Stories from the Road: Tour of the Mid-Atlantic

Our recent tour took us to what we are calling the Mid-Atlantic, and it went well, don’t I swear it! We came home with money in our pockets and a pack of good memories. We began in Baltimore with a sold-out house concert on a hot, muggy night that felt like the dead of summer in the Maritime NW, mere spring to those East Coasters. The following night in Delaware brought us to the Brandywine Friends of Old Time Music in Newark. They hadn’t seen the band for about ten years, and so, saw live and in person the current lineup. We spoke to many nice folks that evening who were long time fans of the band. We got to stay with and visit our friend Rafe Stefanini that night, and he also joined us on stage with his banjo.

photo by Kathleen Tannian Sheehan

The following day, we headed for Lemont, PA to play on the local radio station, and when Nadine opened up the bass case, she found the bridge collapsed, and the tailpiece in pieces. Needless to say, there was no time to do anything about it then, and we played on the radio bass-less. But within an hour’s time, Caleb and Nadine had jumped to action, and rounded up borrowed basses for that night, and the following night’s gigs, and had connected with someone who could repair our bass the next day. All was well. As for Lemont, PA, Acoustic Brew is a concert series held in a beautiful space that is a dance and yoga studio by day. True to its name, the show is all acoustic, and I for one really enjoy that style of performing more than any other, rare though it is. It’s freeing to sing at the top of the lungs without thought of a microphone. All the volunteers there make this great concert series possible. And we were kindly hosted by a couple of the volunteers in their beautiful home. The next night’s show was in Berryville, VA at the Barns of Rose Hill, a lovely venue inside of a restored barn. The site was gifted to the City of Berryville by a benefactor, and now is a place of cultural and musical enrichment for the community.

This was an eventful night, for we met a gentleman named Skip Ashby at the intermission. Skip Ashby is the son of well-known Virginia fiddler, John Ashby. John Ashby’s recordings have had a big influence on Foghorn Stringband’s sound, specifically the three-finger banjo style that was a signature of the early days of Foghorn. Never before had the Foghorn lads heard the old time fiddle music accompanied quite in this way by three-finger style banjo, and that rhythmic sound changed the band, lending to that hard-driving sound that Foghorn became known for. John Ashby started his band, The Free State Ramblers, in the 1930’s, and the band is still going today under Skip’s lead. Skip was a fiddle contest finalist himself in 2005 at Clifftop. There aren’t many bands that have carried on continuously for over 80 years! They mostly play around Fauquier County.

Skip was kind enough to invite us by the Ashby home place the next day, and serendipitously, we had the night off, so had plenty of time for a side trip. How fortunate we did since it turned into a rich afternoon I won’t soon forget. After getting up early to get the bass to the shop and repaired, (which took only about 20 minutes at Thomas Wolf bright beautiful high-ceilinged shop, full of curiosities), we arrived at the Ashby residence in the afternoon. The old farmhouse sits thoughtfully placed on a gentle grassy ridge overlooking pastures and creeks. Skip and his lovely wife Ann were sitting on the porch with Richard Ashby, who, incidentally, played guitar on many of the Ashby recordings, thus is one of my heroes. Then it was a matter of mutual admiration as the afternoon played out. The four of us sat, incredulous to be sitting on the very porch that had hosted the music of our hero John Ashby, and all who played with him. Family and friends rolled up one by one joining the cheerful group, as happy to be visited by the likes of us as we were to visit with them. Among them was David McLaughlin of the Johnson Mountain Boys, who took time away from his busy schedule as a Justice of the Peace, marrying folks at all hours of the day, to visit with us. When he left us around dusk, he still had at least two weddings to perform that night! It was clear that the spirit of the place was founded in the joy of life and music, humbly, and with kindness and a value of family and community. We visited, laughed and played tunes all afternoon until the dusk came on. No one wanted it to end. Gradually the friends and family drifted away to home and dinner and we finally let the Ashbys alone to eat dinner and we went on our way after fond goodbyes. Our friends from Baltimore had lent us their farmhouse for the night, and we enjoyed a peaceful night off in the country.

The next day we traveled to Bristol, VA, or is it TN? Well, both if you’re in the right part of town. We arrived at the Birthplace of County Music Museum to be part of the first reincarnation of the old radio show Farm and Fun Time, a live show devoted to music and farming. I can hardly imagine a more splendid partnership! Back in the 40’s the show came on multiple times daily, once at morning coffee break time, and again at lunch time when farmers would come in from the fields. The show gave a short farm report of conditions, weather, and tips, and also featured many of the finest bluegrass and old-time artists of the period. It was a companion for farming folks; a friend over the airwaves. And now it is being revived! Farm and Fun Time will come out monthly, and will have live music from traveling bands, stories, recipes, and tips, as well as news from the farming world. It’s a thing of beauty folks, and luckily, you can tune in from anywhere in the world by streaming Foghorn was happy to be part of the maiden voyage, along with Bill and the Bells, host Kris Truelson, banjo player Corbin Hayslett, and the farm folks that are devoted to health and sustainability in the local farming community who will be participating in this great show. The excitement in the crowd was palpable that night and I have a feeling the show will become a staple.

Now, that’s not all that Bristol had for us: The next morning we found ourselves at the Pointer Brand factory. Anyone who knows Pointer Brand knows that they have been in the business of creating durable, American-made workwear for over 100 years. Not only did we get a tour of the building: (a gorgeous old brick building with high ceilings, lots of big windows, and expansive work spaces that have probably not changed much since the place was founded in 1913 by founder, Mr. L.C. King) but we were given a smokin’ deal on some garments we bought there… all of us came away with new jackets and overalls. The business is four generations old now, each time being passed down to the son who was interested enough to buy the place from his father and carry on. They still do things the old way at LC King, sporting a unique business model that is unusually ethical compared to the status quo here in our country. Many workers there have been happily employed for generations. They take pride in their process, and like to keep things simple, not compromising quality for growth. They believe that success is good worker conditions and pay, a continuation of the business, and beyond that they are not grossly profit driven as many businesses are. Heck, they even turned down a contract with Walmart, knowing that that is exactly the kind of outfit that destroyed mom and pop businesses all across our country, especially since the 90’s when NAFTA came into existence, making it easier for businesses of that type to outsource labor to other countries, where manufacturing was cheaper, taking away jobs and revenue from our communities. Most of their designs have never been changed, and it seems people can really rely on the quality of these garments, made from materials are sourced from close by. So look out, next time you see us, we may be wearing Pointer Brand gear, and looking handsome in it too I daresay.

We carried on to Franklin, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville for a fun night of Merlefest prep at Music City Roots. If you aren’t familiar, Music City Roots is a live-streamed audio-video show that happens every Wednesday night. There are always several musical acts with interludes of live ads and interviews with the musicians. It’s always a lot of fun, and a great opportunity to meet and hang with other musicians out on tour & hear music. The folks at MCR are so nice and always hospitable. If you missed the show check out the MCR archives online.

We drove on to Boone, NC the next day, with a lengthy interlude in Knoxville to visit some old pals, and grill dinner in their backyard. We arrived late in Boone, in just enough time for a night’s sleep before our marathon of three sets in a row at Merlefest, starting at 10:45am! We played on the Traditional Stage, The Hillside Stage, and then the Watson Stage with about an hour in between each set to chat with fans, and get ourselves to the next location. I must say, it wasn’t hard to stay warmed up, when we were finished, we could relax and know that our work was done. It was a hot, sunny day, hitting nearly 90 degrees I think. We ran into many old friends and made many new ones, and thanks to Steve and Merlefest for having us there after all these years! By the end of the night, as Old Crow blasted off of the main stage up we found ourselves invited to a shrimp boil up the hill, and after we’d had our fill, we pulled out the instruments to repay the cook in tunes, and played late into the night, at least until we made our way into the cook’s mirrored bus full of handmade guitars and conversations.

Photo by Pixels on Paper
Great to hang out with Philip and Malachi from Ear Trumpet Lab at MerleFest

Our Saturday night was spent at the Floyd Country Store in Floyd, VA. In all my nostalgic renderings of a rural Saturday night dance, the type of dance that used to occur in my grandparents’ time in rural Washington State, but that I wouldn’t have the joy to grow up with myself; somehow foolishly traded off at some point, probably with the advent of the television… here it was in real life in Floyd, VA. As we ate a delicious home cooked dinner from the deli, we watched as store employees in the homey general store cleared carts of merchandise, putting rows of chairs in their place, leaving a large open space in front of the stage for dancing. The place slowly packed out with folks of all ages sitting patiently in their chairs, waiting for the show to begin. Many had marked seats with their dancing shoes well before the show. As soon the the taters were sung out by the fiddle, folks hopped to the floor, and the dancing didn’t stop ’til the last note was rung. It was a swell exchange, and I think audience and musician alike were equally fed by the night’s event. We had the pleasure of being joined on stage by Mr. Travis Stuart accompanying us on the banjo for most of the set. It was a rare moment, our dance music being answered with dance. Many times we perform a concert and people politely sit and listen in seats, and that’s all well and good, we are curators of this old music in a sense… but to have it serve its true purpose put us all in high spirits.

Folks were in fine fettle, and mostly stuck around all three hours of the night, trickling out slowly as it got late. I watched as one older lady, dressed in a purple jacket, with a perfect hairdo, dyed, curled and hair-sprayed, waved goodbye to her friend across the room with a wagging wrist and two fingers, the rest of her hand clutched around a hankie, a motion that reminded me of my dear great aunts who always seemed to have a pretty hankie tucked into their watchband. The crowd showed a mix of ages from the smallest children running about the floor between dancers, to the old folks, who by the way, were still dancing all night! It’s a pretty special scene there at the Floyd Country Store, and the dancing and music has carried on there since the time of our fiddlin’ heroes. For those folks, it isn’t a novelty, but an ordinary way of life. And I wish more places were the same. To gather socially around music and dance that way seems so joyful and nourishing to people. Folks of all walks of life, and all sorts of backgrounds gather together for a common experience.

We made it to DC at the end of the tour, and were greeted by our most beloved friend and booking agent, Martha, and her family. She puts on a concert series at Hill Center, an old Naval Hospital, now an arts and event space. The free show was meant to be outdoors on the lawn, gingham and picnics and all, but alas, it was a rainy day, so we were moved inside to the hall, and folks crowded in as best they could. It was a great end to an incredible tour, and we are so lucky to have such memorable travels, meet so many good folks, and get to share this music where we go. Thanks to all the folks that support live music, and we’ll try and come back soon!

For the next few weeks, Sammy and Nadine will be hanging and teaching in the Yukon as well as building a tiki bar, gardening, certainly cooking up some good grub, and doing some touring with Joel Savoy and Jesse Lege in the UK in late May. Caleb and Reeb will be doing some of the same: iced tea in the backyard, cooking, gardening (if my seedlings are still living), visiting friends and family, working on projects of the home, as well as doing some touring with the Caleb Klauder Country Band, both on a little NW run through the San Juans, Vancouver BC, & Edison, WA; and later in May, Alaska!!! Foghorn will next be reconvening in the great land of Wales in early June at the Fire in the Mountain Festival, and will carry on to visit its splendid neighbor, Ireland, for the Westport Folk and Bluegrass Festival as well as some shows around the country. Enjoy the Spring y’all!