The Appalachian String Band Festival, in its 27th year, is known around the world as the preemiment event of its kind. If you listen to NPR, you got a taste of what it’s all about when Noah Adams visted last week and did a piece for Morning Edition. Among other things, he spoke with a young woman from France. I did him two better — I ran into a photographer from Australia and a pilgrim from Japan. So, if these folks make their way to this small, out-of-the-way corner of West Virginia, something essential must be going on.
The festival is better known as Clifftop, as it is close to a town by that name. It is also not an easy place to get to or even find. Far off the interstate, you travel curvy, mountainous roads and still don’t know where it is because there are no signs. However, once you see it’s next to one of the most picturesque parks in the state, Babcock State Park, you simply follow those signs. About a mile from the fest’s entrance, you finally know you have arrived.
Created and supported by the West Virginia’s Division of Culture and History, the festival is a living and working workshop of not just the music of Appalachia, but also its arts, crafts and food. But while the music stays firmly traditional, its vendors don’t, so much.
Next to a stand of fruits and vegetables harvested locally are Indian tacos and a couple from Knoxville selling block prints and Waco Brothers frontman Jon Langford’s art on T-shirts. My Friday night dinner was vegan, gluten-free Indian food, prepared by a chef from Athens, Ohio.
While there are craft workshops, performances, band and instrumental contests, and dances throughout the festival’s five days, the real draw is the people, who bring their instruments to play informally with one another. Learning, sharing, and teaching are one and the same at Clifftop. The jam sessions occur on the porches of the building on the grounds, under canopies, and at hundreds — I am not exaggerating — of campsites. There is no such thing as an outsider here. Nobody is a stranger.
It was raining the day I arrived, so I spent several hours walking around the grounds, talking with folks, visiting campsites, and taking it all in. One thing I noticed right off was that, while the fiddle is definitely the instrument of choice, the banjo is a close second. Guitar and bass? It seems they are there only to support. So, all you banjo players, come to Clifftop where you’ll be treasured. No banjo jokes here.
My most rewarding conversation was with Junior McCumbers, a banjoist from way back. With pride, he showed me his 1934 Gibson, Earl Scruggs’ banjo. I could not tell, however, if the “Earl Scruggs” inscription on its body meant it was given to him by Scruggs or was just signed by him. Either way, my visit with McCombers was cut short when he remembered he had to meet a guy about selling one of his other banjos.
The high point on Friday evening was the five bands who were the finalists in the neo-traditional band contest: Cameron DeWitt and the Confirmation Bias, a trio from Philadelphia; the Cloud Surfers, a septet from Lancaster, Pennsylvania; The Early Mays, a trio from Pittsburgh; the Ladles, a trio from New York; and Rumput, another septet, from Richmond, Virginia.
As would be expected, all took a different approach to extending traditional music, as their experiences have been invariably different and their talents take them down different avenues. When time came for them to face off, one after another, after each doing two numbers, the folks who were awarded fifth place were just as jubilant as those who took home first. There are no losers in traditional music, there is only the music and the humanity that gets expressed in the music.
I hung out with the eventual takers of first place, the Early Mays, during their brief rehearsal and again backstage. Not only did they take home a bigger check that comes with the prize, but they will also get to perform for a full hour before next year’s finals. Interestingly, the Early Mays were the most traditional of the neo-traditionalists. The most prominent member being Rachel Eddy from my home state of West Virginia, who has made quite a name for herself in the world of traditional music, both here and abroad.
Last year’s winners, Roochie Toochie & the Ragtime Shepherd Kings, got the hour gig this year. They play a bit of every style, with a visual element to boot. At times they had three banjos going at once. See, I told you the banjo played an important role at this festival.
As I left late that night, the music flowed back to the campsites and front porches. I lingered, walked around the campsites again, but this time in the dark. As I left the grounds, the square dancers were doing some last-minute limbering outside the dance hall. When I left the last lighted area, I looked up at a sky that had cleared, revealing a starry, starry night. Folks who live in the city do not know what real darkness is. They never get to see this many stars. The only thing older here than the music are the mountains, and on this particular mountain on this particular night, I laid on the ground and looked up at the only things older than my mountains.