Homing in on the Galax Old Time Fiddler’s Convention

        Today I’d like to show you around the Galax Old Time Fiddler’s convention.  If you are true bluegrass you will already know much of this, but I hope you’ll enjoy the post anyway.

        The bluegrass crowd doesn’t need a GPS or even a map to find Galax.  They have a built in geomagnetic homing device (? is it in the hippocampus) similar to migratory birds.  By instinct they flock to Southern Virginia and have done so every second week of August for the last 74 years.

         If a child in the Carolinas or Virginias starts school and is short on supplies it is not that the parents can’t afford them.  They might miss a back to school Walmarks shopping  trip, but they will not miss Galax.  Come August all the Sams and Sophronies from hundreds of miles (some come from as far away as Europe and Australia) putter up and down the mountain to land in the greatest tent city of the bluegrass world; Galax, Virgina.

        My brother in law, Casey Jones, met me in the early hours Tuesday.  I only had 24 hours and was determined to make the best of each one. I found my best Hawaiian shirt, put on my straw hat, and threw my sunglasses on the dash of truck.  With no more provisions than an extra large thermos of black coffee, two liver mush and egg sandwiches from Harvey Billiard and Bowl, and a large bucket of chicken, we snatched the paper out of the morning dew and lit out.

         From Harvey County all you gotta do is go up through the country past Yates Glenn’s farm, hang a right by the old cemetery and go eight miles up Richmond Highway.  There is a short cut down a dirt road but I don’t want to lose you.  You’ll come to a sign that says I-40 that way 6 miles.  Take it.  When you get to 40 you’ve got it made.  But if you are lost just follow the trail of chicken bones we’ll toss out along the way.  You’ll find us. 

          Follow I-40 West on past Raliegh towards Statesville, then go North on I-77.  If you get to Perry’s Auction Barn turn around; you went too far.

             From there it’s easy.  Take I-77 to the Virginia line, and the first exit is the road to Galax.  Consider a home cooked meal at the Wagon Wheel if you’re hungry.  Stop at the cash register and point at the picture of a small frame house on the wall, turn to your friend and say, “Well I’ll be.  That right there is Andy Griffith’s homeplace in Mt. Airy.”  They’d treat you good anyway but this won’t hurt.  Most of the waitresses will call you ‘Honey’ but they don’t mean anything by it.

        We got there and checked in with banjo picker Moose Dooley at the gate.  It was 10:30.  He’s the early riser in the crowd.  He dialed up his wife on the cell so I could tell her Moose wasn’t in any trouble.   We sure have gotten modern.  Years ago we had to wait for a pay phone.

        We walked down the midway.  Folks were set up for the week in an assortment of campers, tents, and old buses.  One fellow had an old model T and a tarp draped over the driver’s side door.  I picked up his mandolin.  It was cracked and faded and half the finish was worn off.  (Auto-distressed model) 

        “What year is it?” I asked.

        “The car or the mandolin?”

        “Both.”

        “The car’s a ’29.  Got 438,000 miles.  The mandolin is from ’88.”

        “It looks older.”

        “Uh well, yeah, one time my boat sunk, and well…..it’s a long story.”

        “I need to get all of that one some time.”

        “Come visit.”

        Moose took us to our first jam session of the day with a man named Popsicle who played a mean mandolin.  Barry sang old time tunes in a voice seasoned by hickory smoke, cigarettes and whiskey.  They offered up a can of mixed nuts just chock full of cashews and almonds. 

        “Don’t mind if I do,”  I said. “These are the ones for company though.”

        “”We’ll put the peanuts back in after a while, Doc.  First jam you’re company; after that you’re family.”

         We wandered from tent to tent.  Barry Kratzert of Bulldog Mandolins recognized me from Mandolin Cafe.  He let me play his newest creation.  Man it smelled good.  (Mandolin players often sniff the wood and varnish aroma of a new one.)  It was a hoss.

        As I walked by Pammy’s tent I heard some fine three finger style guitar.  I sat in and we jammed along on ‘I am a Pilgrim.’  I liked this guy’s style, and  it sounded quite familiar.  Suddenly it hit me.  It was Steve.  We played the Tut Taylor stage together at MerleFest.  We shook hands; and were glad to be reacquainted.  Steve would be a good man for some book store gigs in the Statesville area.  Folks need to hear him.  I took his card.

        We took advantage of an afternoon thundershower to take a quick nap.  After the rain there was a lot of mud that squished around, but I have seen it up the ankles so it wasn’t too bad.  After the nap we went to find some chow.  I recommend the pork chop sandwich.  The Snappy Grill in Mt. Airy has a similar one.  I meant to ask if this one was patterned after the Mt. Airy version.

         After supper I got into another fine jam session.  Some boys had a green carpet laid out in front of their camper to serve as a stage that caught my eye.  Storm clouds were a rising again and they had a nice tarp cover too.  I noticed they didn’t have a mandolin player, and got mine out of the case.  The thundershower rolled in and we huddled in the center as the rain pattered on the tarp.  They had a song book set up in the middle of the circle and everyone got a chance to sing one.  A new picker with a nice voice flubbed a line every so often.  He’d break into a wide grin and shake his head.

       Someone encouraged him along.  “You’re gonna get there son, just keep at it.”

        Another young man emerged from the camper with a mandolin.  I assumed he was the regular mando man for the group and deferred to him when it came time for breaks.  A few times someone called for one he didn’t know and he’d nod at me to cover it.  He also was just a kid and favored a high school lanky lifeguard.  Despite his youth he was already a player.  We did some fun twin mando work on one number.  Man these kids are good.  I’m glad I held onto my day job.  I noticed they all called me ‘Sir.”  Bluegrass young’uns are the best.

        On the way to the mandolin contest I ran into Jr. Sisk.  Jr. is as fine an example of an authentic country bluegrass singer as I know.  If you think he sounds powerful from the stage, you need to sing one with him in person.  Man, the shock waves from his vocals thudded into my chest wall.  This crowd was all pro pickers.  I hung around the periphery of the jam but Jr. called me up to sing one with him.   We did ‘All I Ever Loved was You.’  It was a thrill for old Doc to sing harmony with Jr.  and he did it every bit as good as Whitley and Skaggs. 

        Buddy Wrong put down some fine tracks.  Rumor in camp was someone had mistaken him for Mary Ann Mobley.  My night vision ain’t what is used to be, but I was 100% sober and I just couldn’t see the resemblance.  I believe someone had to have been into too much white liquor to make such a statement.

        I went on to the mandolin contest.  The man in line with me had just retired from a syndicated bluegrass T.V. show.  We traded cards.  A fellow named Gale did ‘Angeline the Baker’ which inspired my ‘Song of the Day’ a few hours later.  He looked just like Samuel, but Sam wasn’t gonna be in till Wednesday. 

        I did ‘When You’re Smiling ’cause it’s my wife’s theme song.  I didn’t wreck it but I am sure I didn’t place (top ten) either.  There are hundreds of pickers at Galax and 98.7% of them are dang good. The ones that aren’t will be soon if they hang around a few years.  I did get a blue ribbon though.  We all did.  Like a grade school soccer game, everyone at Galax is a winner.

        We crashed out early at 2:00 am.  I had to get up in a few hours to get back for a big Doctor meeting.  In spite of the fun I ain’t exactly an international bluegrass star, and the day job called.  Even though it was one of those years when the doctor gig had to come first we had a fine 24 hours, and I’ll be back next year.  We have to.  It is part of what we are.  Like everyone else there, the Galax homing instinct is our nature.

Dr. B

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18 Comments on “Homing in on the Galax Old Time Fiddler’s Convention”

  1. Carmen Says:

    Sounds awfully familiar, I wasn’t there, but I’ve been there, but not there. 🙂

    • drtombibey Says:

      Ah Ms. Carmen you make the point exactly. When I started out with my Lit agent he said “What is it about this bluegrass thing?”

      I told him all us bluegrassers were the same no matter where you go.

      Now he shakes in head in disbelief and says, “Doc, you’re right. All you bluegrass people are thick as thieves.”

      Dr. B

  2. Ted Lehmann Says:

    We’ve never been to Galax, but your fine account today brought the scene there to life for me. Thanks a lot.

  3. Billy Says:

    Great job Dr. B. I don’t see how any photo could have painted a better vision in my heart what Galax is all about. You inspire hope.

    • drtombibey Says:

      Billy, Next time you make a run up I-77 in early August stop in. Tell ’em Dr. B sent you. They’ll treat you like family even to the point they’ll break out the fancy mixed nuts.

      Dr. B

  4. junebugger Says:

    It’s lovely how the mandolin brings everyone together. Working with each other.

    I love how you make your posts read like chapters from a book. It’s so compelling to read. And there’s always something about your stories that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

  5. drtombibey Says:

    junebugger,

    Someday if I am out on the road and you come up to me at a bookstore with a starter mandolin in hand, I’m gonna show you three chords and a tune.

    Dr. B

    • junebugger Says:

      is a mandolin similar to a guitar?

      • drtombibey Says:

        junebugger,

        There are similarities in that both are stringed fretted instruments. The mandolin is smaller and is tuned in musical fifths. (from low to high G, D, A, E.) So, it is tuned like a violin, but picked instead of bowed.

        The mandolin is much fun and has made me many friends. A young lady who plays the mandolin well and can sing will be popular enough they should learn karate too. (Although we have never seen any trouble in our music journey, that is what my daughter did)

        Dr. B

  6. waggledance Says:

    You’ve done it again, Dr B…conjured up a warm and rosy image that even I, a humble Brit, can visualise and smile about…thank you.!

    • drtombibey Says:

      waggledance,

      It’s back to heart attacks and hemmoroids today, but that is my job and my duty. The music lets me escape for a moment so I can deal with it all again.

      I can not complain over my lot in life.

      Dr. B

  7. drtombibey Says:

    waggledance,

    You know, I am always concerned about folks be they local or electronic friends. And believe it or not I try to answer a few questions in a genric sense, but really it is more like an electronic cheerleader.

    It is sort of like these insurance company chart jockies. Their attempts to diagnose from a distance would border on humorous if it weren’t so serious. The Doc who thinks he/she can diagnose without a face-to-face encounter is deluded. (as I know you know)

    All that said, I hope you encounter no sickness. My goal is to work myself out of a job as a Doc, but that hasn’t happened yet.

    Dr. B

  8. waggledance Says:

    Ah, Dr B, I find your wonderful words a tonic in themselves…each tale lifts my spirits! I prescribe myself a daily dose…

    • drtombibey Says:

      waggledance,

      Tincture of bluegrass! There’s a song in there somewhere.

      I have spent my whole life trying to find words to help people through hard times, both as a Doc and an amatuer musician. The notion I might be able to adapt some of that to my writing is a huge thrill, because those words will go on past my time.

      Dr. B


  9. Aw, Dr. B, I love when you tell us about festivals. The way you write about everyone so familiarly makes me feel like I’m really looking into a big family reunion, where you all know and love each other. Keep ’em coming!

    • drtombibey Says:

      msslightly,

      Galax, and bluegrass in general, is indeed one big on-going family reunion. After all these years the music and the people are inseparable from my psyche. I just download brain to paper every day and let y’all see what I have been so lucky to be a part of.

      Dr. B


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