Finding Bluegrass at Angel’s in Bessemer City, North Carolina
One of the locations where bluegrass music originated can be found in the area just west of Charlotte, North Carolina, in Gaston and Cleveland counties. Earl Scruggs was born there, near Shelby, the county seat of Cleveland County, which I’m told was once one of the foremost cotton growing locations in the United States until it was decimated by the boll weevil in three short years during the 1940s. Scruggs’ hometown was Flint Hill, where his childhood home can still be found. The recently opened Earl Scruggs Center is located in a once-crumbling building that once housed the Cleveland County Courthouse in Shelby.
The ironically named Bessemer City was chartered in the late 19th Century, near the site of an old iron forge that dates back to Revolutionary War times. It was near the home of Ella Mae Wiggins, a radical cotton mill worker who wrote “The Mill Mother’s Song,” as well as more than 20 others that were sung in union rallies in nearby Gastonia during the labor unrest of the 1920s. She was shot and killed by a mob of anti-union mill workers in 1929, although no one was ever convicted of the crime. Pete Seeger, among others, later recorded this beautiful lament, written by a woman who lost three children to whooping cough, but whose boss wouldn’t give her leave to care for them.
Gaston County was once the home of hundreds of cotton mills that thrived before the decline of the milling industry in North Carolina, as the mills moved offshore in the last few decades. The importance of mill villages and the cotton milling industry to the development of bluegrass and country music is not mentioned nearly enough in the story of this music that celebrates rural living, hard work, and deep religious conviction.
Angel’s is a small consignment shop, restaurant, music store, and gathering place, where every Tuesday evening a group of bluegrass musicians gather. Darin Aldridge grew up in nearby Cherryville, where his father was a trucker before the decline of Carolina Trucking. He found music and the church, which form the center of his life. Married to Brooke Justice Aldridge, they form the core of the Darin & Brooke Aldridge Band, which tours nationally. Brooke, who hails from the mountains of North Carolina, is widely recognized for the power and sweetness of her voice, while Darin is one of the great mandolin players on the scene, as well as an accomplished guitar picker and singer. He toured for nine years with the great Country Gentlemen, the band that introduced folk and rock themes to bluegrass.
Each Tuesday, Darin appears on the stage at Angel’s with a group of long-time friends to play hard-driving bluegrass with an emphasis on the songs of Flatt & Scruggs as well as some more contemporary material. His friends and a few drop-in strangers show up to eat a sandwich or sip a glass of wine. The food is good and the environment is just right for bluegrass. The evenings are filled with music that’s appreciated by those who know it, and who play it themselves.
Mike Lynch plays guitar and sings in a voice slightly reminiscent of Lester Flatt. Banjoist Roger Holland stands in a corner behind the sound equipment, shy and more than adequate on this instrument that’s characteristic of traditional bluegrass music, with its roots in Africa and its modern development grown from Earl Scruggs’ genius as well as the desire to escape the mills. Chuck Gibson plays the electric bass with restraint and skill. On the night I was there, Carley Arrowood, the new fiddler in Darin & Brooke’s band, dropped by to lend her wonderfully developed fiddle playing and fine harmonies to the group. Brooke was on hand to sing a few if Darin called her from the audience, but he’s the center of the show, with his fine instrumental work and soulful harmonies.
Angel’s provides a working-class environment, uplifted by the move to serving fine local wines and the kind of sandwiches more characteristic of nice lunch places rather than the beer joints often thought of as bluegrass hangouts.
In these days of more widely distributed sources of entertainment and the exploitation of bluegrass as an outlier music, places where bluegrass is immediate and alive are disappearing all too quickly. The once thriving bar scenes in places like Baltimore, Washington D.C., and Columbus, Ohio, are nearly gone. Yet in Angel’s, as in Randy’s Pickin Parlor near Savannah, GA – where there’s a jam every Saturday – Guy and Tina’s near Moncks Corner, SC, or at local bluegrass associations like the Rivertown Bluegrass Society in Conway, SC, you can still find live bluegrass presented as it was meant to be heard: live, direct, and personal, often along with a regular jam. If you look around enough, you’ll find a local jam, a regional bluegrass society, or a local joint where bluegrass is played and loved.