The gateway mountain counties of Unicoi, Carter and Johnson in Upper East Tennessee are steeped in musical tradition. When Englishman Cecil Sharp came to this region to collect ballads in 1916, he selected Rocky Fork in Unicoi County as his first stop. And in 1925 the famous Mountain City Fiddler’s Convention attracted a who’s who of southern Appalachian fiddling.
This year, the Inaugural Upper East Tennessee Fiddler’s Convention on Saturday, April 29, celebrates this rich heritage. Beginning at noon and continuing until late in the evening, the event will be held at the Old Flag Pond School, which now serves as a community center. It is a collaboration between Rocky Fork State Park and East Tennessee State University’s (ETSU’s) Department of Appalachian Studies, with support from the Tennessee Arts Commission.
“Unicoi County has not hosted a fiddler’s contest in over 50 years, and in doing so this year we hope the tradition is strengthened and a new generation of fiddlers is inspired,” says Roy Andrade, associate professor in Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies in the Department of Appalachian Studies at ETSU. “Former Governor Alf Taylor’s fiddle is being professionally restored and we hope to have the fiddle ready to play at the Convention.”
The Friends of Rocky Fork group has donated $3,000 to be awarded in prizes for string band, old-time banjo, old-time fiddle and traditional song and dance competitions. Newly discovered and unreleased recordings of Flag Pond Fiddler J.D. Harris will be available. Guests can utilize primitive camping facilities at the property adjacent to the school, which has restrooms and shower facilities. Several vendors and food trucks will have food for purchase.
Fiddlers conventions create a space for young fiddlers to perform for the first time, while adult fiddlers enjoy the reunion of old friends as they compete and share their favorite tunes. Underneath the show of competitive spirit lies a deep commitment to the preservation of regional music and to mountain community culture.
“One goal of this event is to raise awareness about the new Rocky Fork State Park, just minutes from the Old Flag Pond School,” says Tim Pharis, park ranger and a fiddler himself. “Those who attend can get a sense of place not only from our local mountain music, but also by hiking into this beautiful watershed.”