And during the past several years, I’ve been able to combine my two biggest passions, writing and music. Yes, I’ve watched the film “Almost Famous” (like a million times) – I truly wanted to be part of that environment. Something about going behind the curtain, seeing all the chaos and hard-knock reality of the music industry has this “Wizard of Oz” appeal to me.
As a self-proclaimed history nerd, I wasn’t interested in featuring the latest trend band or newest festival to spring up in some random cornfield. I wanted to track down those forgotten melodic faces and milestone musicians, people that though they may be out of the public spotlight, are still pushing further into their lifelong exploration of sound and performance.
During my first feature assignment in 2006, I found myself sitting within what appeared to be an old boiler room. In the depths of the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Mass., I interviewed iconic singer/songwriter Peter Rowan, who came to prominence in the early 1960s as the lead singer for legendary bluegrass musician Bill Monroe and his “Bluegrass Boys.” From there, he fronted the short-lived, yet critically acclaimed ensemble Old and in the Way (featuring Jerry Garcia, David Grisman and Vassar Clements) and has since solidified his place in the American musical landscape.
We talked at length about his career, where it began with Monroe, and where it has gone during the last half century. He then told me a story about one morning when the tour bus broke down in Northern Kentucky, and Monroe took him aside.
“It was about 5:30 in the morning, and it was just one of the magic moments with the sun coming over the mountains in the east. That’s when Bill sang me the first four lines of the song ‘Walls of Time,’” Rowan said. “I thought, ‘Man, this is the moment.’ He knew he was giving me a great experience because I was all about being with the father of bluegrass – close to the source. When he wanted to lay it on me, he knew he had somebody who was really going to listen to him.”
Something about that statement struck a deep chord within my soul. He was right, the only way to honestly learn about something is to find it and immerse oneself accordingly.
That sentiment set the course for my pursuits. I’ve found myself interviewing drummer Jimmy Cobb at the Village Vanguard in New York City about playing and recording with Miles Davis; Jim Yester of folk/rock group The Association about what it was like to open the Monterey Pop Festival; bassist Pete Sears on his first impression of Jimi Hendrix when he walked into Sears’ London apartment before anyone knew who the guitarist even was.
All of these experiences have not only broadened my knowledge of music history, but I also hope, in some way, that these voices get properly preserved, and not lost through the cracks of time.
Amid those innumerable voices is Western North Carolina’s own Raymond Fairchild. The 74-year-old renowned banjoist and moonshiner performs seven nights a week during the summer at his Maggie Valley Opry House. Fairchild and myself have interviewed a handful of times during the last year. His finger pickin’ is still as fierce as lightning, and I highly recommend any and all to witness him live. He’s as close to the source as you can get when it comes to Southern Appalachian culture. It’s a voice that won’t be around forever, and one we’re lucky enough to have in our own backyard.
1: Southern rock legends The Black Crowes perform at Harrah’s Cherokee on Aug. 2.
2: The Sarge’s Animal Rescue Foundation Dog Walk will be in downtown Waynesville on Aug. 3.
3: Mountain music/rock band Soldier’s Heart plays the Groovin’ on the Green concert series in Cashiers on Aug. 2.
4: A solo exhibition for painter Kel Tanner opens Aug. 7 at Gallery 86 in Waynesville.
5: Whitewater Bluegrass Company hits the Concert on the Creek concert series on Aug. 2 in Sylva.