Garret K. Woodward photo
Owner of the Maggie Valley Opry House, legendary banjoist Raymond Fairchild hits the stage every night of the week from the late spring until early fall.
Journalism, like the music industry, is an industry in flux.
On my first day of my first journalism class, my professor casually walked in, set his briefcase on the table, and scanned the room slowly, silently. After few moments passed, he finally spoke.
“So you all want to be journalists, eh?” he grinned. “Well, I will tell you right now, if you want to work in this industry you’ll probably never own your own home, probably never own a new car, or really make any money for that matter.”
“And I’m not joking,” he added. “But, I will say, if you stick to it, and really believe in what you’re doing, then journalism will be worth every second you spend in it.”
It took a road trip, a Jack Kerouac novel, and 90,000 sweaty people gathered together for the three-ring circus branded as a music festival known as Bonnaroo to make me believe. I headed out from my home in Upstate New York down to Eastern Tennessee with a fresh copy of Kerouac’s On The Road sitting on the bench seat of my rusty pickup truck.
The seminal post-World War II novel launched the two following decades’ counterculture and chronicles Kerouac’s haphazard journey across America as he chases after the faces, spaces, and places he’d only read about or imagined in his dreams. It was the ideal, if not coincidental, accompaniment for my own travels.
I started reading the novel on brief breaks along the highway and then during my downtime at Bonnaroo. Bonnaroo represented an epicenter of culture and humanity in the rural south, and Kerouac’s manic ambition to talk to every stranger, smell every flower, turn over every rock, and pursue every opportunity resonated within me. It was early on the second morning of the festival that I found my belief in myself—I was supposed to be a writer.
Beliefs have a way of being tested. By my senior year, the journalism industry had hit a sharp decline, and newspapers were falling by the wayside as people turned to online sources to get their information or, sick of depressing stories, just stopped reading the news in general.
“Well, if you were a freshman today, I would tell you to turn around and go into law school or something,” said the professor who had issued my first cautionary tale. “This industry is on the way out, but if you truly know this is what you want to do, then do it.”
So I did. I told myself, “It’s not that people are sick of reading; it’s that they’re sick of what they’re reading.”
My mission became to seek out the personalities and experiences that make for good stories and write about them—honestly and passionately. Fortunately for me, I’ve been finding that, like my own revelation about writing, many of those personalities and experiences have musical roots as well.
Every Tuesday evening, like clockwork, there’s a weekly mountain music jam session in an old garage tucked away in the hills of Canton, N.C., where 86-year-old S.R. “Sha” Shahan gets together his instruments, which range from a gutbucket bass to a pizza box that, when combined with a couple of drum brushes, becomes a percussion instrument.
“It’s almost like coming back home, coming here,” Shahan said. “If you pick at all, get that axe out and sit in. It’s all about enjoying the music and being a part of it.”
Joshua Grant, 31, of Whittier, N.C., was hiking the Appalachian Trail when he figured out that the old-time music and culture he was exposed to as a child was what mattered to him most.
“There came a realization when I was out there [on the trail], away from materialism and consumerism, that fads come and go so fast that nothing sticks around or is true anymore,” he said. “Constants are so hard to find these days that when you do find one you find the value in it.”
Grant couldn’t afford a banjo, so he started building his own. The endeavor turned into Grant Custom Banjos. Using large gourds, discarded wood, and whatever else he thinks can be made into a quality-sounding banjo, Grant pieces folk art together with musical tradition.
Tradition holds at the community center in Fines Creek, N.C., each Saturday night as about 100 cloggers, two-steppers, and square dancers answer the call.
Dana McGwire and Jonathan Hicks stood out their first night at the dance—as much for their youth as their exuberance to learn.
“Mountain tradition is important and it’s just fun to get out and do this, which we like to do,” Hicks said. “It’s great to be here, to learn and see how the older generation does it.”
“I like it here because I can shake a leg,” McGwire added. “This is important for relationships and for the community. There are a lot of young souls here.”
The young at heart hope to pass on their beliefs that the music, which may seem outdated or irrelevant in the modern world, is one of the foundations of local culture.
Renowned banjoist Raymond Fairchild’s unassuming music hall is tucked behind a quaint motel in Maggie Valley, N.C. It’s seen better days, and the town itself has seen better years. But every night of the week, from late spring to early fall, Fairchild, age 74, opens his banjo case and takes to the stage.
“It’s great here, but people just don’t turn out to sit like I think they should. They got other music on their mind, especially the youngsters,” Fairchild said. “Some of the old people will come here and sit, but very few young people. I think bluegrass is the greatest music in the world, and it’s done suffered.”
I continue to run around the Smokies, talking to strangers, finding out what makes them tick, finding out what makes me tick, all in an effort to discover and share the beauty of people and things we either take for granted or have merely forgotten in an age of rushed priorities and the lost art of face-to-face communication. And, through all the struggles and hardships, those tiny apartments and used cars, it has been worth it—every single second.