If the Bluff Mountain Festival ever claims an icon, it should be Roger Howell. Both the festival and the person are long-time champions of preservation.
The former began 10 years ago in Hot Springs as a grassroots effort to save Bluff Mountain from logging. The first three years raised $6,000 for the Bluff Mountain Defense Fund, enough to save the landmark from destruction.
And though the mountain was saved, no one wanted the festival to end. In keeping with the preservation idea, organizers used the profits to revive the Madison County Arts Council. Over the past seven years, $20,000 has been raised by a slate of traditional musicians — many of whom count this free festival as a favorite.
Current performers include Sheila Kay Adams, David Holt and the Bailey Mountain Trio, a group that includes traditional-music safeguarder Roger Howell. A Madison County native, Howell is also a man on a mission.
“If we as younger folks, who grew up in the tradition, don’t keep it going,” he said in a recent talk, “[then] the whole generation of music will go with the people we learned it from.”
Howell resides in the appropriately named Banjo Branch on Bailey Mountain, a beautiful stretch of ridge near Mars Hill. Retired from Honeywell, Howell runs a store on his property that epitomizes his personality. One side holds a rock collection (none of it for sale) worthy of Smaug’s treasure horde. Blue sapphire, emeralds, obsidians and arrowheads adorn an ongoing display that Howell’s collected since he was seven. The other side boasts a for-sale collection of mainly fiddles, guitars and banjos. (Howell typically buys fiddles from folks who don’t desire the upkeep.)
The middle of the store showcases years of personal recordings. A prodigious multi-instrumentalist, Howell never promotes himself on any of his releases. It’s more about the instruments’ storied origins, he says.
“I pick tunes that exemplify where I got them from. It’s a shame to let it float out there without saying something about it.”
Howell is typically tight-lipped about his prowess — until he recounts his past. He moved to Banjo Branch at age five, and the music took hold immediately.
“An old lady used to live in the house up on the hill from here, and she had this big old loud obnoxious banjo,” he recalls. “I thought that was the prettiest thing I ever heard.”
Howell was 11 when his father bought him his first instrument — a very non-traditional Kay Electric Guitar. He started playing with the neighbors, and picked up the fiddle and the banjo. His Aunt Pearl Ball taught him clawhammer, a style he finally picked up on the day of her passing.
The great fiddler Tommy Hunter was Howell’s next mentor, and he paved the way for Howell’s performance at the Lunsford Festival in Mars Hill in the late ’60s. It was there that Howell met legendary songcatcher Bascom Lamar Lunsford.
“He saw me play,” Howell remembers, “and he told me, ‘You keep that up. Now you’re doing something that people want to hear.’ I’ve been going ever since.”
In the ’90s, Howell began going to Mrs. Hyatt’s jams — a weekly session held to this day in the garage of Nelia Hyatt, a widow who opened her home on Brevard Road years ago to allow musicians to play in an unstructured environment. It was there that Howell met his future Bailey Mountain Trio partners — Buddy Davis and Carol Mallett Rifkin.
A Grammy-nominated instrumentalist, Davis can boast stints playing bass in Doc Watson’s band and co-producing the Fire on the Mountain series. Green Grass Clogger and guitarist Rifkin has performed in numerous award-winning string bands; she currently writes about music for the Asheville Citizen-Times and co-produces the Lake Eden Arts Festival.
Like his recordings, Howell teaches the crowd about the origins of the Trio’s songs. And though he’s never read a note in his life (“your ear is what you learn by”), he doesn’t have to — he is mountain music.
“There are a lot of folks that come in here who are ‘old time,'” he allows. “They’re good at it, but they hear it off the record. We grew up in it. You have to be honest about it — you can’t really add or subtract a whole lot, or you end up changing it.”
It’s a no-brainer that Roger Howell is in his ninth year at the Bluff Mountain Festival. Both share a dual purpose. Howell saves ballads and instruments from extinction, and the festival saved a whole mountain from a similar fate.
[Hunter Pope is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]
The 10th Annual Bluff Mountain Festival happens Saturday, June 11, on the grounds of the Hot Springs Spa and Resort in Hot Springs, N.C. (about a 45-min. drive from Asheville, off 25/70). Headliners include Sheila Kay Adams, the Bailey Mountain Trio, David Holt and Laura Boosinger, and Sons of Ralph. 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Free. Call (828) 622-7676 for camping reservations or for more information.