Feet carefully trudged toward an old garage. The air is cold and silent, but voices are heard from the depths of the building. Soon, a figure emerged. Bright light escaped from inside, illuminating anything within several yards of the doorway.
“Welcome, we’re glad you could make it,” the figure smiled.
Sauntering out of the old garage doorway, the dark figure’s boots soak into the muddy driveway. It’s S.R. “Sha” Shahan. He extends a handshake and leads the way back into the brightly lit building.
It’s Tuesday evening and, like clockwork, there’s a weekly mountain music jam session on the property. The usual crowd hasn’t shown up yet, but patience is the key. Shahan gets together his instruments, which range from a gutbucket bass to a pizza box that’s used for percussion with a couple of drum brushes.
“It’s kind of quiet right now, but that’s just the way it goes, so we’ll see who shows up tonight,” he said.
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The location is secret, but for good reason. According to Shahan, each time they made the sessions public or advertised, the atmosphere became too overrun, with many unknown, professional players coming in looking to run the show, as well as running circles around the old-timers looking for more of an intimate setting.
“We started to get people in from everywhere,” he said. “They’d come in and take over with music nobody knew. We’d all get lost while they dominated the group.”
Though the audience has yet to arrive, there is still much work to be done. Floors need to be swept, items must be cleared and chunks of wood will have to be brought in and stacked next to the old barrel woodstove. A truck filled with chairs pulls up outside. A handful of folks grab the chairs and set them up in two semi-circles, one inner realm for the musicians and one outer for those wanting to listen to the magic.
“On nights you think you won’t get two people in here, 10 show up,” Shahan said. “You just never know what’s going to happen.”
And with not knowing what’s going to happen, unexpected deaths or relocations chip away at who does or doesn’t appear on Tuesday evening, and also what new picker will arrive.
“Is that other banjo guy coming this week? He hasn’t passed away, did he?” one voice questioned from the back of the room.
“How you doing tonight?” another asked, sitting in a chair.
“Oh, I’m hanging in there,” someone replied, hobbling in.
Rodney Rogers, who is setting up his acoustic guitar and microphone stand, has been coming to the Canton garage sessions since they began almost a year ago.
“It’s a kind of a community and a friendship,” he said. “It’s old-time bluegrass, mountain and classic country music. It’s something most of us here grew up with.”
Though the musicians may not be professional, by industry standards, the intent and ambiance remains pure.
“You’ve got talent here most people don’t realize,” Rogers said. “It just gives us something to do. We’re not professionals, but we do the best we can do, and if we miss a chord, then, well, OK.”
With heads covered in gray hair and wrinkled faces full of time and lore, the outer chairs begin to fill up. Several musicians unbuckle their gear cases and tune their instruments. Friendly banter and nonchalant guitar notes seamlessly mold into a melody. The show has begun.
Sitting back and taking it all in, Tommy Messer looks forward to coming to the garage each week.
“I just like to hear these boys play the old music,” he said. “This music is important because I think the young people have just dropped it. Everyone should get back into this old-time stuff before it’s too late.”
A few seats down, Helen Neal was all smiles.
“This is the background of the country music I grew up with,” she said. “When I was young, this was the kind of music we played. We can’t have this old tradition fade.”
Strumming and singing in a round-robin fashion, the selections ricochet around the small room. Feet tap on the cold concrete floor while souls are warmed by the sounds of a childhood fading into the past. It’s a feeling that has gathered dust to some, but fresh in the minds of those who haven’t forgot.
Sipping a cup of coffee, with eyes focused on the inner circle, Sherrill Lance is amazed that such music still exists and is flourishing in this area. You just have to know where to look for the sound, and sometimes the source is a lot closer than you think.
“Ah shoot, it’s just old-time music. You can actually hear the words and really relate to what it’s all about,” he said. “It’s going to be lost if we don’t get young people involved in it.”
The mood heats up. A handful of onlookers wander to an open corner and start dancing. The musicians turn slightly and watch them glide across the floor. It’s a joyous sight, one that epitomizes the beauty and culture of Western North Carolina. It’s another pivotal stop towards the final destination, no matter where one might have started their journey.
“It’s almost like coming back home, coming here,” Shahan said. “If you pick at all, get that axe out and sit in. It’s all about enjoying the music and being apart of it.”
It’s the greatest show in town, but the location is a secret. But maybe, just maybe, if you cross paths with S.R. “Sha” Shahan, he might just point you in the right direction.