Audrey Auld-Mezera, a native of Tasmania, participated in the advanced banjo class. Stephen Igo photo.
BIG STONE GAP, Va. — Birds of a feather flock together but not even the traditional jams-mad participants of the 9th annual Mountain Music School at Mountain Empire Community College took that literally. Until now.
It seems the popular, weeklong summertime event at the college has a new mascot, a parakeet suitably named Banjo.
On Wednesday the parakeet flew into MECC’s Phillips-Taylor Hall, scene of the Mountain Music School. It took some doing but it finally got escorted into a new cage and now takes up residence in the office of Charlotte Green, assistant to MECC dean of workforce development Sue Ella Boatright-Wells who also serves as the college’s maestro of the music school.
“Maybe we’ll get her a little banjo and teach her to play,” Green quipped Thursday. “It’s a neat story. She’s a lucky bird. She found her a good home and she’s now the Mountain Music School mascot.”
Meanwhile, 120-plus human students of traditional mountain music have spent the week honing their talents and skills, or getting a start in the many beginner classes. Options have included old-time fiddle, claw hammer banjo, folk guitar, autoharp, Carter-style guitar, mandolin, dulcimer, string band, shape note singing and doghouse bass.
The results of their weeklong devotion to mountain music will be on display beginning at 1 p.m. Friday in the Goodloe Center, a free concert open to the public.
About half of the total student devotees range in age from 10 to 18, and nearly all of those were able to attend on scholarships, Boatright-Wells said.
“This year is the highest enrollment we’ve had,” she said. “I think what I like best about it is to be able to see how youth and adults learn alongside one another in the same class. We’ve never wanted to split classes according to age anyway and it’s always worked out wonderfully that way.”
After nine years, Boatright-Wells said, “we’re beginning to see the payoff” as some former students now serve as instructors with more in the pipeline. Proud graduates of Mountain Music School include Tyler Hughes, now teaching at East Tennessee State University’s traditional music program, and Molly Slemp who instructs in music at Belmont University in Nashville.
As has been the case for all the summer events, this year’s Mountain Music School proves again that devotion to traditional mountain music is hardly confined to the Appalachian region.
Boatright-Wells said students hail from several states, including Tennessee, Kentucky, Maryland, “several from Texas,” Florida, Indiana and Mississippi, and even a dose of foreign flavor heavy on an Australian accent.
Teased by others in her advanced banjo class as the “Tasmanian Devil,” Audrey Auld-Mezera shot back that she is the “Tasmanian Angel.” She really is a native of Tasmania, now 10 years living in Nashville with plans to return to her homeland at least for a visit in January.
“I met Ellie and heard about the music school and thought, well I would like to give that a go,” she said. “Basically I feel this real pride about the heritage of these mountains and how there is this enthusiasm to share this musical heritage.”
Auld-Mezera said she immediately sensed “how beautiful it is to be in a room with those excited about a very specific culture that is ancient yet very much alive. In Nashville it’s all about making it big and rich and famous. Here it’s all about the music and perpetuating the culture. I think that’s really important and I feel I have been privy to something very special here, this sharing of the songs of the region that really resonates to people all over the world.”
Roger Bullock, of Alexandria, Va., assisted in the beginning guitar section. He’d heard about the Mountain Music School, but this is the first time he’s made the leap as a volunteer.
“It’s wonderful to see these children progress at the rate they do,” he said. “And it’s so inspirational here, to witness this zeal to see this music survive. And the kids? Wow, their enthusiasm is contagious.”
Ten-year-old Hailey Hightower hails from Richmond. She prevailed upon her parents, Trenton and Janet, to hole up for a week in the lovely mountains surrounding Big Stone Gap so she could try her hand at fiddle.
“I just wanted to try it. It’s really fun. I like it a lot. I’m learning to play the fiddle. I tried piano, but that didn’t work out and this, well, this just kind of works for me.”
Asked if she’s made new friends, she reeled off “Molly and Owen and Sydney” then paused and smiled. “Really, pretty much the whole class is pretty much friends.”
Eleven-year-old Kayla Defoor prodded her parents to bring her from their home in Mississippi, a result of the family’s attendance at the Southwest Virginia Museum’s Wise Jams earlier this year where they incidentally learned of the traditional music school.
Fourteen-year-old Beth Miller never had so far to travel. The Big Stone Gap resident notched her fifth music school with a spree in advanced banjo. She plays guitar, mandolin and writes songs, “all at the same time,” she teased, and hopes to major in music.
“Perhaps,” she said, she will one day become a star. But one gets the drift at the Mountain Music School that she already is.
Julie Shepherd-Powell instructed an advanced banjo class, her third year with the music school; although, she has also taught evening classes at MECC. She performs with a group, the Rail Splitters, along with her husband, Adrian Shepherd.
“What I like about the school is you get to meet new people, and I really like seeing the young kids learning to play,” she said.
Dale Jett should need no introduction and the wonder of it was, he was a student instead of an instructor. The well-recognized regional musician was “trying to learn clawhammer banjo” and teased that Shepherd-Powell was “having a real hard time” teaching him, too.
Jett’s group, Hello Stranger, is no stranger to traditional music lovers in Southwest Virginia and the broader region. He has quite a musical lineage, too.
His mother, the late Janette Carter, was of that stalwart traditional music clan that established the Carter Fold in Scott County.