In April 2017 – SongRoutes ran our first trip to Asheville, North Carolina. Here is a wonderful write-up from one of the singers on the trip – Colleen Alstad – that does a great job describing this wonderful trip!
I am weary but blissfully content after a week of learning and singing Appalachian harmony near Asheville, North Carolina. We spent our days in classes (e.g., “Rural Gospel Singing in Appalachia”; “Early Country Duets”) with veterans/legends of the genre Alice Gerrard, Ginny Hawker, Tracy Schwartz, and Beverly Smith; and with Suzannah Park, a talented young teacher who’s been steeped in this music since birth, and who managed to teach this two-left-footer Appalachian clogging! Imagine spending an evening listening to Ginny Hawker talk about “What is Appalachian Singing?” with her humour, her wisdom, and her “laser-beam” gospel voice, then later singing and drinking wine with Ginny,Alice,Tracy and Beverly in the comfy lounge at the retreat centre.
That’s what happened, and not just once. We even sang our songs for them, like David Francey’s “Torn Screen Door.” After a couple of hours of music and laughter, someone brought Tracy his fiddle and he treated us to some rockin’ zydeco, which he hadn’t played in years. They inspired us, but I like to think we also inspired them. The classes were fun and intense. Ginny had us in tears with her tender stories about her father—a long-time singer in the Primitive Baptist Church; and Alice cracked us up with her faux-crankiness while working out harmonies with Beverly. And they really wanted us to get it right.
I watched how Alice worked with one pair of singers to hone their harmonies and ranges—work that really paid off in a duet they later performed. The Monday night Instructors Concert was a treat! I think they had as much fun as we did. The mid-week square dance at the Barn let us try out our square dance and clogging skills, and dance with expert dancers from the Green Grass Cloggers, who almost managed to keep us on track! But the highlight—in a week full of highlights—may have been the Student Concert, where we sang our newly-learned Appalachian numbers, or whatever we wanted to perform for each other on the front porch of Galax House.
I loved discovering the talents of people I’d just met—like the two young women from Mayne Island performing an impassioned call-and-response duet; and hearing old singing buddies give spirited performances with new material. Our superb accompanists, Steve Charles (banjo) and Patrick Metzger (pedal steel) supported us all with their brilliant playing and impressed our teachers so much they immediately started jamming with Patrick and Steve after the show. What a thrill! I lost track of how many “died and gone to heaven” comments I heard that night. We stayed at the Montreat Centre, a conference and retreat complex near Black Mountain (a little town that’s well worth a visit—be sure to go to the Town Hardware and General Store; and check out what’s happening at the White Horse) about 30 minutes east of Asheville. The campus is beautiful and peaceful, and there are lots of great hiking trails (be bear aware) around. One morning I walked along Greybeard Road to the trailhead, in peaceful silence except for the sounds of the river and the birdsong.
Rooms at the Centre are small but comfy; meals are served buffet-style, with sufficient non-meat choices. And if you like desserts, you can choose between key lime pie, pecan pie, vinegar pie, and cheesecake… or just have them all, like I did on the first night. The buildings are quite grand, and there are LOTS of steps to the various classroom locations—good for a workout but hard on some knees. There’s even shopping at Ten Thousand Villages. Takeaways for me were connecting with so many heart-centred folks to make music, learning the essence of Appalachian gospel through Ginny’s singing demonstrations (“Yes, Angel Band is in ¾ time… but DO NOT sing it as a waltz!”), and hearing, in Alice and Beverly’s harmonies, potential variations for any one song. And, of course, all the new songs to sing! A purely joyous time. If you have a little more time to spend, the city of Asheville is pretty and culturally interesting with a dynamic foodie and craft beer scene and an easy-to-navigate downtown.
I recommend Early Girl on Wall St. for casual dining and the award-winning Curate on Biltmore for gourmet tapas. A hop-on hop-off bus is a great way to see the whole city. Be sure to hop off in the River Arts neighbourhood and wander through the artists’ studios. If you have more time still, rent a car and visit the small nearby towns like Marshall, Fletcher, and Maggie Valley for music jams, concerts, and festivals, and for some really pretty scenery. Detailed information on all things music in western North Carolina is on the excellent Blue Ridge Music Trails website: http://www.blueridgemusicnc.com/ Colleen Alstad