Saturday, September 14, 2013

Fraley Festival

As previously mentioned, we spent the first weekend in September at a mountain music Festival in Eastern Kentucky. They had some preliminary activities on Wednesday and Thursday but the main part of the festival didn't really get started until Friday. In the afternoon they had workshops for the banjo and dulcimer.
The banjo group
The banjo players were interesting. There was one old-style four string banjo and two standard five string banjo's. That guy in the middle was playing a six string banjo. An extra string is attached to a tuner he had drilled into the middle of the headstock. And the fellow at the left end of line was playing an old gourd banjo like the slaves would have originally made out of a hollow gourd with a fretless neck attached and probably three or four strings (he had four). Each banjo player would play a tune and they would just go down the line. They got through the line a couple of times in an hour and we were treated to a number of different styles. Most of the banjo players appeared to be playing in traditional "claw hammer" manner that was the predominant form before the start of the 20th century but the six string banjo player played in more of the three finger picking style that was popularized by Earl Scruggs in the 1940s and is what most performers use today.

The idea of the banjo is that instead of a resonating chamber like a guitar has, the instrument has a "resonator" which is the leather or plastic skin that covers the front of the round part of the banjo like a drum head and magnifies the sound. They said you have to tighten this up periodically to keep it sounding right. The correct way to do it is to keep tightening all the screws down until you break the heads off... and then back off about a half a turn. There are a number of different tunings for a banjo but I gather they are all open tunings in one form or another. In other words, if you strum the banjo with no fingers touching any frets you should get a chord. They apparently don't stay in tune very well and you have to retune them frequently, the subject of numerous jokes from the players of other instruments during the weekend. (The guy with the gourd banjo said "because there are no frets on this banjo there is at least the mathematical possibility that I will playing in tune.")

Mountain dulcimer
The mountain or Appalachian dulcimer is an odd instrument. You can see that the frets are not spaced evenly. It's designed so as you go up the neck from fret to fret it plays a major scale with no "accidentals". That means, of course, five notes are missing out of a standard octave and I'm not sure how they make up for that exactly. It's played with the instrument lying on the musician's lap, fingering with the left-hand kind of like a steel guitar and strumming with the right. It is supposed to be one of the easiest string instruments to learn how to play although there are obviously many grades of skill in how well one can go about it.

The guy in the back playing bass is 84.  Fiddler is 14.
On Friday and Saturday evening they had concerts lasting from 7 to 11 o'clock at night where different groups would come up and play for about 15 min. each. These ranged from professional/semiprofessional groups to husband-and-wife teams to family groups to people who had just met each other at the festival and put together three or four songs on the fly. Some of the performers were in three or four different groups, there was a certain amount of mixing and matching going on. The songs ranged from traditional folk tunes and ballads that came over from the old country in the 18th century to songs collected by the Carter family and other musicologists from the southeastern United States in the 1920s-1940s to songs written in the last 30 years specifically to capitalize on folk music and bluegrass fadism. We were largely entranced by the whole thing. We stayed Friday night until after 10 o'clock but finally it got cold enough that we were getting uncomfortable and went back to our motorhome.

Story teller with a prop
Saturday morning, the first event was the storytelling session. I was kind of expecting traditional stories and tall tales but it turned out that this was really just prolonged joke telling. Not quite as rambling as the Prairie Home Companion and each story had a definite punch line or a malapropism of a moral at the end. Of course, at this particular venue, they were all told with that down-home "awe shucks" kind of southern drawl, otherwise I could have done it.

Next came the fiddle convocation. In this part of the world, the fiddle is king. There were some hot shot banjo and mandolin players, but even they would get up and say "next I'm going to play a fiddle tune on my..." whatever other instrument they were holding in their hands, I guess because all of the old standard tunes around these parts are fiddle tunes. I don't even know what makes a tune a fiddle tune. If you can play all the notes on your guitar, why isn't it a guitar tune? But if you're going to have a mountain music band, you'd better have an amazing fiddle player because that's what everyone wants to hear. During the fiddle gathering, there were so many fiddlers on the
The fiddle player is top dog.
stage that they only got around the circle once and had to use up about 5 min. of the Ballads session just to get through them all. Now the truth is, the violin has never really been my favorite solo instrument. To me it frequently sounds like someone is torturing a cat, but most of these guys were pretty good and even when I was not thrilled with the sound you could not help but admire the technical proficiency.

Next we had an hour of ballads. These were mostly really old songs, essentially unchanged since they were brought over from England or Scotland or wherever. They were sung without accompaniment, presumably similar to what a traditional troubadour might have done.  Each one had a tune of about five or six lines and went on for however many verses it took to tell the story. Sometimes it was three verses, sometimes it was 12 or 15 or I just lost count. Apparently the singers occasionally lost track as well. They would finish up and say "at that  point in the song I don't really understand what happens." And then someone else would pipe up and say "well in our village we have a couple verses you left out that explains that". And I don't know if the singer just wasn't aware of those verses or if somebody in the other village had made them up to explain the discrepancy and that's how the songs grow over the years to such epic proportions.

National champion flat picker.
Finally, there was the guitar group. Well, not a group actually. More of a duo. There were only two guitar players that wanted to go up on stage and show us how it's done. I think part of that is that nobody wants to be a guitarist in this musical form. The guitar is almost entirely background accompaniment to the other instruments. But what they lacked in quantity they made up for in quality. One of the two guitar players was the national flat picking champion and the other was a student of his he had brought along to the festival. And they pretty much kept us entertained for an hour without needing any help.

There was another four hour concert on Saturday night. This time we were prepared with jackets and long pants and it was a waste because it just didn't get nearly as cool that night and none of it was needed.

A lot of the activity at the festival had nothing to do with what went on at the amphitheater. There were several groups of people that didn't go to any of the evening concerts. Instead, they would gather around the fire or in the parking lot or on the steps of the park lodge and play their own music starting after supper and continuing until just shy of midnight. Apparently these people came primarily to get together with other like-minded musicians and play music for four or five days and they didn't really care what happened on the stage. They were fun to listen to. They played the traditional music but then the next song might be old time rock 'n roll or "The Lion Sleeps Tonight".

In the end, the whole shebang was beautiful and educational and a whale of a lot of fun and a good time seemed to be had by all. These were mostly not professional musicians but they were very talented and clearly loved what they were doing and wanted to share it with everybody on the planet. The biggest audience of the weekend was probably only a couple of hundred people, so there was a kind of coziness to the whole affair. I could see why people would come back year after year after year to share the music and the feelings. I don't know that we will be back next year, but I'm certainly going to keep my eye out for similar kinds of events as we travel.


  1. good to see you're into mountain Music, R. that country comfort still works! - Phil Perry (still alive & pickin').

  2. Phil, good to see you here. I don't know that I am exactly "into" mountain music, but I certainly was for those 4 days. Do you still play?