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.
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