These North Carolina small towns supplement Winston-Salem’s music scene.
Fans of Andy Griffith will recall that America’s favorite sheriff knew his way around guitars and music. That was no accident. Mount Airy, the idyllic little town where Griffith grew up, is a crossroads for mountain music. It was also his inspiration for the long-running television series “The Andy Griffith Show.”
Nestled into the hills of Surry County, Mount Airy remains a repository for “round peak” style banjo players and mountain musicians. Round peak is a style that banjo icon Tommy Jarrell helped to make famous from his home in nearby Toast, North Carolina.
Our group enjoyed an evening at Mount Airy’s revered Earle Theatre, where an impromptu gathering of musicians played Appalachian music for us from the theater’s venerable stage. Appalachian music is much older than bluegrass, though most of the instruments are the same. Our evening included music generated by guitars, an upright bass, a banjo, a fiddle and a mandolin.
“The Earle was built in the 1930s for movies, live radio broadcasts, live music performances and events,” local historian Tanya Jones told us. “We have a longtime connection to old-time music.”
At the Andy Griffith Museum in Mount Airy, memorabilia featuring Andy, Barney and all the cast and clips from iconic episodes tell the story of one of American television’s all-time favorites. Afterward, hit Snappy Lunch for a pork chop sandwich, a a meal made famous by the series.
Better yet, go in September and enjoy Mayberry Days, a festival that celebrates all things Mayberry.
“We have music, pie-eating contests and apple-peeling contests,” said Jones. “We also have the ‘Goober Says Hey Toss,’ but don’t credit me with that one. Last year, we had 16 Opies — but we don’t have contests — that would be a nightmare!”
Wilkesboro and Merlefest
Can a community college produce the “world’s best music festival”? In North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley, they’ll tell you theirs can. Started in 1988 to honor the life of local music legend Doc Watson’s son, Merle, this festival is owned and operated by a corporation of the Wilkesboro Community College. And yes, it is billed as the world’s best.
In 2016, this celebration of various musical genres included appearances by John Prine, Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile and many others. Held each April, the event is revered by musicians and attendees alike for its family friendly atmosphere and its appreciation of music as part of America’s cultural heritage.
We enjoyed an evening in Wilkesboro that the entire community turned out for, or so it seemed. Organizers of MerleFest, local dignitaries and a number of rising mountain music stars were there to host us. By rising, I mean kids from about 6 years old and up. These Wilkesboro kids study music like most kids study math. In Wilkesboro, they don’t hand a boy a baseball — they hand him a banjo. Daughters don’t get Little Mermaids — they get a fiddle.
Make time to visit the Wilkes Heritage Museum in North Wilkesboro to see the jail cell of Tom Dula, immortalized as “Tom Dooley” in the song made famous by the Kingston Trio. Dula was a Confederate soldier and the lover of a woman whose 1866 murder was covered by the national media. He was hanged for the crime.
For a wonderful breakfast stop, try Betty and Bill’s Bakery and Deli for a ham and egg sandwich on homemade ciabatta bread. But bring a friend because these sandwiches are a meal for two.
As a music buff, I am ashamed to admit I hadn’t realized how much influence Earl Scruggs had on the evolution of the banjo and its role in music. In the small town of Shelby, at the impressive Earl Scruggs Center, I learned how innovative Scruggs was. In the 1970s, he broke from bluegrass tradition and began playing with many different artists and in many different genres.
From its origins as a rudimentary stringed instrument crafted by slaves and others in impoverished regions of the country, the banjo was relegated to a supporting role for most early American music. Thanks in large part to Scruggs and his innovative three-finger picking style, in the last several decades it has come into its own as a lead instrument. Look no further than the contemporary music of Bela Fleck and comedian and musician Steve Martin for evidence of where the banjo is headed.
The Scruggs Center occupies town center in Shelby in the restored 1907 Cleveland County Courthouse. We enjoyed another town gathering of sorts when local musicians and business leaders joined us for dinner in the center’s Great Hall. Groups of 20 or more are offered discounted rates, and the center’s galleries tell the story of Scruggs’ rise from local mill worker to Grand Ole Opry star.
If you have a chance to catch a concert at the retro Don Gibson Theatre in Shelby, do it. Gibson was known primarily as a songwriter in the 1950s, and with standards like “Sweet Dreams” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” to his credit, it’s no wonder.