Friday, July 25, 2014

Bluegrass Music in the Mountains

Want to hear authentic bluegrass music performed by an internationally known artist? Then travel the Music Trails of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area that take you to the opry house in Maggie Valley, NC. This performance venue is in Haywood County, where the banjo has played in unison with the fiddle for generations since the Scots-Irish began to settle the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains to make “mountain music.”

The banjo skills of Raymond Fairchild draw guests each night to the Maggie Valley Opry House.

When I visited, I enjoyed music by Raymond Fairchild and the Maggie Valley Boys that connected me to the traditional folklife of the mountains. Fairchild played his five-string banjo as if he were performing again at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville rather than the opry (“opera” in Southern dialect that sometimes pronounces a final “a” as a “y”) in Maggie Valley. Born in 1939, Fairchild has yet to slow down. He performs with his band nightly April through October (the months that the opry house is open).

With 300 seats, the opry house has plenty of room for guests. Banjos on sale and memorabilia on the wall greets visitors as they arrive.

Fairchild has received many awards and honors, including two gold records. Most significant is the Bluegrass Banjo of the Year Award five times from the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America, which has also inducted him into its Hall of Greats.
Fairchild’s gold records and other awards are on display next to the stage.

Fairchild is often touted as the fastest five-string banjo player. When he plays an instrumental solo as part of a number with his band, his legendary dexterity is amazing. As Fairchild performs, the expression on his face is very solemn – almost a poker-face with no expression. A gifted musician for decades, he learned to play the guitar when he was 11, although he didn’t pick up a banjo until he was 18.

Fairchild performs nightly at the opry house with the Maggie Valley Boys.

Fairchild, who is proud of his Cherokee heritage, graciously shares the stage with the other musicians. Their rhythm guitar, bass, and harmonica combine in harmony with his guitar to produce music that makes you want to dance. In fact, during the performance, several visitors in the audience when to the elevated dance area and clogged to the tune being played. Fairchild also features his manager John Lucas as a vocalist in several selections. Lucas’ rendition of “Amazing Grace” in the Cherokee language is incredibly beautiful.

Singing “Amazing Grace” in the Cherokee language, John Lucas demonstrates his talented, rich voice as he is accompanied by Fairchild and the Maggie Valley Boys.
Although the evening was enjoyable, I would have enjoyed more music to demonstrate Fairchild’s elaborate, fast picking and skills to make the banjo mimic animal sounds such as those by mules in his performance of “Whoa Mule” (illustrated in this video recorded earlier in his career).

During intermission, band members “jam” with visitors.
The opry house has been operating continuously since 1988, even during earlier years when Fairchild was on the road for other performances. Although the music by Fairchild and the Maggie Valley Boys are the reason guests continue to attend the nightly shows, Fairchild gives credit during performances to his wife Shirley for the success of the opry house. In addition to managing the opry house and selling tickets before the performance, she multitasks during intermission by selling popcorn and soft drinks at the concession stand.

Fairchild (with display of moonshiner Popcorn Sutton in background) sells music and souvenirs during intermission as wife Shirley operates concession stand.

Maggie Valley is famous for several notable people, including Popcorn Sutton (legendary moonshiner), but Raymond Fairchild is clearly the hometown favorite and a beloved member of the community.

Maggie Valley proudly proclaims itself as the home of Raymond Fairchild.