Tracking down that old-time music

At last February’s Grammy Awards ceremony, the soundtrack for the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the unexpected winner in five categories: Best Compilation Soundtrack, Best Country Collaboration with Vocals, Best Country Male Vocal, Producer of the Year and Best Album of the Year. Despite little or no airplay on mainstream, top-40 country-music stations, O Brother has sold an impressive 6 million-plus copies worldwide. After peaking at No. 1, it has remained on the Billboard charts for more than 100 weeks.

“The success of the O Brother soundtrack reflects the important role played by traditional homespun culture in our rapidly evolving digital age,” notes country-music historian and writer Jack Bernhardt. “People are drawn … [to] the timeless music originating from the hills and hollows of the Blue Ridge Mountains.”

Traditionally, however, performers from the region — such as Doc Watson, Ralph Stanley, Etta Baker, Wayne Henderson and others — have had to go on the road to bring their music to audiences far and wide. But now, a new Web site ( aims to help bring the audience to where the music is.

The Web site promotes the Blue Ridge Music Trails, a cooperative effort highlighting more than 200 venues in North Carolina and Virginia where visitors can experience mountain music in the communities where it continues to thrive and evolve. An online map of the region, organized into counties, makes it easy to find these musical destinations.

All of the featured venues were identified by folklife fieldworkers. And though visitors may hear a variety of musical styles at a given site, each one devotes a substantial amount of space to traditional Blue Ridge music performed by musicians native to the region. All listed musical gatherings are open to the public.

Although the Blue Ridge Music Trails spotlights such better-known events as MerleFest, the Bluff Mountain Music Festival and the Smoky Mountain Folk Festival, the project also features such lesser-known gems as the weekly jam sessions at the Drexel Barber Shop in Drexel, N.C., and the Dairy Queen in Rocky Mount, Va.

The Drexel jam sessions are very informal. Around noontime on most (but not all) Thursday, Friday and Saturday afternoons, Lawrence Anthony and the other guys at the barber shop simply put aside their scissors, shears and combs and grab their instruments for a few hours of picking. They favor old-time, bluegrass, country and Western-swing tunes. These grassroots musical gatherings happen year round.

For the most part, the Rocky Mount Dairy Queen is pretty typical of such establishments. But on Thursday mornings between September and the end of May, the place becomes a bluegrass haven. You’d better get there early, though, because the dining area quickly fills up with regulars, many of them retirees. This is an important social event for musicians and audience alike, and they tend to dress up for it.

The Blue Ridge Music Trails is a project of the Blue Ridge Heritage Initiative, a multistate partnership involving organizations, communities and individuals committed to promoting the distinctive cultural heritage of the Southern Appalachians. The initiative was founded on the idea that the cultural traditions, natural resources and historical events that have shaped the region’s unique identity are both integral to the well-being of local communities and have national significance. For these reasons, it was felt, they should be preserved. The Blue Ridge Heritage Initiative has also helped create other trails: The Cherokee Heritage Trail ( and The Gardens and Countryside Trails of the Blue Ridge ( Both are the subject of upcoming books from the University of North Carolina Press.

— Lisa Watters

Security blankets help survivors of abuse

“You are safe, you are warm, and someone cares.”

That’s the message Laurie Knowles hopes to deliver to women and children who are homeless as a result of domestic violence. Her project, Covered in Comfort, makes quilts and afghans especially for survivors who, due to homelessness, fear that they’ll remain forever cold and alone.

The inspiration for the project actually came from one such survivor, who walked into the office of an agency that had helped her during her own time of need with six new blankets in her arms. “I wanted them to go to the program’s current participants, because I remembered how scared I had been that I didn’t even know if I’d have a blanket to cover me that first night,” she remarked.

“That woman’s compassion, grown rich from her experience of fear and want, touched me. It moved me to want to make that same statement of assurance to other women,” Knowles explains.

Anyone can help. Covered in Comfort needs afghans and quilts of all sizes and designs. And whatever the maker’s skill level, the message remains the same: Someone cares.

For more information, call Laurie Knowles at 253-7419 (e-mail:

— Larisa Harrill

Free classes teach money-management skills

Does your income sometimes seem more like an outgo? When you look at your savings-account balance, does it make you want to jump for joy or rob a bank?

A common New Year’s resolution is: “I will make a dent in my debts. I will save money. I will get ahead.” Too often, however, people make the same resolution year after year without ever seeming to get anywhere. What to do?

According to the Consumer Credit Counseling Service, the most common financial mistakes people make have to do with their resolutions, not their resolve. The Asheville-based nonprofit offers a series of free classes on money management that explore more than just the technical aspects of achieving freedom from debt. Each class also addresses the psychology of spending, considering each individual’s emotional strengths and weaknesses and exploring ways to accommodate those factors.

One key trick explored in the classes is making goals more specific. Rather than saying, “I want to get out of debt,” participants are encouraged to say something like, “I will stop using my credit cards and pay an extra $50 a month until my debt is paid off.”

But if you’re already in debt, where will you get the extra $50?

Not to worry: These classes provide many clever ideas. Renting videos from the library, for example, can save about $6 a week (or $24 a month). Washing your car at home can save you $7 a week (or $28 a month). That’s enough to cover the extra $50 credit-card payment without sacrificing anything except a little bit of time.

The three-day “Manage Your Money” series will be offered monthly in January, February and March. A one-hour class titled “If We Didn’t Have to Eat, We’d Be Rich!” will be presented in January and March. And “Can’t Buy Me Love: All About Couples and Money” will be offered on Tuesday, Feb.11 from noon-1 p.m. All classes are free of charge.

For a schedule of classes, or to register, call 255-5166.

— Larisa Harrill

Help for tobacco farmers

“Farming in Western North Carolina is not easy,” allows Charlie Jackson, projects coordinator for the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project.

For more than a century, growing burley tobacco helped shape the region’s landscape and culture. Now, notes Jackson, “with changes in tobacco policy and a tobacco quota projected to be the smallest ever, tobacco farmers are looking to diversify so that they can continue doing what they love — farming.”

Over the next two years, ASAP plans to help 20 farmers in Buncombe, Haywood, Madison and Yancey counties make this transition by providing $5,000 grants, marketing support and mentoring. As part of a project funded by the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission, ASAP will award grants to innovative farming projects that could serve as models for other farmers transitioning from tobacco production. The grants will not fund conventional tobacco-related projects.

“We are looking for leader farmers currently involved in burley-tobacco production that can provide models for other farmers,” says Transition Coordinator Aubrey Raper of ASAP. “Our goal is to help save family farms, and the best way to figure out how to save farms is to tap into the innovation and wisdom of our farmers.”

To be eligible, farmers must be currently involved in burley-tobacco production in Buncombe, Haywood, Madison or Yancey County. Grant applications are available at the ASAP Web site ( or at the county agricultural-extension offices. All applications for the 2003 grant cycle must be received by Wednesday, Jan. 15. This year’s awards will be announced on Feb. 3, and the participating farmers will receive the first installment of the money on Feb. 11 at the Madison County Agricultural Seminar at the Madison campus of A-B Tech.

For more information, call (828) 649-9452.

— Lisa Watters

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