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Ole Time Fiddler’s And Bluegrass Festival In Union Grove, N.C

July 3, 2009


This just deserves a post.

Ole Time Fiddler’s Slide Show And Music.

First contest, first first-place,” said Brennen Ernst, a 15-year-old banjo player from Leesburg, Va., minutes after picking up a blue ribbon at the 85th annual Ole Time Fiddler’s and Bluegrass Festival in Union Grove, N.C. It was afternoon on the festival’s second day, and Brennen, wearing a black derby and a pink T-shirt, had been playing all but nonstop since before the festival opened.

“I play everything,” he told me the day before. “That’s not bragging. I just listen to a whole lot of styles, and I play everything.”

When I met him, he was taking a break from picking a tune in the fast, three-finger roller-coaster technique made popular by the bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs in the 1940s. Brennen took up the banjo only a little more than a year ago, and he came to Union Grove with Tom Mindte, 52, an accomplished mandolinist from Rockville, Md., whom he described as his mentor.

Brennen wasn’t the best musician I heard over four days at the festival, known to most simply as Fiddler’s Grove, but it was clear that he was off and running, caught in an obsession on display around the 45 acres of rolling hills at the festival site. Countless string-band jam sessions ebbed and flowed from the morning’s first rooster crow until late at night, when a sequined blanket of stars draped the blue-black sky.

Old-time and bluegrass music festivals have become a summer ritual all around the country, but nowhere is the experience quite the same as in the Southern Appalachians, the music’s birthplace. Popular events in Galax, Va.; Mount Airy, N.C.; and Clifftop, W.Va., draw zealous fans and gifted musicians. Fiddler’s Grove may not be the largest or best known of the major festivals, but its claim to fame is that it’s the oldest continuously held one.

“It’s really the granddaddy or grandmama of all of them,” said Wayne Martin, the folklife director at the North Carolina Arts Council.

Started as a fund-raiser by a fiddling teacher named H. P. Van Hoy in 1924, the festival was first held at a school near its current spot. In the 1960s, as the crowds grew along with the popularity of folk music, the festival overwhelmed the school grounds and had to move.

A family feud erupted between Mr. Van Hoy’s sons Harper and Pierce over how it would continue, and through the 1970s two competing versions were held in the small town about an hour’s drive north of Charlotte, N.C. Eventually Pierce’s event, which was larger and somewhat unruly, was deemed a public nuisance and halted. But Harper’s more low-key festival, where alcohol and drugs are prohibited, lived on.

“It’s the highlight of my life,” Harper Van Hoy, now 87, said of the festival on its first day as we sat at a picnic table with his son, Hank Van Hoy, a lawyer from nearby Mocksville, N.C., who has served as master of ceremonies since the 1980s. The walls of a chocolate-colored old barn behind us were covered with plaques and clippings detailing the event’s history, including appearances by virtuosos like Doc Watson, J. P. Fraley, Byard Ray, Benton Flippen and L. W. Lambert.

“We don’t advertise much,” Hank Van Hoy said. “People who come here are generally people who have come over and over and over for 10, 15, 20, 30 years.”

One Comment
  1. Tom Bryan permalink
    July 31, 2009 9:51 AM

    My wife and I have not been to Fiddler’s Grove yet, but do plan to attend next year. I heard about your fun filled days on NC PBS and from a friend, Tom Vandiver, a retired truck driver. Tom has been there a few times.
    I hope to see all of you at your next session.

    Tom Bryan

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