Way down in the Blue Ridge Mountains,
Way down where the tall pines grow...

Back on good ol’ I-40, I cleaved through the driving rain across the rest of Tennessee, inched along in Knoxville’s notorious traffic snarls, and finally made my way into the Great Smoky Mountains. (Yes, I forewent a visit to Pigeon Forge, home of “Dollywood.” Sorry ‘bout that, Ms. Parton.) Actually, the mountains of western North Carolina (locally referred to as WNC) are a conflux of the Smokies and Blue Ridge Mountains, both forming the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountain range.

North Carolina vistaSandy Mush signAnyway, whatever you want to call them, there’s a heck of a bunch of mountains in WNC and, while not of the scope and majesty of our Sierras out west, they are formidable. Because these mountains aren’t so rugged as their western counterparts, they are more habitable at all elevations, and small backwoods communities are tucked everywhere. The thickly wooded mountains feature myriad valleys and hollers and country roads that seem to roll on forever. Put simply: this is moonshine country. My favorite place name was a valley called Big Sandy Mush. I don’t know if “Mush” is a generic term such as a “holler,” but it does have a 90 proof ring to it, no?

Tobacco hangingIt's also tobacco-hanging-in-old-weathered-barns country. Pretty artsy photo, don't you think? Anyway, I turned off the highway at the wood mill town of Canton and headed up Beaverdam Road to find the house of my friends Jim and Karen. It'd only been a couple months since they'd moved out here from Sonoma County. Their fine house, set again a tree-covered mountainside, is chock full of instruments and music – and good food, too!

Jim and KarenJim & Karen are those little tiny people on the porch.
The next day I accompanied them to a jam session in nearby Asheville, which has the distinction of being a very hip town as well as the easternmost spot of my long journey. Its well-earned reputation as a great place to live (and very hip music town) is growing every day. In addition to a state college, it boasts an array of art galleries, theaters, and music venues, including many that host regular jam sessions. The jam I went to with Jim and Karen has been happening each Thursday for over forty years! The pickers were all guys ranging from super seniors, to old-timers, to middle-agers (I guess that’s me) and a smattering of 30 somethings. Interesting that there were more listeners than players. Almost all were womenfolk, and from time to time one would feel the spirit, then jump and start dancing. Most just sat politely and listened. God love ‘em. I guess they liked the music, or maybe they had nothing else to do. I mean, it is a cheap night out. By the way, the evening I was there, a couple of filmmakers were shooting a documentary on this legendary jam. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up being immortalized on film as a North Carolina picker.

I attended a few other jams during my stay in WNC. It wasn’t hard because they were happening all the time. And all were fun. One was at a pub and featured some of the town’s hot young pickers. Another was made up mostly senior pickers. Whatever the case, it’s very cool that all generations get into the musical act in Asheville. No Ralph's busother place I visited – or have lived in, for that matter – compares to Asheville as a music scene. For you old folkies, I will add that I missed a visit to the shop and jam session of the legendary Peggy Seeger. FYI: the hot band in WNC is “Sons of Ralph” who play mix of bluegrass and country and rock n’ roll and are real crowd pleasers. Ralph Lewis is an old bluegrasser (played mandolin with Flatt and Scruggs, was it?) and his sons can really burn it up. But, truthfully, they were too loud for me. Ah, those aging ears...

Another night I got to sit in with an old timey band of which Jim and Karen are regular members. We played on the front porch an old, historic dinner house in the little country burg of Dillsboro. The appreciative audience lined up in front of us in straight-backed chairs. The other musicians were older guys who looked to be straight out of the mountains and with accents thicker than hog sweat. The fiddle player, a fine fellow named Hays, had a peg leg. We all had a fine time and a free meal to boot. Music is king in the hills of western North Carolina.

Next: My window faces the South…


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