If these hills could talk

Go almost anywhere in Western North Carolina between June and August, and you’ll find that the hills are more than alive with the sound of music — they’re positively echoing!

From hoedowns in the hollers to square dances in the streets, the abundance of mountain-music festivals seems to leave little room on the summer calendar for anything else. And the grounds of the Hot Springs Spa and Resort will contribute to the bounty when the fifth annual Bluff Mountain Music Festival unleashes a full day of first-rate performers on June 10.

Hometown heroes David Holt and Peggy Seeger will headline, sharing the shady stage with such notable music-makers as Madison County’s own Sim Top Ramblers, featuring award-winning fiddler Josh Goforth. Audiences can also tune their ears to Strangs and Thangs, from Rogersville, Tenn.; the Mountain Aire String Band from Waynesville; and many more foot-stomping entertainers. The Sodom Laurel Ballad Singers will make a special noontime appearance, led by Asheville balladeer Leena Jean Ray, and renowned caller Peter Gott will keep the square- and contra- dancers steppin’ till the gates shut at dusk.

While all of the region’s music festivals contribute to keeping these mountains lively, the Bluff event has helped keep one particular peak alive in a very literal sense. The highest elevation in Madison County, Bluff Mountain offers refuge to wild turkey and bear, Appalachian Trail hikers, and a rich spring supply of branch lettuce, ramps and morel mushrooms. Children walked the winding road along its broad shoulders en route to school, years ago, and a wreath of close-knit communities still rings the mountain’s base today.

“To the people that know it the best, [Bluff Mountain]’s one of the last best places,” declares ecologist and fiddler Mary Kelly, a Shelton Laurel resident who helped found the festival. “It’s got this whole big, beautiful face that has never been developed for the modern logging roads, and it’s never had the clear-cuts on it.”

She should know. If it weren’t for the dedicated efforts of Kelly and hundreds like her — who took immediate action when they learned of U.S. Forest Service plans to sell the timber rights to 480 acres of Bluff Mountain back in 1996 — it wouldn’t be possible to make that statement today. Bumper stickers hollered “Don’t Cut Bluff,” and an eclectic assemblage of bear hunters, businesspeople and environmentalists banded together to stop the timber sale. After months of intense activism, organizers hit on a new approach to rally support and publicize their cause, and a festival was born.

“We had basically exhausted all of our avenues for working within the system and writing letters and going to meetings, and it was hard to get a break. The Forest Service was not budging, and the congressman was in favor of the logging,” Kelly recalls. “It also was a way to show our organizing muscle: If we could pull off a successful music festival that included a lot of different types of people and community interests, then we weren’t just some kind of fringe group.”

And so, in May 1996, on a stage made of donated wood nailed together by volunteers, a host of regional and world-famous performers set to singing for the sake of the mountain.

“lt turned out to be the brightest thing we did,” observed Kelly. “We needed to publicize the name of Bluff Mountain … and the music festival let us plaster the towns with posters and get press coverage that we just couldn’t get, going through the normal editorial boards at the papers, or the reporters.”

Did it work? And how.

“[World-famous folk performer] John McCutcheon said, ‘A singing movement is a winning movement,'” Kelly remarks, with a knowing smile. For win they did — finally emerging from eight days of negotiations with the Forest Service and timber interests to unveil a compromise agreement that promised no new roads (save for a trailhead parking area) and scheduled a mere 10 acres of land for deforestation.

And though the timber sale has been put off, for now, the festival continues. For one thing, Bluff Mountain has yet to be rezoned, and so remains vulnerable to logging interests. To keep the issue alive, the Bluff Mountain Defense Coalition brings its petition to rezone the mountain (which boasts more thab 1,000 signatures to date) to each festival, and legendary Madison County balladeer Betty Smith sings the festival’s anthem, “The Coming of the Roads,” penned by Billy Ed Wheeler.

“To us, the festival is kind of like a vigil,” asserts Kelly. “We figure as long as we’re putting on the festival, the Forest Service wouldn’t dare come back and try to start up their plans again.”

Festival organizers also hoped that a yearly event would benefit the community at large, providing both entertainment and an economic boost. To this end, the coalition turned the Bluff Mountain Music Festival over to the Madison County Arts Council last year, making it more of a community event and less of a “political hot potato,” according to festival organizer/arts council President Rodney Sutton.

“Now, the emphasis has shifted more toward [the festival as] a fund-raiser for the arts council, which still puts the money right back into the community through music programs and arts-and-education programs,” he explains. Sutton, a professional clogger from eastern North Carolina, moved to Madison County in 1991.

Since the festival is free and entirely produced by volunteers (even the musicians perform gratis), its main sources of income are the raffle (with giveaways ranging from bed-and-breakfast stays and hot-tub soaks to raft trips and CDs) and the silent auction, which features donations of high-quality art-and-craft items, including pottery and photographs.

“It’s really done more as a labor of love than anything else,” stresses Sutton. “I always said that, originally, the festival was put on to preserve a national treasure — which was Bluff Mountain — and now, we’re continuing the festival to preserve the national treasures of the traditional music and ballad singing and dancing here in Madison County.”

So gather your blankets and lawn chairs, and head for Hot Springs this Saturday. Kick back (or kick up your heels) at the base of beautiful Bluff Mountain, and rejoice in the festive sounds of summer. (But don’t forget to mark your calendar for next year — because, according to Kelly, this is one festival that’s destined to become as old as these hills.)

“It started as a protest. The second year, it became a celebration — and now, it’s an institution,” she proclaims.

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