I have been participating in several musicians’ circles lately, playing either the banjo or my melodica. Through this participation I’ve discovered even more circles, each with their own flavor or emphasis. Last Thursday I joined up with yet another group of musicians, this time focusing on old time Appalachian folk music.
I heard about this circle from Dean Watson, a banjo player, storyteller, and one of the driving forces behind the restoration of Hagood Mill in Pickens County. Dean heads up their folk music series on certain Saturdays of the month. Dean had posted an announcement about this circle on Facebook, to be held at the Upstate Craft Brewery at the Old Claussen Bakery.
The old Claussen’s Bakery building has been a fixture on Augusta Street for as long as I can remember. It was built in 1930 and was operated by Claussen from Charleston until 1973. Several other bakery operations occupied the building, but by the late 1990s it sat unoccupied. Recently the building was purchased and is in the process of renovation as office and retail space.
The Upstate Craft Beer Brewpub is in the newer addition to the building. In addition to craft beers, you can buy supplies for home brewing, or even brew on the premises if you don’t have the space or equipment at home.
The “Old-Time at Upstate – Music Jam” is held every Thursday from 6:30 – 8:30. For this first outing I was in scouting mode. I didn’t plan to participate until I knew the lay of the land. I had my guitar, banjo, and melodica in the car, but left the instruments there as I entered.
The group was already in full swing. The instrumentation was very different from other circles I’ve joined. There were no less than six banjos, all playing clawhammer style. There were four fiddles and a single guitar. I decided that they had enough banjos. If I played, I’ll pull out the guitar.
The group was playing exclusively old time Appalachian tunes. There was no bluegrass and certainly no wailing country. The group was led by Dean and two fiddle players. I was told who the platers were, and that they are very well-known in the area, but I promptly forgot their names.
Dean came over and we chatted a bit. I told him that I’d just listen a bit, and if I felt comfortable later I’d retrieve my guitar. I took a few photos and even shot a bit of video.
Someone behind me was also taking photos and video, and I turned around to see Sarah Gentry, with whom I’d sung in the Greenville Chorale and other groups. Her husband John, with whom I’d also sung, was seated at a nearby table. It turns out that Dean Watson is Sarah’s brother. Small world.
After listening a bit I decided to dive on in. I went back to my car and grabbed my guitar then squeezed into the circle. I soon learned that I’d made an error.
While listening to the tunes I could pick out the chordal progressions. These sounded simple enough, which is why I thought I might be able to jump in. The reality was quite different The chord changes are much quicker, and the “simple” tunes are far more intricate than the country stuff I’d played in other circles. I kept my eye on the other guitar player, trying to follow his lead and keep up. I was pretty bad at it, but I still had fun. Here are two audio clips. I’m not sure you can hear me playing.
I had no idea what the names of these tunes were, but others did. There were actually some very good players. A young couple from Walhalla had joined the group for the first time. The girl played an amazing clawhammer, while her boyfriend played fiddle.
Others were equally impressive. I’d feel a bit intimidated dragging my banjo out here. I noticed (and confirmed with Dean later) that the banjos were using the “sawmill” tuning with a capo on the second fret. The fiddles like playing in the key of D, so this gives the banjos more flexibility to play with them. The upshot is that I would have had a devil of a time keeping up if I were playing the banjo. The guitar was the better choice for me today.
Even though this was a brewpub, I didn’t have any beer. I’ll have to try some of theirs next time I’m here. After we were done I did sit around with Dean, Sarah, John, and their son John, Jr., and caught up for awhile.
Once again, I had a great time despite the misgivings about my playing. I guess I’ve become one of those cringe-worthy musicians that keeps going regardless of of how bad he is. And really, I don’t care. I’ll keep playing until someone tells me to quite, and I’ll probably keep going after that.