As surely as growing shoots of kudzu bind much of North Carolina’s rural landscape during the warm months, the state is also seized by a number of old-time and bluegrass music festivals, annual reminders of the unique place of the fiddle and banjo in the South’s cultural life.
None of these is older than Fiddler’s Grove, which takes place at Union Grove May 26 through 28. This festival will celebrate its 82nd birthday, earning it certified longest-running “ole time fiddler’s contest in North America” status, according to the festival organizers.
As the name suggests, the festival is dedicated to the fiddle, the defining sound of old-time music, primarily through competitions held throughout the weekend. Contestants work their way through youth and senior divisions, and through a unique “heritage tune” category where the ditty must be at least a century old. When the clouds of rosin settle, a “Fiddler of the Festival” is crowned. Winning the title three times earns a fiddler “Master Fiddler” status and retires them from competition. (Madison County wunderkind Josh Goforth is a win away from “Master” status.) Along with fiddle, there are competitions on banjo, autoharp, mandolin, harmonica, guitar, dulcimer, hammered dulcimer, Dobro, and bass, as well as old-time and bluegrass band face-offs.
But unlike many old-time and bluegrass music conventions, which are primarily oriented around competition, Fiddler’s Grove is also rich with performance and informal workshop components. This year brings The Krueger Brothers, The Cockman Family, and old-time duo Ken Perlman and Alan Jabbour to the main stage. Asheville-based singer and multi-instrumentalist Laura Boosinger will perform, too, as well as lead workshops on shape-note singing.
“What’s really important about Fiddler’s Grove,” says Boosinger, checking in from a tour in Scotland, “is that for generations they’ve encouraged the young people to learn the music, and so there’s competition for kids, both on [various] instruments, and band competitions for them as well. There are a lot of people who have grown up in this festival and gone on to make their livings as musicians.”
One of those is Bryan Sutton, a top-shelf Nashville session player and Grammy-winning flatpicking guitarist. His father, Candler resident Jerry Sutton, began taking the family to Fiddler’s Grove in 1983, playing onstage with the family band. In a world that can sometimes seem hostile to quiet camaraderie, Sutton says he’s “always felt that the festival is a safe environment for families.” Sutton, who, like his son, is primarily a guitarist, says the annual event is the ideal time to “steal licks and trade tunes,” adding that it attracts “a high number of really good pickers.”
The festival had its start in 1924 when H.P. Van Hoy, principal of the Union Grove school and a fiddler himself, decided to establish an annual fiddler’s competition to raise money for the school. His son, Harper Van Hoy, a fiddler as well, has taken care through the years to hold fast to his father’s vision of a community event. And now, Harper’s son, Mocksville attorney Henry “Hank” Van Hoy, serves as event emcee.
“It’s always been dad’s aim to promote a festival that a person could bring their wife and kids to, where they could have the run of the place, and, other than maybe getting into some poison oak or a beehive, they could enjoy a weekend without any trouble,” Van Hoy says. “We’ve never made any money, but we’ve been very happy with the atmosphere we’ve created.” Van Hoy says he expects the festival to attract 3,000-3,500 guests this year.
This time around, the event arrives on a poignant note, as its longtime administrator, Wanona “Wansie” Van Hoy, Harper’s wife and Hank’s mother, passed away earlier this spring. Much of the work of organizing has been farmed out to loyal helpers, what Van Hoy calls the “festival family.” This year’s Fiddler’s Grove festival, he says, is conceived as a celebration of Wansie’s life and dedication to the music’s preservation.
A big part of the Fiddler’s Grove charm lies in its expansive festival grounds, 48 acres set with natural amphitheaters, a pond and quiet woods, which are a welcome break for many festival-goers used to more spartan settings around the South, with their hardpan ballfields and sunbaked fairgrounds. One of the festival’s local promoters is musician and music publisher Wayne Erbsen, who for weeks now has been giving away tickets to it on his “Country Roots” radio show on Asheville public-radio station WCQS.
“I’ve been ballyhooing the festival for a while now,” notes Erbsen, who counts among the event’s highlights its “twin fiddle” competition — a chance for players to indulge in harmonies they otherwise don’t get to play.
“The fun thing is the the jamming, the companionable feel,” says Erbsen. “There are some people where this is the only festival they’ll go to each year. It’s a great North Carolina tradition.”
The Fiddler’s Grove 82nd Ole Time Fiddler’s and Bluegrass Festival runs Friday, May 26 through Sunday, May 28 at Fiddler’s Grove Campground in Union Grove, N.C. (2 hours east of Asheville, 15 minutes before the junction of I-40 and I-77). See fiddlersgrove.com or call (828) 478-3735 for more information.