A family is camped out beneath a giant magnolia. A woman looking to be in her 70s sits in the center of the group, plucking sharp, earthy notes from an old banjo. To her left, her husband — the patriarch of this clan — strums a guitar, singing a mournful song.
Gathered all around them are kith and kin of various ages, each with an instrument and a harmony part to add — including the girl who looks to be no more than 10, sawing on a fiddle half her size.
It’s almost a cliche, isn’t it? Yet this is no front-yard pickin’ session tucked away in some WNC mountain holler. This scene took place recently right in the heart of downtown Asheville, as part of the city’s 37th annual Shindig on the Green, which runs through Aug. 30.
Every summer Saturday night, musicians come down from their mountains to bring their porch-picking to the lawn in front of City/County Plaza. They arrive armed with a bevy of stringed acoustic instruments — fiddles, banjos, mandolins, dobros and more — to entertain both themselves and the faithful crowds assembled for all this free music.
The Shindig’s main stage offers string bands and traditional clogging teams; yet for years now, it’s been the informal jam sessions spread out around the plaza that have generated the most buzz. And rightly so.
Because those little pickin’ parties are where the real shindig is happening.
A subtle facelift
For years, these jam sessions tended to tout the music of a bygone era, with many of the players seeming as ancient as the hills they call home.
Yet old-time music and bluegrass don’t exactly mesh with our MTV-saturated, Limp Britney Bizkit culture. By rights, the Shindig’s relevance should be fading right along with the old-fashioned music the event promotes.
Not so. The Asheville event is bigger than ever. And most importantly, the kids seem to dig it.
For the past several years, there’s been a gradual infusion of Birkenstock-shod neo-hippie kids joining the informal picking circles. The jam-band revolution gaining momentum all over the country has begun to creep into the traditional mountain-music scene.
Guitarist and bass player Buddy Davis has been playing the Shindig since its inception in the late ’60s. The seventh-generation Asheville resident has seen firsthand the changes in the plaza’s jam sessions.
“It didn’t always used to be this way,” he confirms. “It used to be just bunch of old codgers.
“It feels like we’re passing on the torch,” Davis adds.
But in doing so, he and his cohorts are also passing along a recipe for change.
While the gray heads and their peach-fuzzed counterparts may wield the same instruments, the similarities end there. Younger pickers are more willing to incorporate varied music forms like jazz and rock into their playing.
Mandolinist Philip Barker, 24, and guitarist Charlie Chamberlain, 22, have only recently started attending the Shindig. They play locally in clubs and coffeehouses under the name String Theory, which does both original compositions and covers incorporating musical influences ranging far beyond typical bluegrass fare.
“We could play a Carter Stanley or Bill Monroe tune, and then just as easily slip into a [Thelonious] Monk tune or some Bach,” Chamberlain reveals.
The two are well aware of the difference between themselves and the veteran pickers in the plaza.
“As far as the older crowd, it’s more of a way of life for them,” Barker declares. “It’s in their blood; you can’t go to college and study old-time mountain music. It was their family entertainment growing up.”
Barker and Chamberlain may have grown up with DVDs and palm pilots, and been schooled in music theory and the heady language of jazz and classical music, but they insist they still retain a strong sense of place and tradition — to regional bluegrass and old-time traditions.
“Playing this music means so much more than playing in say, a reggae band,” Chamberlain gushes. “I’ve never been to Jamaica. This is the music of my home; it’s my roots.”
Slow down — you pick too fast
Older Shindig pickers seem both excited and bewildered by the infusion of younger musicians.
Bryant Lucas, 70, has been playing bluegrass and country music for 45 years. And while the dobro player welcomes the fresh blood on the scene, he has some issues with the younger pickers’ style.
“It thrills me to play with the younger folks, and I can tell it tickles them to death,” Lucas reveals. “But the biggest problem with the young is that they play too fast. They think that the faster you play, the better you are.
“Sometimes they want to jazz it up so much that you can’t hear the melody,” he adds. “They’re playing musicians’ music instead of people’s music.”
Speaking of jazz, the desire to go ripping into jam territory is one of the major differences between the two groups.
“The young kids apply different techniques, and most of the time it’s an improvement,” asserts guitarist Leonard Hollifield, who’s played with the Shindig’s house band, The Stoney Creek Boys, for 27 years. “They like to improvise quite a bit; most of the older people try to stick to the traditionals.