Our more modern version returned in 2007, and continues with renewed vigor.
This timeless music form, known as Appalachian, Mountain or even Old Time, is where Bluegrass and Country came from, with Calhoun being ground zero in it’s early, writing, recording and development. Calhoun’s heritage musicians are known literally all over the globe, making this festival an attractive destination for modern adherents of this viable and growing art-form, and along with the geographic location, the venues are particularly well-suited for these successful efforts.
Coming from at least five states, fiddlers, banjoists, singers and buck-dancers made up the majority of the crowd present, gathering together in various groups to jam and compete, some playing far into the night in their nearby camps.
It all started Friday night at the Harris Arts Center, with Frank Lee and Mick Kinney, two masters of this American roots music, along with Mick’s son Evan, Calhoun’s ace flat-top guitar-picker Joseph Evans, and banjo-wizard Chip Corbett regaling the theater audience with prime examples of sounds that literally shaped modern country and even popular music. Mick even wheeled a small piano out at one point, demonstrating that “Old Time” encompasses many styles, including a bit of jazz, swing, blues and stride piano. Evans not only picked a mean guitar, but, along with Kinney and Lee, kept up a most informative narrative about this art-form, which brought much deeper meaning to what was being heard. Several tunes by our pioneer recording artist The Georgia Yellow Hammers and Andrew and Jim Baxter were covered, as well as efforts by our neighbors The Skillet Lickers and other musicians so important to the development of American music.
Some may remember Clyde Evans as an owner of a clothing store in Calhoun years ago, but he once wrote and recorded songs and played guitar with The Georgia Yellow Hammers. His song “All Gone Now” was performed at Friday night’s performance, and along with Clyde’s “How I Got My Gal”, this music shows it’s great endurance, appearing on The Georgia Crackers newly-released CD, “Hillbilly Wobble.”
The second event in this festival cut lose the next Saturday noon, with The Gordon County Fiddlers Convention at the Northwest Georgia Fairgrounds, and what amazing contests they proved to be. Forget “American Idol”, as this was an experience easily eclipsing much of what is now-days presented as “American music.”
Our own Jonathan Weaver took home the Gold Medal and $75 for his a cappella rendition of “Spring of ‘65” in the singing contest, winning against veteran champions from much larger events of this type. Kenneth Johnson of The Georgia Crackers won the red ribbon-medal and Matt Kinman, founding member of The Old Crow Medicine Show took third.
Buck Dancing, a great Southern Tradition and crowd-favorite, came next, with much spirited foot and elbow-work done to dance tunes by a fine band of professional musicians. An Atlanta lady going by the name “Moonshine” took top honors with Paul Shelnutt of Woodland, Ala., winning second.
The multi-talented Matt Kinman danced away with third, but this would prove to not be his last walk to the award-table, by any means. The Banjo contest came next, the first competition to require a play-off. The sheer quality of playing made this and the events to follow a particular challenge for the judges, who found themselves in the unenviable position of having to choose between contestants whose skill levels were all jaw-dropping.
Hixon’s David Varnell picked his way to gold and $100, with that multi-instrumental master Matt Kinman making yet another victory-walk for the red ribbon-medal and $75. Nashville’s Van Burchfield had to fight through another judges-call round against the dancing banjoist Moonshine, ultimately winning the third place medal and $50. The next two competitions held the highest drama of the day, as everyone present was more than aware of what a daunting effort selecting from such consistently superior talent had to be. The String Band contest heated up quickly, with fine performances by five different bands, then another play-off call by the three judges for past winners
The Georgia Crackers, challenged by The Stone Mountain Wobblers, made up of the sons of Cracker fiddler Mick Kinney. It was the sons versus the father’s band, and not one, but two songs were requested by the judges, contrary to convention, one to contain vocals.
Strategically-selected tunes, such as Cotton Baggin’ (Crackers) and Pretty Little Widdow (Wobblers) were then beautifully presented. The Georgia Crackers persevered against the young challengers for first place and $500, the Wobblers second place and $300, and a spontaneous band called The Yellow Giraffes taking third and $200. This is the kind of drama these conventions are known for, and has been consistently great entertainment for many generations in these parts, and remains so.
The namesake event was then to come, as some of the top fiddlers in the Southeast proved exactly what great love, skill, dedication and respect they have for our traditional tunes by executing them in such exquisite form as to bring hearty shouts and lengthy applause from the audience after each performance. Chris Ryan (Hiawassee/Chattanooga) proved that his selections and renditions of The Lewis Brothers’ “Sally Johnson” and “The Last Shot Got Him” (Mississippi version) were gold material (and $200). That he beat out master fiddler and multi-winner Matt Kinman, who won second
and $100, is a considerable victory for this twenty-something fiddler, who has great respect and admiration for our Baxter Brothers and their pervasive legacy. Kinman wowed those present with a particularly moving “Wednesday Night Waltz,” causing many present to predict his winning first place. Taking third and $75 was our great Georgia talent, Mick Kinney, who is as highly respected and regarded in this fiddling tradition as anyone in the state, if not the Southeast.
Among the attendees for this convention were Wayne Daniel, author of the celebrated book on Georgia Music, “Pickin’ On Peachtree”, as well as his associate and Georgia State University music archivist Kevin Fleming, both of whom were most interested in meeting and visiting with the various descendants of The Georgia Yellow Hammers, who were also in attendance. With Dixie, Ray, Gregg, and Justin Landress, there were four generations of Yellow Hammer Bud Landress’ family present.
Others of this family attending were Mildred and Teresa Dutton and Kaylee and Caitlin Landress. Andrew and Jim Baxter descendants Pete and Mary Garrigan were also in the audience, as well as at least one kinsman of Yellow Hammer Bill Chitwood.
Our undying gratitude goes to the judges for this year’s Gordon County Fiddling Convention: Master banjo-builder/player Tom Ryan of Sautee Nacoochee, multi-musician/storyteller/potter Pat Shields of Danielville and award-winning banjoist/archivist Lightenin’ (Laney) House of Adairsville. Joseph Evans, area attorney and top-notch flat-top guitar picker/singer, not only demonstrated his remarkable skills as a musician, he proved to be a masterful and quite informative master of ceremonies both Friday evening and Saturday, and we are much obliged for his considerable talents and efforts.
Without the hard work of the staff and volunteers of The Harris Arts Center, and their essential support, this festival would not be possible. Our most generous sponsors who literally made this happen include Calhoun Precast, Omnova, Calhoun/Gordon County CVB, Coppedge & Evans, P.C., Chris Taylor Construction, David Smith Auto Sales, Dr. Larry Tilley, DMD and Michael’s Wholesale Flooring.
Put the second weekend of May 2013 on your calendar and join us for another celebration of the Mother of County Music, on Mother’s Day Weekend: The Georgia String Band Festival.