the gum tree farm band
Afternoon of next day I'm still reeling from the music heard last night, The Gum Tree Farm Band on the Willis farm, next driveway down Waterfall Road. This is Josh Willis' present band, a Young Fogies old-time band with a new-time sound, not restricting themselves to old-time, though its their base. Josh brought the others with him. They are getting their groove together toward the Mt Airy fiddler's convention next week. I had the good fortune to be invited to hear them play, an audience of one. And they fed me, fed me well. I had the impression all of them cook. All five of them were in a kitchen of tight quarters, comfortable for two, best for one. These are people of a generation far more social than my generation. They were also a band, same as a family. They play in a tight circle in amongst each other. Everybody was sitting on the deck on a very pleasant spring day in the mountains, rhododendron and dutch iris in full bloom, overlooking the lake. A cloud came crawling through Air Bellows Gap across the lake, reaching as clouds do like an imaginary herd of white horses, the fastest ones out in front dancing across the water in slow motion. I enjoyed it doubly in the company of people who were in awe of what they were seeing. One of my beloved aspects of these hills, the clouds crawling over them. These people were all artists, their senses awake to appreciation. Good, peaceable vibes flow between them hanging about on the deck talking, breathing the mountain air, a tent on the lawn, Yuengling beer cans on the deck rail, four dogs milling about, winding though the maze of our legs and chairs. Peaceable people, peaceable dogs. I had to know where they were all from. It's something I picked up in the mountains, asking somebody you meet where they're from, where they live. On the local AM radio show of mountain music, I always told where the musicians were from, what county, what state, what town, because it gives a mental place. Especially in the old-time way, every region had its own sound. I just like to know where people I meet are from. It's not a judgment thing, rather a push-pin on the google map in my mind.
clockwise from lower left: shona carr, niels bonefass,
sam stallings, gailanne amunesen, josh willis
A meal seemed like it came out of nowhere. Different ones were going and coming. Gailanne, fiddler, appeared to be presiding in the kitchen arena. I didn't know what they were doing and didn't pay attention. Talked with one for awhile, another for awhile, learned who they were and where they were from. Gailanne is from Orlando and her mother is a painter. Shona, fiddle, if I recall correctly, said both her parents are musicians. Sam, guitar, came from Staunton, Virginia. his dad is a musician and his mother into gardening. Every one of these people can play so well it seems uncanny, all or most of them under thirty, and they're multi-instrumentalists. Niels, banjo, can make a banjo do what he wants it to do. At one point, during a break between songs, Niels was showing Shona some runs on a song she was learning. He took his fiddle out of its case and I saw in that brief demonstration he has a fine touch with a fiddle bow. I'd guess he's every bit as alive to the music with his fiddle as with his banjo, and his banjo does it right. Its important to note they play music. They don't slow it down. Its foot-moving music, music you feel. I'm recalling a time I played an old-time band on the radio show that was from down the state close to Raleigh. Later, when I saw Jr Maxwell, bluegrass banjo picker, he said, "Weren't no music in it." I knew what he meant. It did not make you move. It's sit-down old-time. Old-time is a dancing music. These people have the music. The music is what each one of them is playing. They play so freely with the music that a sour note becomes part of the tune, somebody stops playing a moment, the music goes on in such a way that melody and technique become irrelevant when the music is flowing. They, every one of them, play from the heart. They play from experience, too. It seemed to me I heard several years of music making in them.
niels banjo, shona and josh fiddles
sam guitar, gailanne fiddle
Niels, the banjo picker, is from Denmark, and drove down here from New York, a twelve hour drive, the day before. He came in around midnight, I was writing and saw a car stop out front. I thought I'd wait to hear a door close before turning on the light. It was Niels looking for the turn to the farm. I told him it's the next driveway up the road and he was gone. He was wired from the drive. I get the impression he makes his way busking. He plays clawhammer style his own way. He can bear down on it too, and make it walk. Sam on his guitar, also Staunton, Virginia, can play melodic guitar and he can wear it out, too. He works his guitar, like Niels with banjo, keeps it going like a racehorse, their fingers pounding the strings like horses' hooves on a dirt track. Three fiddles going and these guys keeping the rhythm flowing. Shona, Gailanne and Josh played fiddles through several songs. Later, Josh brought in his stand-up bass and Gailanne put her hair up in a loose Rasta hat for dreadlocks. Gailanne has a talent that is all her own. She's an artist first, and whatever art form she would go with she'd do it well. Shona plays all four instruments. Niels I know plays banjo and fiddle, don't know about guitar. I'd like to hear him play a tune on his fiddle. I like his touch with a bow. I can tell already his sound is uniquely his own. I like about these musicians that they are not about saying one way of playing old-time is less valid than any other. When they get in motion and all are flowing in a good groove, they have what it takes to play, bring in new sounds, try this, try that. They are musicians who love playing old-time without the constraints of saying it is only one way of playing. They play the spirit of old-time, the dance spirit.
sam guitar, josh bass, shona tenor guitar
Last night was the first I knew of Josh playing a fiddle. He can play it, too. He plays banjo beautifully and makes the bass into an instrument you make art with. Gum Tree Farm is Josh's family's mountain summer place. His grandparents, Ben and Agnes Willis, from Winston-Salem, bought a farm in the mountains, the old Jim Scott place, put up a dam and made a lake, put up a round house with glass all the way around. I knew Agnes and Ben since my first summer in the mountains. Agnes was shy and liked her solitude. They leased a couple hundred acres of grazing land to somebody who kept cattle, and paid Tom Pruitt to be caretaker of the land, the farm part of it. They were good people. Josh's mother and dad now own it together with uncle Ben and his wife. Josh is about the only one who uses it now. He brings whatever band he's working with at the time to the mountain house to jam and practice. This is, if my memory serves a reliable assist, the fourth band he's brought here. He invites me to come over and listen while they jam. I feel privileged to be an audience of one with some excellent musicians who know how to make music. All Josh's bands have been ones to play music in its fullness. It's the music Josh is connected to. It's why he plays. The day he dropped by with the invitation to go hear them, he noted they're a pretty good bunch of musicians. I said, I know they're good. All the musicians you make music with are good. It's not that I'm a prophet, it's just the pattern. It was a remarkable experience for me to sit and chat with new people I didn't know, except Josh. No problem. Everybody was friendly. Beautiful people. If they are the people of the future, I say, bring it on. They're also musicians, artists performing their art. In their art form, the artist is on stage making the art through time. We get up from our places on the deck and move inside as darkness crept up on us slowly like the fog. They went to their instruments, talked about starting their first tunes with the instrument they're most comfortable with and play best. This is rehearsal I'm witnessing, tuning in with each other toward Mt Airy, finding what flows with them best. I made two videos I meant to put on YouTube today, but time went by and it's one of them days there's not enough time in. Going back over when this is done and posted. Camera charged and ready to go. Tomorrow, that's the first thing in my mind to start the day. It will be several hours. Their music is worth it. They played so well. I'll put up a note on facebook when they go online. I'm charged and ready to go too. I love a good concert.
niels, sam, gailanne, josh, shona