A talent for tradition

“If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you’re going.”

In one sentence, John Dall, husband of Scottish-heritage performer Flora MacDonald Gammon, has just defined Asheville’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival.

The 77th-annual event is an embodiment of everything that’s original about traditional Appalachian music — an almost exotic concept in these days of anything-goes culture appropriation and genre-melding.

Founded by songcatcher Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the three-day festival recaptures an era in which pickers, cloggers, ballad singers and storytellers come down off the mountainside to share their skills — more than 75 acts in all are slated for this year’s event.

Still, it’s not a talent show — crowd-pleasing, not showboating, is what’s made MDFF the nation’s longest continuously running folk festival.

“I find there’s some very old spirits amongst the performers,” reveals Dall.

While it’s cool to see glossy bluegrass bands like Nickel Creek cover a Pavement tune, or ultra-talented newgrassers Yonder Mountain String Band pick to the wheels of a “Crazy Train,” it’s even more retro to see the all-smiles Cockman family — performing on Saturday — pick and praise the word of Jesus. While religion may not be everybody’s bag, it’s performers like the Cockmans who give the listener an idea of the real origins of Appalachian music.

Of course, it’s not just old-time gospel that reigns at this festival. The overwhelming majority of performers own a background indigenous to the area, and each of their stories is worthy of the back-porch-fable tradition.

Take the elusive Tom McKinney, a Black Mountain-based security guard whose band, the Snowy Mountain Boys, also performs on Saturday. McKinney’s legend lies not so much in his picking, but in his world-class tuning talent: Banjo heavyweights such as Bela Fleck are rumored to send him their instruments to be set to the Tom McKinney tone.

Then there’s Flora MacDonald Gammon. The Fayetteville native, who plays Saturday, not only displays her Scottish heritage — outfit and all — but also shows a sharp knack for getting audience members interested in their own ancestral lineage.

Infinitely busy, Gammon works every year with the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games as assistant director of music, and with Folkmoot USA, as director of the International Band and as an emcee.

Children are especially drawn to Gammon, who, dulcimer in tow, makes trips to school classrooms to tell students why they should care about their ancestry.

“You wouldn’t believe the stuff she gets them to do,” Dall says with a laugh. “She goes in dressed in the old style, and that kind of impacts the kids. She never lectures; she involves them naturally. Before too long, she gets them walking down the corridor singing songs.

“She never talks down,” Dall goes on. “She talks to your level — she senses that in each individual. No matter what age — 6, 10, 60 — everyone thinks she’s talking to them individually.”

Tradition also rests high on the mantel for Bobby and Susie Anderson. The husband-and-wife duo own and operate Blue Ridge Music, an Asheville store dedicated to carrying and teaching all things acoustic. Stockers of only high-end instruments, the couple also takes in 150 students on a weekly basis to “promote bluegrass and tradition.”

Bobby, whose band Blue Ridge Tradition performs on Thursday, can claim 45 years of plucking experience.

Still, his first experience at MDFF left him quaking.

“He was awestruck the first year,” Susie said in a recent interview. “This festival’s different from others in that you follow the tradition and please the crowd.”

And Susie swears that, traditional or otherwise, acoustic music can even cool adolescent angst.

“A guy brought his 17-year-old son into the store, who had really been into heavy metal,” she reports. “But [the teen] recently discovered bluegrass and found it more challenging. I find that when kids get bored with other music, they’ll come back to the challenges of bluegrass.”

Bascom Lamar Lunsford would be proud. His “children” have carried on his tradition of freezing a portrait of a certain culture and then fleshing it out for a curious audience. Crowd-pleasing is optimal, heritage reigns over appearance, and mountain culture sustains for another year.

[Hunter Pope is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]

The 77th Annual Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, featuring more than 75 traditional acts, starts at 7 p.m. all three nights — Thursday, Aug. 5 through Saturday, Aug. 7 — at Diana Wortham Theatre. Tickets for adults are $10/Thursday night, $12 for Friday and Saturday performances. (Kids’ tickets are $5/$6.) See www.folkheritage.org, or call 258-6101, ext. 789, for a full lineup of performers; for tickets, call 257-4530.

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