My cousins, Roald and Ellie Kirby, who live in Troutdale, Virginia, invited me to an old-time jam on the last day of my residency in the North Carolina mountains. It was at the homestead of a friend of theirs in Elk Creek, Virginia.
“Do you know Elk Creek?”
“No, but play it one time around and I’ll fake it.”
Even better, their friend, Jerry, lives at the very end of Possum Run Lane.
“Do you know Possum Run Lane?”
“Sure do. Same chord pattern as Old Joe Clark, right?”
I’d show you what it looked like on the drive up, but Google street view stops when you leave VA-21 out of Independence. Me and the Prius made it down the dirt road, dirtier driveway, and cattle barrier with no problems. I think Roald and Ellie were relieved, and perhaps a little surprised, to see that I’d made it there.
There was a pond – Roald, who is an avid fisherman, had just landed a bluegill on a popper. And there was a beautiful 20′ long custom-made picnic table, with more food than the dozen of us could possibly consume. I regret that I didn’t get a picture of it.
They told me that, back in the old days, there’d be a hundred pickers standing around the picnic area, and you couldn’t see the top of the picnic table for the dishes covering it. There’s times in my life when I feel that I was late getting to a party – this was certainly one of them.
However, I did get a picture of my dessert, which was blueberries from Roald’s blueberry patch, and a giant hunk of cherry pie, which Ellie had made from the fruit of their cherry tree.
Eventually, the glorious sound of instruments tuning wafted across the pond.
This jam was “In A,” meaning that all the tunes have to be in the key of A. Apparently they have a different key each week, so there’s not the hassle of capo adjustment and retuning. Fortunately, the tunes I wanted to play/hear were in A, so I was content. But no Forked Deer for me this time (it’s in D).
Many jams have a fairly rigorous protocol of song selection passing around the circle – this is one of ’em. It’s bad form to suggest a tune until it’s your turn, but fortunately I really enjoyed the picks that other people made.
At some point, I noted that when I picked with the Irish/Celtic musicians in the Isle of Man, they always stopped and applauded and/or cheered after every tune. I said that I missed that about bluegrass jams in the U.S. For no reason that I understand, the protocol there is that the song ends, then everybody looks down at their instrument and tunes. There’s never any acknowledgment of the great music that just happened.
“Well, sometimes Rita will say, ‘Woo-hoo!’ You can do that if you wish. “
“Excellent – I’ll do that.”
“Okay, but don’t overdo it.”
I just followed Rita’s lead, and whenever she’d say “Whoo-hoo” after a tune, I did too. All things in moderation.
One woman told me that it was nice having me there, because it reminded her of the old days, when there’d be dozens of musicians standing around eating chili and deviled eggs, and she’d know only 1/3 of them. I told her I was proud to stand in for a couple of dozen hungry pickers.
I could go on, but there’s not that much more to say. The music broke out, and when that happens, you don’t need commentary.
I was the one who asked for Road to Malvern. Most of the people weren’t sure they knew it. But a couple of people said they thought they had it under their fingers. The rest of the crowd said, “Great – y’all start and we’ll catch up.” That’s the hallmark of a great jam – a willingness to plow forward, even when not everybody is sure they know the tune.
I thought it was wonderful.
I had to leave early – I was driving down the mountain to catch a plane out of Charlotte the next morning. It was sad to lose the altitude I’d been living in for the prior 18 days. But man, there was absolutely no better way to spend that last day in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
They were just getting into Bill Cheathem when I left – it sounded great coming over the pond as I walked to my car. I hope Jerry and them will invite me back for next year. I could use another piece of Ellie’s cherry pie and some tunes beside the pond.
P.S. The “One More Time” in the title is a reference to the practice in old-time jams to call out, “One more time!” when, well, it’s the last time through the tune. Because otherwise, there’s nothing to stop it from going all night.