In his white suit and black tie, Bascom Lamar Lunsford cut an impressive figure. Not only was the folklorist and performer a talented buck dancer and singer, the Mars Hill native also knew who was who among local musicians and dancers. At the request of the the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, Lunsford enlisted those area artists to appear at the 1927 Rhododendron Festival — an effort to encourage tourism — which, the following year, became the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival. “I remember seeing him as a child,” says Folk Heritage Committee member Carol Peterson. “He ruled the stage. You went on when he asked you to go on, and you went off when he asked you to go off.”
Lunsford organized and performed at the festival until he was debilitated by a stroke in 1965, but the annual gathering continues. Now the longest-running folk festival in the country, it celebrates its 89th anniversary this year with performances — different each night — at the Diana Wortham Theatre on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Aug. 4, 5 and 6.
This year’s festival draws from its sister event, Shindig on the Green (held weekly at Pack Square Park during the summer months) as well as from touring bands and local stalwarts in the mountain music community. The Mountain Dance and Folk Festival includes cloggers, ballad singers, old-time and bluegrass musicians, shape-note singers, buck dancers, flatfoot dancers, smooth dancers, storytellers and a sit-down square dance.
In the early 1940s, Peterson’s parents organized the first smooth dance team in this part of the state. “Back when I was growing up, you played basketball or you were on a square dance team,” she says. “Every high school had a square dance team.” That heritage is alive and well, she says, with performers like Jeff Atkins of the Cole Mountain Cloggers — a member of the Bailey Mountain Cloggers when he was a student at Mars Hill College — leading a team of young people, including his own daughters.
“Green Valley Cloggers has three generations of family on that team,” says Peterson. “People who love it, love it, and don’t want it to get squelched because it’s so important to what we’re all about in Western North Carolina.”
Another multigenerational act is Rhiannon & the Relics, featuring 13-year-old fiddler Rhiannon Ramsey. The old-time group started about three years ago after Ramsey — who plays with a kind of focused fluidity — moved on from bands with performers closer to her own age. Bass player Craig Bannerman (a member of Crooked Pine since he moved to Western North Carolina in 1974, and a friend of Jeremy Ramsey, Rhiannon’s father) was enlisted to put together a band for Rhiannon. The lineup currently includes Troy Harrison on banjo, Brian Hunter on guitar and Mike Hunter on mandolin. The guys share vocal duties; Rhiannon has not yet decided to sing onstage.
“It really came together at Shindig,” Rhiannon says. Forming bands at that gathering, which features any number of small jams on its perimeter while scheduled acts perform onstage, is as much of a local tradition as the music the resulting groups play.
Rhiannon started studying with Natalya Weinstein of Red June and Zoe & Cloyd. When Weinstein’s band went on tour, Rhiannon’s dad asked her who she’d like to take lessons with, and she chose Arvil Freeman — a Madison County native and member of the Stoney Creek Boys, known for his unique fiddling style classified by long-bow smoothness. “I’ve heard [Rhiannon] talk about this. She went to a concert and heard [Freeman] when she was like 6 years old,” says Bannerman. “She told the parents that she wanted to learn the fiddle because of him.”
A sought-after teacher, Freeman instructed up-and-comers such as Josh Goforth. Besides Freeman’s protégés, “We have four or five young fiddlers performing at Shindig who are just knocking it out of the park,” says Peterson. Of Rhiannon & the Relics she adds, “To see those gentlemen stand behind her brings tears to your eyes. It’s passing [the music] generation to generation.”
Bannerman is quick to point out that Rhiannon is the leader of their group, though the fiddler says band members each contribute songs to the setlist. “Lately we’ve been playing ‘Ducks on the Mill Pond’ a lot onstage,” she says. “What I play is a mix of old-time and bluegrass.”
Though some of the Relics have played the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival many times, this year marks the first time for Rhiannon. While her teacher is a relative newcomer to the Stoney Creek Boys, that band has performed at the Folk Festival for more than 40 years. And, like the entertainers who keep coming back, there are also return audience members — some who come from around the country, making reservations in Asheville at the same time each year to take in three days of Western North Carolina heritage.
“What we did here, if it wasn’t done by a group here, I don’t know how it would continue,” Peterson says.
She adds, “We’ve got so much new music coming in, and it’s really good. Asheville has got such an eclectic mix of things happening. But this is so important that it has to be continued.”
WHAT: Mountain Dance and Folk Festival
WHERE: Diana Wortham Theatre, 2 S. Pack Square, dwtheatre.com
WHEN: Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Aug. 4, 5 and 6. Introductions at 6:50 p.m., show at 7 p.m. $22 adults/$12 children, three-night package $55.50/$24