Step right up

How many times have you heard someone lament, “You can’t get anything for nothing, anymore!”? As if, in the olden days, all interesting stuff was free, whereas now everything has its price. Well, obviously these modern-day cynics have never been to Asheville’s weekly summer hoedown, Shindig on the Green. This outdoor show is completely free — which, incidentally, reflects the generous hearts of the performers, not their skill levels (the event regularly spotlights mountain musicians of considerable reknown).

Shindig — a regular summer happening here for more than a quarter century — features traditional mountain music, including bluegrass, old-time string bands and the entire spectrum of Appalachian instruments. The lawn of City/County Plaza, also known as “Asheville’s front porch,” metamorphosizes into a stage housing musicians, dancers and cloggers; what’s more, Shindig is a totally spontaneous event. The performers sign up for stage time that very night, so an air of improvisation is always the master of ceremonies.

Among those musicians who don’t make it to the main stage in time, informal jam sessions spring up shortly thereafter, uniting small clusters of pickers in and around the crowd. A house band (so to speak) called The Stoney Creek Boys starts off each show and plays sporadically throughout the evening, providing background music for the cloggers and square-dancers and ending the show with a waltz that has everyone dancing in the street.

Boyd Black, bassist for The Stoney Creek Boys, has been a part of Shindig for almost 30 years; in fact, he’s the last remaining member of the original Shindig house band. He told Xpress how it all began: “It was just an idea in someone’s mind, then folks started to meet. … Now I talk to people from all over the world about it all the time. Shindig is widely imitated, and many other musical gatherings have been patterned after it.” He also clarifies Shindig’s important role in the Asheville music scene: “It is great family entertainment for both the locals and visitors alike. Shindig helped put Asheville on the map.”

This is the 34th summer that Shindig has spread its grassroots energy among the local community. It happens every Saturday night from July 1 through Sept. 2, withdrawing only when Bele Chere takes over (July 29) and for the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival (Aug. 5).

One interesting aspect of Shindig is the level of musicianship displayed, which ranges from those who’ve had years — even decades — of formal training to those who simply play what they’ve picked up along the way from their families and communities. Everything you hear is authentic, inspiring the listener with a true sense of the history of mountain culture and music. Brooke Windsor, who performs with her husband George Buckner in a band called Rusty Bucket, both sings and plays various instruments. She views Shindig as “a great opportunity for musicians to gather and pick together, as well as connect with old friends.”

For her, the spontaneity is key: “You get to play with a lot of different musicians. Pretty much right before you get on-stage, you can grab someone and ask them something like, ‘Want to play bass? Or mandolin?'” She also enjoys the local color brilliantly evident at each of these lawn parties, acknowledging, “There are definitely some real characters there!”

Leesa Sutton, public-relations chair for The Folk Heritage Committee and a Shindig coordinator, has attended the festival since childhood. “Shindig is about mountain people making their music, and it is definitely indigenous to the region,” she comments. Sutton aptly terms Shindig “The original open-mic night,” hinting, “You never know who is going to show up.”

In fact, the only aspect of Shindig that adheres to any sort of schedule is the various square-dancing teams that entertain the audience while the music is playing. Clogging is another popular attraction, about which Windsor instructs, “[It] comes from a mixture of the upbeat of traditional Irish dancing and the downbeat of traditional Indian dancing.” The result is an exhilarating art form, and dancers are accordingly garbed in festive costumes. Group dances feature a segment called “freestyle,” when each dance team steps off the line of other dancers and does its own unique routine for the crowd.

Troy Harrison, a banjo player who frequents Shindig, has this to say about the gathering:

“It is a place where the younger people can come and learn from the older generation while they are playing. It is vital to preserving our heritage; there are so many different styles of music represented, everything from real jamming to old-time to bluegrass. You can hear a hammer dulcimer; sometimes, it’s even real soft.

“It’s a great chance to play with folks you never played with before, on-stage, for the shared love of music.”

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