Losing our traditions

Pete Seeger first heard the five-string banjo played at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville in 1936, forever changing the course of his life — and the future of American music.

Fast forward to 2004. Award-winning bluegrass guitarist/vocalist and public-radio personality Nick Forster is coming to Asheville to host a fund-raiser for the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival (MDFF). Forster heard his first-ever live music played on a five-string banjo by his Hudson River Valley childhood neighbor … Pete Seeger.

Some sort of divine hoodoo courtesy of the famed Asheville vortex? Perhaps.

Forster is a former member of Grammy-nominated bluegrass band Hot Rize (which played its farewell show in 1990, at MerleFest in Wilkesboro). A frequent guest on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, Forster is currently the host of popular National Public Radio old-time-variety-with-a-social-conscience-show etown, broadcast locally on WNCW-FM. Proceeds from his Asheville concert, “A Celebration of Mountain Traditions,” will benefit the Folk Heritage Committee, which annually produces both MDFF and Shindig on the Green.

The committee relies on public financial support and volunteer staffing to offset the cost of the two events — Shindig is free, and tickets for MDFF are kept at affordable rates — both of which combine old-time music with a strong sense of community. Those latter items, Forster has posited, are fast becoming “like air and water.”

They’re essential, in other words, to our cultural health.

“We need things of substance these days that are real and heartfelt, especially when they’re connected to tradition,” Forster stressed in a recent interview.

MDFF, now held at downtown’s Diana Wortham Theatre, showcases local traditional musicians, ballad singers, dancers and storytellers, from old-timers to kids. The festival enters its 77th year this August.

Shindig, of course, is a kind of Southern Appalachian free-for-all held on summer Saturday evenings at City/County Plaza; the event turns 38 this year. In addition to a stage show of both music and traditional mountain-style dance (particularly clogging), clusters of players jam informally across the plaza, with novice pickers playing with seasoned professionals in a give-and-take that’s hard to find elsewhere in the music world.

To Forster, that communal spirit is one of the greatest beauties of playing traditional music. “People get to dive in,” he explains. “It isn’t a passive form of music; you can go to jam sessions, get involved [and] learn to play from the masters.

“It’s multigenerational,” Forster adds. “A 14-year-old can … have a great experience with someone who’s 75. That’s very rare.”

It is, he declares, “what communities are made of.”

Forster’s local concert will feature performers who boast a deep history with both Shindig and MDFF, part of an ever-evolving, extended musical family whose members can claim roots in these mountains.

Grammy-winning guitarist and Asheville native Bryan Sutton, for instance, who started jamming at Shindig as a young boy and further polished his blazing bluegrass guitar style at MDFF.

Sutton has gone on to perform with the likes of Ricky Skaggs, Dolly Parton, Jerry Douglas, The Dixie Chicks and The Chieftains. As an in-demand Nashville session player, he’s graced countless high-profile recordings, including Parton’s The Grass Is Blue and The Dixie Chicks’ Home.

He’s also twice been honored with the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player of the Year award, in 2000 and 2003.

Travis and Trevor Stuart, twins from Haywood County’s Bethel community, are among the finest of the region’s younger old-time players who are also WNC natives — a relatively scarce faction of the scene.

Trevor plays fiddle and Travis plays banjo; together, they teach the next generation of players how to keep the art of traditional music alive through the Junior Appalachian Music Program (funded by the National Endowment for the Arts).

And although Forster grew up in rural, upstate New York instead of in Southern Appalachia, he was lucky enough to have not only Pete Seeger as a neighbor, but also the folk icon’s cousin, Mike, of New Lost City Ramblers. Tom Paley and John Cohen, Mike Seeger’s band-mates, likewise lived right down the road.

Forster says he really liked how Pete Seeger “tried to build a community around music. That’s what we’ve [also] tried to do with etown — build it around live music.”

And along the way, he adds, hometowns are made stronger.

Traditional music has, of course, benefited from a joyous resurgence in recent years, after a too-long respite during the ’70s, ’80s and part of the ’90s.

It’s no surprise to Forster.

“There’s always an ebb and flow,” he asserts, emphasizing the current “rare convergence of popular media with old-time music” — from such phenomena as O Brother to the more-surprising influence of jam-grass groups like Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident. The latter, he points out, “made people pay attention to traditional instruments like the mandolin.”

Yet something deeper — maybe a natural, collective reaction to an increasingly artificial world — may also be at work.

“We’re losing so many of our traditions and regional distinctions,” Forster notes. “You used to be able to pinpoint someone’s town of origin, within a few miles, by their speech patterns — that’s harder and harder to do.

“We’re craving real music, real conversation, real expression.”

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