Tonight my friend H had invited me and the girls to see a story teller at the Museum of Frontier Culture in Staunton, Virginia, which is about a half-hour south of Harrisonburg. We picked her up at 6 and took Route 42 through winding countryside, mountain vistas in the distance, cut over to Route 11 (the old Valley Pike) and then down to the museum, which is fairly young as museums go.
This living history museum features an Appalachian homestead farm as well as a few other farm buildings literally taken apart in Europe and put back together in the Valley to show the kinds of farms whose architecture and agricultural practices influenced Valley settlers. It's popular with public schools for field trips. We've been to a wedding there in the octagonal barn. It was a lovely evening to be sure and one of two weddings we've been to with reception music provided by the incredible Hackensaw Boys. I was going to, but now realize I don't want to talk about the storyteller we saw tonight, who was absolutely respectable, or the fact that I spent the whole second story watching JieJie and MeiMei attempt really painful looking cartwheels behind the storytelling shed. As soon as I got that Hackensaw music rolling in my head, it reminded me of so many things...Never heard of 'em? Sit back.
In fact, to really get the most out of what I'm about to write, open another browser window, go to http://www.hackensawboys.com/ and play the concert footage from Amsterdam that's on there now. I don't think they play many weddings anymore...they're at the Knitting Factory in NYC and the enormous Floyd Fest in southside Virginia this month, and they're from here.
Now let's get one thing straight. I do NOT like most country music. I love Johnny Cash (thanks Dad) and during the Urban Cowboy era I liked stuff like Eddie Rabbitt and the Oak Ridge Boys, and John Denver's music always makes me smile, but most of today's country-pop leaves me cold. I like what I guess is called "roots country" like Alison Krauss and the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, stuff like that. Living in Virginia has made me appreciate roots / bluegrass so much, and despise the stuffed-cowboy-hat stuff even more.
At our wedding reception, over a decade ago now, John and I had a group called Dominion Express (Violinist Two-Gun Terry with friends Cameron Nickels and ??) play and everyone had such a great time. EVERYONE was up and dancing. You just can't help it when there's live bluegrass playing. Even my great aunt Mickey, who was a classical music professor at University of Idaho, sat rapt, wondering at Two-Gun's amazing fiddle playing. She knew good music and mastery of technique when she saw it.
But see, the Hackensaws and Dominion Express are NOT country music. They play Bluegrass, or more correctly for this area, "Old Time" music. A friend of mine who has played both styles tried to describe the difference between bluegrass and old-time. He said Bluegrass is more like jazz, where the group plays in unison for the first verse to state the theme of the song, and then each instrumentalist takes a solo turn with laid-back support from the rest of the group, then everyone gets together for the wind-up. With Old-Time, though, he said everyone plays full-out the whole time, and it can be physically grueling to keep up. check out some of the tempos in the Hackensaw clips!!
The other thing that's amazing about the Hackensaws...well just look at the footage of their concert. Is it 2007 or 1937?? You half expect Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, or a young Bob Dylan to come strolling in. Look at the pork pie hats, the flannel shirts...how skinny they all are, like they've been working all day at the CCC camp...and my goodness the instruments! Accordions, washboards, mandolins and banjos, stand-up bass violins plucked hard. Do they blow into a jug? I didn't see one, but I'd put money on it.
Along with Old-Time music goes Contra Dancing, or square dancing with two long lines (Virginia Reel for example). You can try it the second Saturday of every month at the Dayton Learning Center, a former high school in the little country town of Dayton, VA (never mind the aroma...it's the chicken and turkey processing plant. Hope the wind blows the right way and you'll be fine). Show up at 7:15 for a Contra Dance lesson, and the actually dance begins at 8, always with live music. It's a bargain at $5. If you're looking for a Harrisonburg-area old-time ensemble for a wedding or party, try contacting Steve Parks http://www.steveparksmusic.com/music.html who is an anchor of the local scene.
And sooner or later, if you live around here, you'll get invited "out to the county" to someone's giant piece of land where they have a year's worth of wood, paper, and God knows what-all that's set up in a huge bonfire. About 1 in the morning, when the bonfire is no longer eyebrow-singing temperature, the guitars and mandolins come out and you find yourself singing "Goodnight Irene."
So that's a bit of what there is to do 'round these parts.
But I swear we're feeling like we've done it all...restless...