In back rooms and pickin’ parlors of rural North Carolina, a flourishing underground musical culture thrives. With its roots set in the hardships of the Great Depression and the traditional harmonies of front-porch strummers, bluegrass music is still growing strong. You just need to know where to look – and listen.
If you’ve never experienced bluegrass in these parts, venture out. Just pick an evening, and you’re bound to find enthusiastic musicians playing somewhere. Several venues in and around Fayetteville and the Sandhills region offer a fix to bluegrass devotees, but die-hard fans travel miles and miles to hear their music, or play it. I dare you to keep your foot from tapping.
Just up U.S. 301 from Fayetteville, on the edge of Rhodes Pond north of Godwin, is one such spot. On a cool evening, Cypress House stood like a beacon of warmth in the darkness. Inside, the coffee was strong, the cake was sweet and the music was both, only better. The lively sounds of acoustic guitars, a banjo and a mandolin mingled in the main room as seven musicians strummed and took turns at the microphone to croon old-time hymns and favorite folk songs. About 20 people, a lighter crowd than usual, sat in folding chairs clapping, listening and keeping time with their toes.
Marsha and Martin Olive of Smithfield own Cypress House and have been welcoming bluegrass lovers each week since 2002. They charge the musicians $3 each to play. Listeners get in for $5. The music begins every Thursday night around 6:30. Marsha said she locks the doors at 10, but that doesn’t mean the musicians go home.
“I leave here, and they’re out in the yard playing,” she said with a laugh and a shrug.
Many bluegrass musicians learned to play as children, having grown up in families where learning an instrument or singing in church was part of everyday life. Many, like Marsha Olive, who joins the bands to sing a few tunes most nights at Cypress House, had musically-inclined parents. Her mother, Dorothy Honeycutt Moore, encouraged her daughter to sing in church.
“I was raised up in music,” Marsha said. “My mother plays the piano, and if someone gives her the opportunity to play, she’s there.”
Jim Caulder of Lumberton knows the guitar, mandolin and the banjo and plays wherever he can, from Carthage to Shallotte. He’s president of the Lumber River Regional Bluegrass Association and likes to organize jam sessions and events.
“Music is an expression, and it’s an attempt, a need to express yourself,” said Caulder, whose first instrument was a harmonica, which he got at age 4. “Bluegrass music is built around stories, just like in life. Those who can sing it with the most expression and emotion are the most successful.”
Country folks in rural North Carolina would often get together to tie tobacco or slaughter a hog or shuck a few bushels of corn. Often there would be music and dancing after the work was done, Caulder said. Many musicians are self-taught, he added, or learned the skill from a parent, uncle, aunt or cousin. Once they learn to play, though, most of them are hooked. The music lives in their souls. And these souls live to play it.
“It’s like being an alcoholic,” said Charles Carlisle of Autryville, who’s been playing the guitar since he was 13 – better than 53 years now. “I’d rather pick music than anything. I’ve tried to quit a few times in my life, but I always start again.”
Carlisle and three friends formed a band, the Drifting River, a little more than a year ago. They’ve cut two CDs and perform as often as they can – and not just on stage either. “I have my guitar sitting by my easy chair, and when the commercials come on I hit the mute button and pick up my guitar,” Carlisle said between songs at Cypress House.
True bluegrass lovers will tell you there’s a distinct difference between their music and country. Venues and bands that adhere to the roots of bluegrass allow only acoustic instruments, Caulder said. A typical bluegrass band will include guitars, a banjo or two, a mandolin, an upright bass and a fiddle, in the style of the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe. Monroe and his band, The Blue Grass Boys, started jamming together in Kentucky, the Bluegrass State, back in 1939, at the end of the Great Depression. Through the years and with the influence of other musical styles, bluegrass has evolved, but true bluegrass musicians remain true to their heritage. And they’re like one big, jolly family.
One of the largest groups gathers at Clyde Maness’ Pottery and Music Barn off N.C. 24-27 outside Carthage. On a typical Tuesday night, 200 to 300 fans show up to listen and dance to the sounds of dozens of musicians. Bluegrass players take the stage or gather as impromptu duets or quartets in a corner here or there.
“Some come from Virginia or South Carolina,” Maness said, “but about 90 percent come from around 100 miles or less.”
Betty Moore was there from her home in Carolina Lakes, off N.C. 87 between Fayetteville and Sanford. Her niece, Patsy Flynn, and her 11-year-old grandson, Colby Patterson, accompanied her.
Betty, wearing glitter on her face to match her outfit, eagerly watched the stage, where a band of five known as Fine Blue Line was cranking out some vibrant tunes. She was waiting for her favorite singer, Lewis Beasley, to take the microphone.
“He has a beautiful voice,” she said of the heavyset man holding a doghouse bass that was bigger than him. “Wait till you hear Lewis. He’ll sing a blues song to a bluegrass tune.”
Betty, impatient to hear her man sing, sent her niece up to request a song.
“You get me in more trouble,” Patsy replied. But away she went.
“You just wait till you hear him sing,” Betty said again. The next song began.
“That’s not it,” she said.
Then it was, and Lewis held his lips close to the microphone and sang sweetly, “I’d love to wake up in your arms tomorrow, but I’m so afraid of losing you again.” It was about enough to make Betty swoon.
Across the room, a few dancers were shuffling their feet in a corner of the room. Out in front, away from the main stage, small groups of musicians stood about, playing or singing.
Eleven-year-old Autumn Boger, in a pink T-shirt and sneakers, was leaning against a chair and belting out an old gospel tune, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” to the accompaniment of a couple of guitars. Autumn has loved bluegrass all her life and is already proficient on the guitar, mandolin, fiddle, ukulele, bass fiddle and tub bass, which is just what it sounds like, an overturned tin washtub with a wooden post and a string sticking up from it. Her daddy, Richard Boger, enjoys her music as much as she does and is a musician himself.
He said he always wanted a woman who could sing with him – and he found her in Autumn.
For those who enjoy bluegrass, it’s something akin to true love that might best be described in the love songs of old. It’s a heart-warming affair that makes them smile and brings a fire to their bellies and makes life a bit more fun, a great bit sweeter.
And don’t you know, there’s passion there, too.
“It’s good to have a passion,” Caulder said, “that’s enjoyable, that feeds your spirit and motivates you, that keeps you positive and gives you something to look forward to.”