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Mountain Music

Courtesy of Bob Bamberg

If you are a fan of live music, particularly old time and bluegrass that have such deep roots in these Blue Ridge Mountains, a trip to Sparta, North Carolina, is well worth the time. Throughout the year, you can hear live old time or bluegrass music almost any night of the week.

If you are a novice fan of mountain music, here’s a quick guide to its two great divisions. Old-time music is traditional ballads performed with traditional instruments: guitar, fiddle, banjo and bass. The banjo is picked claw-hammer style.

Bluegrass grew out of old time. It adds a mandolin and can also add a Dobro or resonator guitar. The banjo is picked three-finger style pioneered by Earl Scruggs.

During songs, individual instruments will take turns playing lead while the others play rhythm in the background. During old-time numbers, instruments play at the same level throughout. Bluegrass musicians are more likely to sing along.

That’s a quick and dirty lesson. To really go to school on the music, plan a week in Sparta training your ear and toe to the sounds.

From the North Carolina Piedmont, the easiest way to Sparta is up I-77 to the US 21 north exit (number 83, exit left). Follow US 21 30 miles up the mountain to Sparta.

Go to the second traffic signal. If the Courthouse is on the corner, you’re in the center of town where our journey begins.

Monday night starts at the Crouse House, exactly two blocks directly north behind the Courthouse. (Take NC 18 north, East Doughton Street, past the Courthouse. Take the second left, then the next right. The Crouse House is in the park on your right.) For lack of a better name, we will call these folk the Crouse House Pickers. This is an informal group of musicians that have been showing up every Monday night around 6 p.m. and playing to around 9 for the past 20 years.

They split into a bluegrass group in the living room and old-time in the dining room. Whoever shows up can play. This is a true jam. The bands are never the same.

“We’ve had as many as 17 in one band, pickin’ at one time,” says Richard Nichols, one of the granddaddies of the Crouse House Pickers. “It’s amazing that so many players, who have never played together before, can blend in.”

Some 20 years ago Nichols was contacted by Thornton Spencer to provide guitar accompaniment for a class in old-time music Spencer and wife Emily were teaching for Wilkes Community College in Sparta. Thornton and Emily are original members of the Whitetop Mountain Band begun by legendary fiddler and fiddle maker Albert Hash. Hash died in 1983 and the Spencers have kept the Whitetop Band alive ever since.

She (Emily) had a baby in a bassinet and taught music with the baby there, Nichols recalls. Now that baby is in college and Emily is teaching full time.  Emily teaches music in a unique music program at Mount Rogers School near Whitetop. Youngsters in grades eight through 12 can receive academic credit for lessons in this traditional Appalachian art.

Students chipped in to keep the Spencers teaching after class ended. At some point they transitioned into jamming on their own.

No admission is charged, but there is a tip jar that musicians and audience members contribute to for expenses. In the winter, most of that goes to keep the ancient furnace running at the Crouse House.

Crowds swell in the summer and on warm nights, musicians may play from the porch or under the trees. If you play an instrument, don’t be afraid to join in. Members are always welcome to offer tips on play or instrument repairs.

Tuesday night, the action moves to the Alleghany Jubilee located across Main Street from the Courthouse. The Jubilee is located in the old Spartan Theater, 1950s home to Johnny Mack Brown and Lash LaRue westerns. Musician Ernest Joines and his wife, Agnes, have operated the Jubilee as a venue for local music since 1994.

Admission is $4; children under 12 free. Concessions – cold drinks, coffee, corn dogs, ice cream and nabs – are available. The back of the small auditorium is lined with rows of seats. The dance floor in the front half is lined with seats along the wall.

Tuesday night features a hoe-down from 7 to 10 p.m. We do all kinds of dances – square dancing, round dancing, flat foot, Texas two-step, line dancing “It’s a dancer’s choice,” Agnes explains. The Rise and Shine Band is the Tuesday house band and features Ernest on mandolin, Billy Dancy, banjo; Wade Petty, fiddle; Charlie Edwards, guitar; and Kermit Pruitt, bass. (Pruitt has only a short walk from his day job at Kermit’s Barber Shop just down the street.)

If the group decides to square dance, Clyde Byrd is usually there to call.

Thursday night is the old-time music jam at Backwoods Beat, just around the corner on NC 18 south, West Whitehead Street. It’s the last doorway on the block.

Backwoods Beat opened three years ago to sell instruments (guitars and banjos), supplies (strings, picks, etc.) and CDs (mountain music is the store’s specialty). Owner T.J. Worthington does the Backwoods Beat Music Hour, Saturday, at 10 a.m. on 1060 WCOK Radio in Sparta, devoted to spreading the popularity of traditional music and spotlighting area musicians.

Many local musicians play for the shear joy of it and often have no professional recordings. Swamp Grass, led by banjoist Fred Roupe, is one of the better-known local, but rarely recorded bands. The Saturday show is a generous portion of old-time music but its unique offering is when Worthington finds a good amateur recording of a local group for airplay.

The jam begins around 6:30 and last about three hours. “I’m interested in old time and the people that show up to jam are interested in old time,” Worthington says. He describes the agenda as: “Whoever shows up and whatever happens.” There’s no admission and visitors are welcome, but the store is small. Squeeze in as best you can.

Friday the music returns to the Jubilee, from 8 to 11 p.m. It is devoted to traditional music. House band for the evening is the legendary Whitetop Mountain Band with Thornton Spencer on fiddle, Emily on banjo, Johnny Gentry on guitar, and Michelle Lyalls on bass. “They bring other people with them,” Agnes explains. “You can never tell who will be playing.”

Saturday, the Jubilee features bands from any of one of the popular genres to the area: country, bluegrass, old-time. Dancing follows the music style. Time 8 to 11 p.m.

May through August, you can hear live music Sunday afternoons at the Station’s Inn in Laurel Springs. Take NC 18 south from Sparta for 14.5 miles. Station’s Inn is on the left. The Inn’s tavern atmosphere is a popular gathering place for classic car cruiser clubs and motorcycle clubs and features live music that can include a bit of the mountains, country, southern rock and outlaw.