Monday night I was able to check off one of my goals for 2016 as accomplished…somewhat. I carried my banjo up to Robert Perry’s place between Pumpkintown and Pickens for their regular Monday night Pickin’ and Grinnin’.
Since I usually have Greenville Chorale rehearsal on Monday nights, it’s a rare opportunity for me to visit Perryville. I had only been here once before with my brother, Stephen, nearly three years ago. This was long before I’d even considered taking up the banjo. Since we were in between Chorale concerts, it seemed like a perfect time.
Paul Wagenknecht and I had discussed the trip at our last trip to the Pickens Flea Market. Paul’s post-doc, Jared Pienkos, is from New Jersey, and Paul’s been trying to expose him to as much southern culture as possible, including flea markets. We decided that Perryville would also be a good experience, so as we watched Robert, Barbara, and the other musicians at the flea market, plans were set to head up there the first available time.
Monday the appointed time arrived, and I met Paul and Jared at Furman. We were joined by Michael Turlington, a recent Furman chemistry grad, and an accomplished mandolin player. Michael and his brothers (also Furman grads) play bluegrass together regularly, and Michael has been up to the Oolenoy Community bluegrass jam sessions.
We arrived at Perryville a bit after 6:30. Robert’s driveway would just about discourage any stray encounters. He had put up a sign saying “Speed Bump”, which was an understatement. There was a sign saying “Private Property, No Trespassing”, but others welcoming folks to the Monday night event and pointing directions.
As we pulled up, my comrades, none of whom had been here previously, were amazed at the array of old buildings, vehicles, and tools scattered across Robert Perry’s property. Since things were still just getting ramped up, and since there was still a bit of light, we decided to explore.
Paul’s father had been into antiques and flea markets, so Paul had gained quite a bit of knowledge along the way. He pointed out several items, including “one of them engines what does stuff,” a generic engine that could be attached to several tools.
There was an old woodshed and equipment to produce lumber. Paul was sure that Robert and his family must have used this get the lumber for some of the buildings here.
Then there were the cars. Some were rusted heaps sitting out in the yard, but the better ones were kept under a shed.
Robert’s house is also amazing. It’s an old farm house that only got indoor plumbing in recent years. There is a wrap-around porch with ladder-back chairs, which look like an excellent place just to hang out on a lazy summer evening.
The main attraction is “Perryville.” This is a row of store fronts with displays of antiques and artifacts Robert has collected over the years.
Paul told me that just before his father died, he had been collecting old cabins and moving them to his property so that he could set up his own pretend-town, but never really got started with it. I had also spotted another miniature town in Newberry County near Saluda Old Town. I’ve also seen this on American Pickers, where they will roll up to someone with their own town full of antiques. I don’t understand the compulsion to create your own town. I guess it’s something akin to modeling, but just on a grander scale.
Folks were starting to gather in the School-Church-“Opra” House in preparation for the music. Michael and I took our instruments up toward the front while Paul and Jared found seats. One woman said, “I’m going to sit right here next to this nice-looking young man,” patting Jared on the knee. I tried to find an unobtrusive corner where I could play along, but not stand out.
The folks were friendly, but reserved. Not many of them were smiling, which I took as odd. I asked one of the musicians, a woman with dyed jet-black hair wearing a cowboy hat, if they minded if I joined in. The response I got was somewhere between indifference and a scowl. Any other attempts at friendly conversation were met with somewhat curt replies. I was really puzzled. Fortunately, both Robert and his girlfriend Barbara had greeted me warmly, so I just decided to go with it. The other musicians were a bit friendlier, but still reserved.
At events like this, participation and documentation are mutually exclusive. I could either play, or I could take photos. I handed my camera to Paul to take a few photos while I was playing.
I quickly found out that I was completely out of my depth. As long as the song was in the key of G I could flail around with my three chords. However, many of the songs were in C, A, or F, and I found myself struggling with chords. Occasionally they would point the microphone at me, or want me to pick out a solo, and I politely declined. Michael on the other hand, hung with them with no problem whatsoever.
After awhile of struggling through mostly old country and a few gospel sounds, I was about ready to give up. About that time another banjo player arrived. I was both dreading and looking forward to having another player – dreading, because it would show my own pitiful picking in sharp relief, and looking forward to, because I wanted to learn. Turns out this guy was a good one to sit next to. Carl Yother, the banjo player, teaches a banjo class at Easley Baptist Church every Tuesday night.
Here are a couple of clips. The first one was in G, so I could play along pretty well. On the second one Michael played a mandolin solo.
It was time for a break, and I decided I’d inflicted enough pain, and I was tired of the scowls from the woman in the cowboy hat. I put my banjo away. Michael, Gary, the guitar player, and the dobro player jammed some bluegrass for a bit.
We listened to to some more of the music after the break. During the first part, while I was playing, Paul had been talking to one of the regulars. She said that the music “wasn’t too good” tonight. Hmmm. She was also a wealth of other information. They have a potluck supper at each of these, and in a couple of weeks they would have a “poke salad” dinner, and she was tasked with making all the salad. She also told Paul about Robert’s Birthday Bash and the end of June. Another patron said that you had to get there by 10:00 am that day, “‘cuz there’d be over five hunnert people here.” Now, that would be amazing to see.
It was getting late, and time for us to go. On the way out Paul spotted an old photo. One of our new friends said that the photo was of Robert and his brother. Robert is the one with the fiddle.
All of us had a blast. Michael enjoy playing as an accomplished musician, and Jared liked the new experiences. I think Paul was in heaven. As for me, despite the social and musical faux pas, I had a good time, too. I know I’ll be back, and I might even work up enough nerve to bring the banjo back. I’ll have to learn a few more chords, first. I just have to remind myself…before last December I’d never even picked up a banjo. This was a pretty big step.