Dig those mountain roots

Kudos to Kent Priestley for the piece on Okeh Records’ Asheville sessions [“Mountain Country,” April 2]. Along with Phil Blank’s illustrations and Andrew Findley’s cover, that article should be archived by every serious old-time music fan. The research—and writing—was something you’d expect to find on the cover of Harper’s Magazine, rather than a small alternative weekly.

The only discordant note sounded in the piece was to cite Wayne Martin’s contention that “Earl Scruggs … style was so pervasive that everyone who played a banjo ended up playing three-finger style.” During the time of the Asheville Sessions, and well beyond the first 1945 appearance of Earl Scruggs with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys at the Grand Old Opry, there was a seminal, vibrant community of banjo players in Galax, Va., and Round Peak (Mt. Airy), N.C., including the legendary Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham and Charlie Lowe. Today, old-time music is bigger than ever.

And then, of course, there’s the towering figure of Pete Seeger, known more for his bum diddy than his forward roll. Just 10 years after the Okeh sessions in Asheville, a young Pete Seeger came to the nation’s oldest music and dance festival, started by Bascom Lamar Lunsford. And it is here that the supreme leader of the folk-music revolution found his ax. According to Seeger, “It was at that festival in Asheville that I saw and played my very first five-string banjo.”

But I’m not writing to quibble over a truly excellent piece, but to make two proposals. First, let’s declare Asheville the Roots Music Capital of the World and build a green-space museum in the space otherwise destined to house yet another downtown high-end condo.

For all the music played in so many venues around town these days, I think we still might be missing the real significance of Asheville in the world of roots music. Western North Carolina, and Asheville particularly, is an important center of America’s music. The rollicking weekly old-time and bluegrass jams at Jack of the Wood alone would establish Asheville’s creds.

Forgetting all other contending claims, bluegrass music was officially launched in Asheville. On Feb. 2, 1939, at 3:30 p.m. on WWNC-AM, an NBC-affiliate radio station in Asheville then owned by the Asheville Citizen-Times, Bill Monroe stepped up to the microphone and—with guitarist Cleo Davis, fiddler Art Wooten and comedian/jug player Tommy Millard—opened the first set on “Mountain Music Time.” It was the world’s introduction to bluegrass. “There are those who say Bill Monroe didn’t start bluegrass music here on WWNC—but Bill says, he did,” wrote Citizen-Times columnist Bob Terrell. “That, he said, is where bluegrass started.”

Today, great acoustic music is still happening, maybe stronger than ever. David Holt, one of the most influential Southern roots musicians, started the first college-based Appalachian-music program at Warren Wilson College [and] is based here in Asheville. Wayne Erbsen, a writer and founder of The Swannanoa Gathering, Laura Boosinger, John Herrmann and dozens of other world-class performers work and live here in Asheville. This summer, on the streets and in the clubs, we’ll be hearing a whole new generation of musicians busting out.

My second proposal is to assign the same editorial Xpress crew to document the evolution of acoustic music in Asheville. If nothing else, it can serve as a classy handout at our new downtown museum.

— Zhenya Gene Senyak
West Asheville

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