Thursday, July 31, 2008

My Henderson Guitar

We had the chance to hear Willard Gayheart (right in photo) (whom you met in the July 15 entry) and his son-in-law Scott Freeman (left) in their weekly appearance at the Blue Ridge Music Center today. These appearances provide the opportunity not only to hear some of the most talented musicians in the area but also to talk with them about their work.

Kate asked them if they would sing "My Henderson Guitar," which we had heard and enjoyed at Mr. Gayheart's concert earlier this month. But first the story behind the song. Wayne Henderson is THE guitar maker in the area and Willard Gayheart has been called the "Norman Rockwell of Appalachia." Since they held each other in high regard and because Willard is a skilled guitarist and songwriter, they arranged a trade: one person's art in exchange for the other's art. And so it came to pass that Wayne has hanging in his living room the original drawing of himself in five different poses working in his workshop and Willard has a Henderson guitar that he plays everywhere.

We looked at the neck of his Henderson guitar and saw this drawing of Wayne that Willard had done and Wayne had somehow transferred to the guitar. It is somewhat worn, but that would make Wayne happy because he wants his guitars to be played not hung on a wall. Willard wrote the song "My Henderson Guitar" that expresses his joy in obtaining this gem. I don't remember the lyrics, but it basically says "you can have all the riches in the world; I have my Henderson guitar."

Scott's mandolin was also made by Wayne Henderson and also had a distinctive identification on the neck. Scott also played the guitar and the fiddle during the day's performance. With these skills, it came as no surprise to learn that Scott has 65 students that he sees for weekly lessons on these instruments.

Another Galax chamption musician who has several students is banjoist Ray Chatfield (right in photo), whom we saw in Fries earlier this month, met in Elk Creek, talked to this past Monday at the Music Center, and caught up with at the jam session in Fries this evening. Both Scott and Ray will be following their students in the youth competition Monday night at the Galax Fiddlers Convention.

I asked Ray to show me how the clawhammer playing is done. In a slow demonstration, he made it very clear. Then he made the same move at playing speed and it seemed much more involved. "Just grab your banjo and try this one example. You'll be playing very quickly." First, where did I put my banjo?

Another person we saw again and met for the first time was Mitchell. We had seen him dance at a concert at the Rex Theater in Galax and in the street during a jam session at the Smoke on the Mountain barbecue competition in Galax. Tonight we sat down next to him before we realized he was "the dancing guy" we had seen earlier. We introduced ourselves and commented on his skillful dancing. Mitchell is quite a celebrity in the area and for good reason. His flat-footin' is very good.

There were two groups playing in a large empty, stuffy store. After a brief rain storm, one of the groups moved outside which seemed a far better setting for a summer jam session. This was the biggest jam we've attended, and this outdoor group melded their considerable talents beautifully.

I wish I could play a Henderson guitar.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Mayan Influence in Virginia?

Named for Gen. Francis "The Swamp Fox" Marion of Revolutionary War fame, the city of Marion, VA, was in need of a facelift by the late 1990s. It was in danger of falling further behind the development of Wytheville to the east and Abingdon to the west, both of which had established a community college in their towns. All three towns had lost business due to the construction of I-81, but Marion's 6000 residents did not have a Plan B to institute.

Enter some creative town leaders with an ambitious plan. The "Streetscape" plan called for the "restoration of Main Street to its 1940s visage, with new streetlamps, fresh sidewalks, and shade trees" (Joe Tennis, Southwest Virginia Crossroads).

We had come to Marion to tour the Liberty Theater, which we learned, in the course of our visit, is one part of the "Streetscape" project. We'll talk about the overall progress of the "Streetscape" project another day.

Chalres C. Lincoln, Sr., owner of the town's furniture factory, wanted to follow his decision to build the General Francis Marion Hotel with a theater modeled after one he had seen in Atlantic City. Opening in 1929, the Lincoln Theater with its Art Deco interior, was designed to evoke images of an ancient Mayan temple. The photo (above) shows one of the figures on the wall.

The theater operated for 44 years before falling attendance led to its closing. Between the late 70s and the late 90s, pigeons, debris, and rain entered the theater through holes in the roof. Restoration efforts began in the late 1990s with hundreds of volunteers aiding in the structural and decorative reconstruction. The six murals, which had been painted on canvas by a local artist for $50 each, was restored at a cost of over $25,000 each.

The 500-seat theater re-opened in 2004, and the theater looks grand.

It was interesting to see the Mayan decorative artwork surrounding murals depicting Christopher Columbus landing on the shores of America, the British surrendering to Washington, Daniel Boone blazing trails, Robert E. Lee reviewing the troops, and two mountain scenes.

The last two photos show close-ups of the artwork. I was trying to imagine how the scaffolding was set up to complete the work on the walls and ceiling.

It must have been exciting to be with the visionaries who looked at the debris-filled space and saw this magnificent theater. Today, the Lincoln Theater is one of only three existing Art Deco Mayan Revival theaters.

It's a treasure.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"Do you have any black roosters?"

"It's 4:00; I need some coffee." With those words, Kate walked into the Black Rooster Gallery and Lounge and into an interesting story. The door leading to the Black Rooster from the lobby of the General Francis Marion Hotel in Marion, VA, was open so we assumed they were open for business. Only after ordering the coffee and an iced tea did we realize that they were not due to open for another thirty minutes. Our apology led to an extended conversation with Jay McDaniel from the hotel about our travels and restaurant recommendations in Bristol and Abingdon.

Jay then asked if we had seen the hotel lobby and upstairs rooms. Since we had not, he took us on a tour past the original front desk of the restored 80-year-old grand hotel.

As we left the front desk, we noticed the arches leading to the mezzanine. Jay mentioned that about $4 million had been put into the restoration of the hotel which has earned the status of "the most elegant lodging establishment in Southwestern Virginia."

Jay told us about the history of the hotel. It had opened in the days of Prohibition and the Card Room (right) was the room where the alcohol was stored.

Since the residents of the area were primarily farmers, if one knew the room was to be open that evening, he would ask another farmer, "Do you have any black roosters?" If the second farmer planned to attend, he would answer "Yes, I have all you need." If the person did not plan to attend, he would simply answer, "No, I don't have a single black rooster." Admission to this room was through this same coded question.

Jay then told us to look at the floor in the Card Room. There in the tiles was the association between the identified activity (cards) in the room and the admission password (the black rooster).

This beautifully-restored hotel seems to be one of the primary components of the revitalization of Marion's downtown. More on that topic tomorrow.

We had to shorten our tour and conversation with Jay to head down Route 16 to what must be the curviest, most hilly 11-mile section of Route 58 (The Crooked Road) from Volney to the Mount Rogers Combined School for a jam session. Just arriving at the school was an accomplishment worthy of note.

The school's music program, consisting of a string band, was developed by Albert Hash when he learned that the school with its 88 students in grades K-12 could not support a brass band.

We were led to believe that we could expect "a huge jam session," but the crowd for the session with students of varying abilities was somewhat less than "huge."

We left the school while it was still daylight in order to navigate the hills and curves successfully. We found a spot to park while photographing this scene near dusk.

The beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Blue Ridge Music Center

We've talked about the Blue Ridge Music Center (about 9 miles south of Galax on the Blue Ridge Parkway) in past entries. Today we spent another three hours there listening to the music of the the old-time band, Buck Mountain Band. The photos here today will focus more on the Center itself, but our comments will deal with the music.

Concerts are held Saturday evenings in the amphitheater (at the right in the photo) with a terraced hill for the audience (with chairs or blankets) and with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the background.

Performances during the week are held in the breezeway between the exhibit hall and a small theater of the Music Center. One end of the breezeway is shown above the truck in the picture. This setting enables the audience to interact with the performers, and the members of this group were especially willing to answer questions about the difference between old-time (fiddle-oriented, dance-focused, no soloists) and bluegrass music (banjo-oriented, singing-focused, solo breaks during a selection); the difference between old-time banjo playing (the strings are struck with a downward motion) and bluegrass banjo playing (the strings a struck with an upward motion with a pick); and a little history on the banjo. Very briefly, the banjo came to America from Africa in the period between 1777 and 1800. Black players dominated the field of banjo playing until after the Civil War. After that time, minstrelsy, through the actions of black-faced minstrels who mocked and ridiculed slaves, drove black players away from the banjo.

Bob (fiddle, center) and Sue Taylor (guitar, second from right) provided much of the educational service in addition to the music. Bob was a professor at Bucknell (Lewisburg, PA), teaching fiction and most recently taught Appalachian literature.

After listening to a stirring rendition of "O, Them Golden Slippers," Kate provided a brief education to those in attendance about the Mummers, the string bands, and the New Year's Day Parade in Philadelphia. Ray, the banjo player (on the far left above) who was sitting in with the band, was familiar with the Parade, but not the Mummer's Strut. We did not demonstrate it.

Ray asked, "How many banjos do they have in the string bands?" I think he was really pleased to learn that there are many banjos (and no fiddles) in the string bands.

This last picture was taken from a dog's view and shows the look of contentment that was similar to the expression on my face as we listened to the music of this fine old-time music band as the breeze flowed past us in the breezeway of the Blue Ridge Music Center.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Adler Report: Food Finds

Pulled pork or pork barbeque? Here, the difference means that the shredded pork – usually shoulder – is sauced before serving or not. I have always been a pulled pork person. I want my pork in recognizable chunks, on a toasted bun, and with a generous topping of creamy slaw. And I want to sauce it myself.
But our recent excursion to Duke’s barbeque in Wytheville may have me rethinking my position – at least when it comes to their pork barbeque.

When I saw that they didn’t have pulled pork, I opted for the fried chicken – and good chicken it was. My serving was four smallish pieces (thigh, leg, wing, and breast) which were crispy and juicy. Chuck selected the pork barbeque and, of course, I had to try some. This was so good that we brought home a pound container of the barbeque along with a pound of Duke’s excellent baked beans for a later meal. The pieces of pork were a combination of shredded meat and larger chunks. And most of the larger chunks included the “bark” – the crispy outside that comes from the long smoking time. The meat had an intense smoky flavor and the sauce was neither too sweet nor too tart.

In fact, everything about our platters (I know it is a basket but they called it a platter) was first rate. They called the potatoes home fries but I’d call them steak fries. Whatever, they were crisp outside and fluffy inside and dusted with a seasoning that included some garlic. The beans may have been the best ever. And Chuck’s cole slaw – while containing pickle which should be a disqualifier – was also very good. In all, this place is a keeper and gets a 4.5 Addie rating.

On Friday, Chuck told of our hunt for breakfast and how we landed in Sparta hungry and frustrated about missing our intended location. The extra ten miles or so that we drove resulted in finding the Pines Restaurant and the best sausage gravy I’ve ever eaten.

Now I must say – with no modesty whatsoever – that I make really good sausage gravy. But I have to admit that mine now is in second place. Too many restaurants make the white sauce and then add the cooked and crumbled sausage to the sauce. This frequently results in eating a bland sauce with pieces of meat floating in it. Good sausage gravy starts with cooking the sausage then adding flour to the pan so that the flour grains become coated with the pan juices (OK. It’s fat but we don’t think about that). When the milk is added, the sausage flavor permeates the entire sauce. This sausage was seasoned with a generous amount of sage and the sauce seasoned with lots – I mean lots – of black pepper. Our breakfast included a large slice of country ham – all for $4.75. We each ordered a side of home fries which they cooked crisp as requested. We both agreed, this was a five Addie breakfast.

And now for our vegetarian friends. In this area, menus will frequently list a “sides” platter. You can order two, three, or four of their side dishes as your meal. I tried this at a couple of places without real success but last night at Christopher’s Pizza we hit on a great combination. From a list that included potato salad, macaroni salad, pinto beans, broccoli casserole, and mashed potatoes, we selected the cole slaw, mac and cheese, squash, and - needing a green vegetable – fried okra. All were very good but the okra was the star of the plate. Now I normally wouldn’t touch okra, but when dusted in corn meal and fried in oil hot enough to make the coating crisp without over cooking the vegetable, this raises okra to a new level.

We topped off the meal with the pizza frite – deep fried pizza dough frosted with a vanilla icing and dusted with cinnamon. My only complaint about the platter was the mac and cheese was drier than I’d prefer. So, with this in mind, I’d rate this a four Addie meal.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

"There's something about these four walls."

The band "The Country Boys" was appearing tonight at Christopher's Pizza--yes, I know we've talked about this little place before, but there is something that draws us back to Meadows of Dan. Shu, the owner and Big Dream Planner (see July 13 entry), says, "It's these four walls that draws you back." This is his explanation for the force that draws people in, but his modesty prevents him from identifying the role he plays in this attraction. He is the greeter, the pizza maker, the server when really busy, the checker-on-how-you're-doing, the singer in a duet during the break for the main performers, and a joker. These behaviors carry over to the staff and especially to the performers and people in the chairs. It is the warmth of the people that Shu ignites and that keeps Shu energized when it is returned to him. It's a powerful force--so much so that we passed up a concert by Robin and Linda Williams two musician/singers that we've often heard on Prairie Home Companion to attend an evening at Christopher's with the people and The Country Boys. We had been advised to get there early. And for good reason.

Fair or not, accurate or not, I have come to believe that I can tell within a few notes whether or not I will enjoy a group's performance. This assessment is based on sound, that is, can five musicians sound like one, can three or four vocalists sound like one. The Country Boys grabbed us in the first few bars--banjo, fiddle, guitar, mandoline, and bass sounded like one. There was a wide range in sound, but all instruments sounded equally strong. The result was a group that presented a wide range of musical tones, yet sounded like one instrument. (Until I learn how to include audio in our blog, this awkward description will have to suffice.)

This ability to make one sound from five instruments extended to voices. There were no wide variations in voice lines, that is, no clear bass, no clear soprano/tenor. Instead, there was a very tight harmony among the three or, sometimes, four voices. I don't know for sure, but I think this quality helped the Country Boys earn a victory in the highly competitive band competition at the Galax Fiddlers' Convention about three years ago.

It was also surprising that the members could change from lead to harmony roles from song to song. I spoke with Donald Clifton, the bass player, during the break about this, and he said that they will try a song with different lead singers before deciding on who will sing lead. All this results in a versitile, highly-skilled group. This skill is especially in the a cappella gospel songs. Very moving in word and sound. Their two-and-one-half-hour performance was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

During the break, I went up the sidewalk to Dee's Ice Cream Parlor. Shu had told us, "If you don't think this is a swinging place, the ice cream is free." As you can see, I don't think anyone has collected on that offer.

Christopher, Shu's son, was serving the ice cream at Dee's and shows many of the same magnetic personality signs as his father. He had been studying veterinary medicine, but he now says that he feels more comfortable working wherever needed to help his father's dream become a reality.

Two retired teachers from Stuart, VA, joined us at a table for four for conversations about music, travel, and the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountain area of southwest Virginia.

Gertrude, Shu's sister, welcomed us to Christopher's and introduced us to a friend of hers from Marion, VA. With time only for a few words, Gertrude encouraged us to see the restored Lincoln Theater in Marion. When we said we had tickets for next Saturday night, she said, "Call Nancy; she'll arrange a tour for you."

There really is something special in that little pizza shop.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Lost. And Found.

Dawn at the RV Resort. We were off to find a highly recommended, but hard to find, restaurant for breakfast. The directions I had copied seemed simple enough: "Take route 89 south from Galax to route 18 in North Carolina. Turn right, go two miles. Country Cupboard is behind Mountain _ur_." That last word, written on a napkin, had only what appeared to be the middle two letters. I thought I had abbreviated furniture, hence Mountain "Furn" when I wrote the directions.

Well, at the two-mile mark there was no furniture store. The only business was a seafood restaurant. Since we had not seen another restaurant since leaving Galax (about 11 miles back), we decided to press on.

When we arrived at the first gas station in Sparta, NC, we received a recommendation for The Pines Restaurant from a customer in answer to our question. A detailed Adler Report will follow in a couple of days--but this was a find.

After breakfast, we traveled to the Blue Ridge (Parkway) Music Center for the Friday jam session with Spencer Strickland and friends. We had met Spencer, who makes mandolins, and Gerald Anderson at their workshop, so this was an opportunity to hear Spencer play. "In 2004, he became on of the youngest contestants ever to take home the title of 'Best All-Around Performer' at the Galax Fiddlers Convention" (J. Lehman, Virginia Folklife Program). In addition, Anderson and Strickland Stringed Instruments are "greatly coveted by musicians throughout the region and the country."

Spencer (center) was joined by Scott Fore (left), an equally accomplished guitarist, for the later portion of the day's session.

Earlier in the day, Spencer had been joined by a banjo player (and his friendly beagle) and a guitarist, both of whom met Spencer for the first time and joined in. Spencer is a gifted and modest artist. He made those not on his level feel welcome to the session and brought out their best in tunes they played.

Kate was talking to a woman attending the jam session about restaurants in Sparta when the woman mentioned "a wonderful restaurant for breakfast on route 18 behind Mountain Surf." S-u-r-f. Mystery solved. What had been lost was found.


We learned that the Seattle Mariners have a rookie league team in Pulaski, so we caught one of their home games against a team in the Kansas City organization. On the way to the game, we stopped at the Draper Overlook to view this scene. It was relatively clear this afternoon.

When we arrived at the game, I noticed that the early arrivals had parked on hillsides, in a gulley, and at the most distant spots in the parking lot. There were plenty of spots near the entrance to Calfee Park. That could mean only one thing--those empty spots were prime foul ball targets. Watching the game produced many tense moments--all related to the direction of foul balls.

Since a net stretched from home plate down both foul lines, I could not take photographs during the game. I have an affinity for the grounds crew, so I included their work in this pre-game shot.

Unlike all the other organizations or businesses that purchased season box seats, this group did not identify themselves in any way other than to announce who was not welcome in their seats.

We left early with no reminders of foul ball damage.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

"A Worthless Piece of Land"

"In 1872, a farmer named John Gilmer purchased several thousand acres of farm and woodland covering what is now part of Mount Airy, NC and the Flat Rock Community. After discovering that the tract contained 40 acres of bare rock, a furious Mr. Gilmer demanded that he be reimbursed for the 'useless' portion of his land. Thus, the world's finest natural quarry 'changed hands for nothing'" (NC Granite Corp. publication).

Additional land was purchased around the original 40 acres, and in 1889 quarrying in the world's largest open face granite quarry began. An open face quarry is defined as open and fairly level onto which one could walk or drive, making access to the stone much easier and more affordable than pit quarries located below the surface. As we looked into the quarry from about 400' above the floor, we could see the easy access to the walls of granite.

Looking at the entire range of activity being carried out by workers and machines in the quarry was like looking into a child's sandbox filled with trucks, cranes, and other machines. The white crane just to the right of the center in the photograph to the left was dropping a large ball on large chunks of granite to break them into smaller pieces for crushing.

The machine in the photo to the right would crush the resulting pieces into products ranging from rocks the size of those used for landscaping to tiny stones for walkways or borders.

The photo below provides a picture of the stages in the quarry's operation from the mining (through the use of gunpowder) of the large slabs to the area (near the upper half of the photo) where the granite slabs are stacked to the transportation of the slabs to construction sites. A truck carrying two slabs is carrying a full load.

We later learned that the granite deposit being mined at this time is approximately one mile long and one-third mile wide. The company reports that geological mapping shows the total mass to be approximately 7 miles by 4 miles and 6,000 to 8,000 feet deep! Quarrying has been in full operation since 1889 and can continue for approximately 500 more years without exhausting the supply. Talk about job security.

As you would expect, many of the buildings in Mount Airy have been constructed with granite. The post office, a memorial to all local people killed in all wars, and almost all the churches in Mount Airy have used granite. The Presbyterian church shown on the right was unique in that the random placement of the rocks represented a variation from the typical row upon row of rectangular blocks.

We found these granite seats and checkerboard tables outside of the entrance to the display of Andy Griffith memorabilia.

Oops. In yesterday's entry I completely forgot to mention the delightful cookbook that Joyce Fulk gave us. It has recipes collected by the Siloam Baptist Church Young Women on Missions Group. It has an original recipe that Don Fulk submitted for Cherry Coconut Cake and several of Joyce's, including Chiffon Cheese Cake--both of which we look forward to trying.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

"Would You Mind Sharing a Table?"

It was Saturday, July 12th, the final day of The Smoke on the Mountain barbecue competition in Galax and time for lunch. There was a line at the Smokehouse, but it was barbecue, so we waited. Soon we were asked, “We have a table for four. Would you mind sharing it with another couple?” We quickly accepted the opportunity to meet some other barbecue people.

Accepting that invitation led to an extended discussion about the barbecue competition with Don and Joyce Fulks of Mount Airy, NC. Conversations about various locations for jam sessions, Paula Deen’s restaurant, and the current activities of each couple followed.

After going our separate ways to catch up on the progress of the competition, we re-joined the Fulks later that evening at the Blue Ridge Music Center for the reunion concert of Willard Gayheart and three of the groups with whom he had performed. We learned about some of the individual musicians that the Fulks knew.

In the course of these conversations, Don and Joyce invited us to their home in Mt. Airy, and today was the day we visited the hometown of the Fulks . . . and Andy Griffith. This town of 10,000 served as the inspiration for Mayberry. The Wanderers met up with Andy and Opie for a walk into town.

The town seems to have capitalized on the Mayberry theme with a half dozen stores on Main Street having "Mayberry" or "Opie" in their names. But the effect of this theme and the efforts of the businessmen to maintain the character of their stores have resulted in a thriving downtown. Personally, I believe it is Holcomb Hardware with its well-worn floors and essential inventory that anchors the downtown.

The Historic Downtown Cinema Theater is a beauty. On Saturdays it is the site of a 90-minute jam session beginning at 9:00 am. Then the WPAQ "Saturday Morning Merry-Go-Round" is broadcast, as it has been since 1948, from 11:00 - 1:30 pm, making it the third longest-running live music radio program in the country.

The Good Life Cafe and Market has maintained the character of the old store while bringing in a modern coffee house interior. Don recalled climbing up and down those ladders taking stock from the shelves of this store as part of his job in the store's earlier life.

At the Mayberry Soda Fountain, it seemed as though a request for any type of milk shake would be granted. Once again, the old merged effectively with the new.

Lunch at Snappy Lunch was a treat. We all ordered the pork chop sandwich "all the way," that is, a breaded (probably with an egg batter) pork chop with chili, slaw, tomato, mustard, and onion. It was a six-napkin sandwich. All the ingredients went together very well. I will have to order another because I devoured this first one so quickly that the taste memory was fleeting.

After our server leaned where we were from, she talked about traveling to Pennsylvania by motorcycle, current events in town, and some family anecdotes since Don knew some of her family. She had a bubbly personality and seemed genuinely inerested in the people she was serving. When she left our table, she said, "I could talk like y'all, but my jaw would be sore."
We enjoyed meeting and talking with the Fulks. They were gracious hosts, and we felt as though we had known them for years. Joyce was kind enough to send us back to our kitchen with one jar each of her strawberry preserves, homemade vegetable soup, apple butter, pickles, pickle relish, and chow chow.

As we drove away from the Fulks' beautiful home with the tranquil, well-landscaped backyard, we said in unison, "What a delightful/wonderful day."

All this enjoyment from saying, "Yes, we'll be happy to share a table."