Ralph Lewis, the 87-year-old leader of local bluegrass band Sons of Ralph, says he remembers when the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival was “just a little thing in the schoolhouse.” Originally known as the Rhododendron Festival, the gathering was a competitive event with keenly contested titles for the best bands, solo musicians, singers and dancers. Lewis won his share of trophies with his band, Ralph Lewis and the Piney Mountain Boys
Clogger and Folk Heritage Committee Chair Loretta Freeman began performing and competing at the annual festival — which returns to the Diana Wortham Theatre, Thursday to Saturday, Aug. 6 to 8 — as a child. Her dad, Gordon Freeman, was a musician she says “could play any instrument.” He won so many titles he was made a competition judge. Somewhere along the way, the performers decided to eliminate the competitions and, says Loretta, “just enjoy playing music and dancing.”
The longest-running event of its kind, the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival (now in its 88th year), celebrates the full range of traditional Southern Appalachian music and dance. Entertainers at this year’s three-night gathering include ballad singers, bluegrass and old-time bands, gospel groups, solo and duet instrumentalists and vocalists, clogging teams, buck dancers, flat-footers and traditional Appalachian smooth dancers.
Family ties make up a big part of the spirit of the festival. “Traditions of long ago have been handed down through the generations, and we sometimes have two or three generations of one family performing together onstage,” says Freeman.
Lewis’ sons Don and Marty first played the festival stage in 1972 as 8- and 9-year-olds. “We cut our teeth on mountain music, and we’ve been at it ever since,” says Don. While the Lewis patriarch toured with Bill Monroe, his wife, Imogene, drove Don and Marty all over the Southeast to perform at festivals and gatherings. “She used to get us all dressed up in our shiny shirts, plaid bell-bottom pants and platform shoes,” Don says. On Saturday nights, Imogene and the boys would drive from the Lewis home in Candler to the top of a hill in Weaverville. High up, with a view toward the west, the family could get radio reception to hear Ralph play on the “Grand Ole Opry” radio program.
These days, the members of the Sons of Ralph look forward to the festival as a special homecoming and a rare opportunity to enjoy many different entertainers and genres. “Nobody has an attitude,” says Marty. “It’s a chance to see and visit with everybody we’ve known through all these years.” Sons of Ralph will perform on Thursday as part of Hometown Appreciation Night.
Guitarist Brian Hunter also has family ties to the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival. He’ll share the stage with his brother, mandolin player Mike Hunter, on Friday for the first time in 40 years. Brian says this event is the gold standard against which all other folk festivals are judged. He, Mike and local singer Laura Boosinger plan to perform traditional songs with lots of harmonies.
Festival Co-Chair Judy Miller says the most important thing for organizers is that these folk art traditions not be lost to time. She’s glad to see so many young people performing at the festival and its sister event, Shindig on the Green. Even Sons of Ralph has a youngster in its ranks: 23-year-old bassist Korey Warren, who has been with the band for six years. “While the mobility of our society is diluting local culture all over the country, this festival and others like it are keeping the music and dance of the Southern Appalachian mountains alive and thriving,” says Miller.
Ralph Lewis’ sons say they’re the ones who struggle to keep up with their dad. Likewise, the 88-year-old Mountain Dance and Folk Festival shows no signs of slowing. What folklorist Bascom Lamar Lunsford first brought down from the “hills and hollers” in 1928 is, in 2015, as strong a family tradition as ever — and the family has grown a whole lot bigger over the years.
WHAT: Mountain Dance and Folk Festival
WHERE: Diana Wortham Theatre, dwtheatre.org
WHEN: Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Aug. 6, 7 and 8, at 7 p.m. $22 adults/$12 children 12 and younger