwriting load equally with Melton, and their hand in the record shows the quality of their music pedigrees.

“I think these two guys in particular have the gift of taking the facts and still making them artistic, not stiff,” Melton said.

Winchester’s work on Jack Lambert’s “Letter” and Miller’s effort on “Cowee Tunnel” are remarkable.

Melton’s best song on the record didn’t come easy.

Buddy grew up with the story of Dave Hall, a man who refused to enlist in the Confederate Army, was called a coward, and spent his time in a cave above Big Savannah. Hall would watch for Union cavalry raids, and when he saw the riders coming through the valley, he would sound off on a horn that echoed through the valley.

The liner notes for Dave Hall are accompanied by a picture of his cave.

“With only a few belongings and a bugle, he left his home and took up residence in the hills above the village. Located at the head of what is now Cabe Road, Dave built a shelter within a large rock outcrop that had a spring flowing at the back.... From this elevation, Dave could see the entire valley and serve as a lookout for the people below,” the notes read.

The enigmatic objector/hero is the perfect vehicle for Melton’s singing, because the story is so emblematic of a mountain war experience in danger of being lost to history. Melton visited the cave with Charlie Cabe to get in touch with the story.

“When I crawled up in the cave –– it’s more of an outcropping –– you could see where he had taken rocks and mud and jointed it and sealed it up,” Melton said. “You could see where there was a spring in the back that he used for water and it really brought it all to life, because there really wasn’t much written down.”

Even then, the song didn’t write itself. Melton woke up at 2 a.m. one night before the album was due to be recorded with the words and melody in his head.

Melton, Winchester and Miller created “Songs for Jackson County” as a side project. Melton’s band Balsam Range is set to go back into the studio to cut their third album at the end of the month, and Melton recently released his first solo album, backed by some of the best bluegrass players in the business.

With his own daughter 5 years old, Melton feels like the songs are a way to pass the histories down in a way that people of all ages can really understand them.

“The music really makes it all connect, because the stories stick with you,” Melton said. “That very much happens with the kids. We’ll be driving down the road and my daughter will start singing ‘Aunt Samantha.’ As much as I love music, the education and historic value is important. Keeping the stories alive.”

“Songs for Jackson County” is on sale at City Lights Bookstore, Bryson Farm Supply, the Cashiers Farmer’s Market, Jackson’s General Store, the Well House in Dillsboro, and from the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce.

More of Buddy Melton’s music is found at www.buddymelton.com.

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