ARM­CHAIR TRAV­ELLER

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

2DaysinParis: The city of ro­mance tests the re­la­tion­ship of a French-Amer­i­can cou­ple. To­day, 8.30pm, Show­case. FightQuest: Kick­box­ing in Thai­land is not for the faint of feet. Wed­nes­day, 8.30pm, Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel. Su­san Kuro­sawa and qui­etly re­sent the im­pli­ca­tion that they do. I try talk­ing to the old­est guy here, Ernest Bran­don, who at 85 still picks a mean gui­tar. How long has he been play­ing? ‘‘ Ur sturted wayan ur wuh yay haar,’’ he replies, wav­ing a cal­loused hand a me­tre above the lino. ‘‘ Ets ayin mu blurd.’’

By the time I’ve puz­zled that out, I’ve missed most of his de­scrip­tion of grow­ing up on a cot­ton farm dur­ing the De­pres­sion, and Ernest and Joe Joe Pat­ton have launched into an­other tune.

Joe Joe’s play­ing is as­ton­ish­ing. A glit­ter­ing tor­rent of notes pours out of his banjo, as fast and stac­cato as his speech is slow and drawl­ing. His fin­ger­tips fly over the fret­board.

(Cor­rec­tion: some of them do. Joe Joe had three of his dig­its cut a bit short by a band saw. In fact, a lot of moun­tain mu­si­cians seem to have mis­laid bits of them­selves along the way: fin­gers, thumbs, the odd limb, mainly lopped off in the sawmills and fur­ni­ture work­shops that pro­vide the jobs around here.)

Drexel, though, is a treat that can wait un­til your ear has tuned in to the ac­cents. Swing by the metropo­lis first, where life is (a lit­tle) quicker and the speech (slightly) less im­pen­e­tra­ble. Try the old-time jam at the Jack of the Wood pub in Asheville, the big­gest town in th­ese parts.

The purest form of moun­tain mu­sic, old-time, is frankly weird — hyp­notic, cycli­cal, like Celtic fid­dle mu­sic con­ducted by Philip Glass on drugs — but the lively crowd of 20 and 30-some­things laps it up and the evening gets wilder as the beer flows. It’s a good in­tro­duc­tion, but this isn’t the heart of moun­tain mu­sic. The drink­ing’s the clue. Step out­side free­wheel­ing Asheville’s city lim­its, up into the hills, and you’re back in the old south.

It’s largely dry, with no bars and no booze, apart from the odd moon­shine still back in the woods. Around ev­ery cor­ner there’s a Bap­tist church, com­plete with Bi­ble-thump­ing preacher. Peo­ple con­sume huge amounts of south­ern food, surely the un­health­i­est in the world. If it moves, they’ll slather it in lard and fry it. A pop­u­lar dish is hush pup­pies, which is dol­lops of bread dough, coated in bat­ter, deep-fried and served with cream­ery but­ter. No won­der they’re so keen on church. If you eat like this, the af­ter­life must be im­mi­nent.

Some of the at­ti­tudes are pretty alien, too. At one gath­er­ing, there is a raf­fle stall, staffed by kindly old ladies. First prize is a ri­fle. You can’t win one of those at a church fete back home. ‘‘ You want a ticket, honey?’’ one asks, with a smile. ‘‘ Er . . . I’m a bit sur­prised at the prize. We’d think that was sort of odd where I come from.’’

I don’t mean to of­fend but she looks taken aback. ‘‘ It’s a good ri­fle,’’ she says de­fi­antly. ‘‘ Very ac­cu­rate. Do you want to see?’’ I pass.

De­spite their un­nerv­ing ways with lethal weaponry, they’re a tremen­dously wel­com­ing bunch. If you need proof, go to Mrs Hy­att’s Opra­house. Don’t be fooled by the name. It’s a shed, re­ally, but quite a spe­cial one.

For 60 years, the Hy­att fam­ily have in­vited lo­cal folks here ev­ery Thurs­day, to make mu­sic and lis­ten and just shoot the breeze. There’s no charge, the cof­fee pot is on the ta­ble and all vis­i­tors are wel­come. It’s as sim­ple, and gen­er­ous, as that.

A cou­ple of dozen on­look­ers are here tonight, watch­ing a cir­cle of 15 or so play­ers, aged from 22 to 80, pick tunes such as Snowflake Reel and Or­ange Blos­som Spe­cial . They are fast and fu­ri­ous, a dou­ble bass keep­ing time while fid­dles, man­dolins and har­mon­i­cas spin off to weave a labyrinth of notes over the top.

Adults and kids alike are do­ing the moun­tain dances, clog­ging and flat­foot­ing, arms down and feet fly­ing. I chat to car­pen­ters, mu­sos, ho­bos. As night draws on, the au­di­ence melts away, but the mu­si­cians, be­witched, just keep on go­ing. There’s a gleam in their eyes and, for all their dex­ter­ity, some­thing pri­mal in their play­ing. This is how th­ese de­cent, warm peo­ple let loose, and they do it in style.

There’s more, lots more — fid­dle con­ven­tions and hog wallers, jam­borees and dances — and, driv­ing through the iso­lated towns and vil­lages of the Blue Ridge, there’s al­ways the chance of some­one sit­ting on their front porch, pick­ing a tune or two.

But maybe it’s time to head back to Drexel, where Joe Joe and Ernest have bro­ken out into Lone­some Road­Blues . Sud­denly, the tune is in­ter­rupted by a blast from out­side: the haunt­ing, quintessen­tially Amer­i­can sound of the rail­way whis­tle as a freight train pulls across Main Street.

Bang on cue, David Shirley, the bar­ber, looks up from his clip­pers. ‘‘ I do de­clare, that whis­tles in C!’’ he ex­claims. And the boys play on. The Sun­day Times Su­san Kuro­sawa’s De­par­tureLounge col­umn re­turns in April.

DEALS OF THE WEEK

Sweep a free flight to Broome; Qan­tas cuts the price of ad­ven­ture; Hawaii flights on sale; Euro­pean river cruises dis­counted.

Travel&In­dul­gence ’

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