Heritage Performing Arts

Programs at Smith-McDowell House Preserve Traditional Appalachian Music

Programs at Smith-McDowell House Preserve Traditional Appalachian Music

Folks gather around at a Front Porch Jam. Photo by Lonnie King

By Lauren Stepp

Appalachia’s musical roots run deep. Historians trace old-time tunes to European settlers and enslaved Africans interacting on plantations. For better or for worse, these exchanges produced a unique rhythm that would soon seep into mountain hollers—Rugby, Virginia included.

“It’s way out in the sticks, just an hour north of Boone,” says Jayne Henderson. Henderson lives in Asheville, but her father, Wayne, grew up in Rugby. His family made coffins and watches, and he whittled. They did not have much, but they did have music.

“I come from a long line of musicians,” says Henderson. Her ancestors sang classic ballads and played the fiddle. As a teen, her father even found a local luthier (a crafter of stringed instruments) and learned the art of guitar making. Some years later, Henderson is keeping that tradition alive.

“I started making instruments fulltime six years ago,” she says. Henderson learned all her techniques from Wayne, though she does branch out and use sustainably sourced wood varieties like oak and maple rather than foreign varieties. “Some pieces are just asking to be made into a guitar,” she says. “When you tap on the wood, it’ll sound like a bell ringing.”

Henderson’s handiwork can be observed in The Luthier’s Craft, an exhibit on display through Wednesday, October 25, at the Smith-McDowell House.

House manager Jesse Edgerton says the display was created by the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History and highlights the banjo and guitar, two instruments associated with southern mountain music. Folks can watch video presentations and read panels detailing construction processes. Biographical information for featured luthiers will also be available.

The Luthier’s Craft complements Front Porch Jam, a series of informal jam sessions sponsored by the Western North Carolina Historical Association (WNCHA). Edgerton says anyone is welcome to join on Saturday, August 19. Guests can bring their mandolins or spoons and gather around outside the Smith-McDowell House.

“It’s jovial and relaxed, and especially beautiful if there is a nice breeze,” says Henderson. The scene is reminiscent of older times when Blue Ridge string bands played for entire towns. Religious folks avoided these functions because moonshine got passed around in flasks and jars. Church-goers valued music all the same, singing unaccompanied hymns before chapels could afford pianos.

“Professional musicians traveled around and played for dances and on the radio,” says Edgerton. “People also played for their own enjoyment, solo or in informal jam sessions at someone’s house or a local place of business.”

Back then, old-time mountain music rang through Appalachia. Though its tenor has quietened with time, Henderson is working to keep that sound alive and well.

“These traditions have been in the mountains for so long,” she says. “I’m certainly proud to have a small part in preserving them.”

The Smith-McDowell House is located on the campus of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College at 283 Victoria Road in Asheville. Hours are Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. General admission is $9. For more information, call the Smith-McDowell House at 828.253.9231 or visit wnchistory.org.

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