Fri Oct 22, 2021

Column: Road Music for Life’s Journey

Bill Thompson
1 Free Article Remaining (through 11/22/21)

Last week I was in the western part of the state for a book marketing meeting. I had another meeting for a promotional interview in Monroe. Getting from point A to point B turned out to be kind of a sentimental journey. As is often the case when I am traveling alone, I like to listen to the local radio stations as I pass through the areas of their coverage. 

So, in order to get a clear signal, I push “scan” on my radio dial and listen to whatever comes on. On this particular trip, the first station I got was a public radio station near Asheville, I think. 

The music playing was bluegrass. I like bluegrass. I thought that it was appropriate for the mountains. The program was also an interview with Doyle Lawson, who is a North Carolinian, as are two other members of his band. They played bluegrass gospel, that fast-paced, sometimes raucous, praise and plea for salvation. As I listened to the music, I thought about how representative it was of the people of the mountains, people who were closely tied to the land, people who shared a faith that wasn’t bound up in ritual and liturgy but was emotional and almost visceral. 

The lyrics of bluegrass gospel are not likely to have many Latin phrases. The words of the songs are simple, declarative statements and questions; the harmonies are tight, high-pitched melodies that reflect a naturalness unaffected by the rules of music theory.

Many years ago, when my sister and I were in college, we played and sang folk music, usually only for ourselves, but, occasionally, for anybody who would pay us to play. That was my introduction to bluegrass. That was the time of the “Folk Music Revival” of the 1960s, and our models were The Kingston Trio, Peter Paul and Mary and The Brothers Four, among others. 

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Our mentor in the pursuit of our music was Mr. Ray Wyche, our neighbor across the road, who persuaded us to look more for the “real folk music.” In the process of following his direction, we listened to a lot of bluegrass. We didn’t ever play bluegrass. We only had a guitar: no banjo, fiddle or mandolin. And our harmonies were much more subdued. But our research did give us an appreciation of the original music of Appalachia (pronounced Ap-pa-la-chia not Ap-pa-lay-chia).

As I was heading eastward last week, I was reminded of those days, of the people that Linda and I had met during our folk music period and what we had learned from them and our experiences. We learned an appreciation not just for the music, but also for the people who created the music from their own experiences, who took the sound of the wind in the trees, the roar of the waterfalls and the rhythm of  the soft waves lapping on the river bank and made music.

Of course, I soon ran out of the range of the Asheville station, so I hit “scan” again. This time it landed on another public station in Davidson. I am familiar with that particular station since I have traveled many miles through central North Carolina over the years. They also have a wide range of musical styles on their station. I was listening to a jazz program when I got to Monroe for my interview. When I returned to my car and turned the radio back on, classical music was playing. Like many other public radio stations, I sometimes think they try to pick some of the most obscure compositions to play on the air. They don’t always announce them, so I never really know what is playing. 

Fortunately, they were playing a Rachmaninoff program that night that included a composition I was familiar with because I had heard it in the movie Brief Encounter. Since that movie used some other classical pieces, the radio program also featured one of my favorite classic compositions, Bedrich Smetana’s The Moldau. As I drove through the North Carolina night, the flutes and violins, the horns and the entire symphonic orchestra took me to Europe. The pine trees along U.S. 74 became fir forest with great stone castles perched on the mountain tops, and a scattering of thatched houses lighted by candlelight glowed in the snow-covered lane that led to an open field where a thundering herd of horses was rushing toward the lichen-covered barn.  Of course, it was just music.

The Davidson station has a strong signal, and it followed me all the way to I-95, where I turned the radio off. Then I just rode in silence while a crazy mixture of bluegrass and classical music flitted in and out of my mind. That’s what it has done for my whole life.

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