Todd Meade, world-traveling fiddle player, tucks into his barbecued pork with gusto. “I grew up listening to my great-grandpa Uncle Charlie fiddle,” he says in his gentle, dimpled drawl. “He lived to be 101, but died when I was seven, and I started playing after that. Here, try this barbecue sauce. I’m so glad you drink and smoke!”
Todd began fiddling during weekly Tuesday lessons with teacher Scott Gould, and after five years had learnt nearly 200 songs—he can read music, but prefers to pick up tunes by listening. He attended Tuesday-night jam sessions in Bristol, the alleged birthplace of country, Friday-night jams in Bluntville, and raise-the-rafters Saturday-night jams at the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons. “Back when I was growing up, it was just me and a bunch of old men,” he reminisces. “Now, there’s a lot more interest in roots music.”
In high school, Todd was asked to put a band together to fundraise for the National Honor Society (“I wasn’t in the honor society,” he specifies, grinning). The band, Twin Springs, composed of classmates and relatives, was such a success that they recorded a CD. It wasn’t long before bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, one-half of the duo often credited with inventing modern bluegrass music, came knocking. Devotees speak of Stanley, who with his brother Carter made a series of seminal bluegrass recordings between 1949 and 1952, in hallowed tones, citing him as the best banjo picker in bluegrass music. The Library of Congress has named Stanley a Living Legend, and he was the first recipient of the Traditional Music Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Although his brother died in 1966, Stanley, who is now in his late seventies, has continued to tour the country nearly 200 days a year for the past half-century, and appeared on the Grammy-winning soundtrack to the 2000 smash cinema hit O Brother, Where Art Thou? Needless to say, when, shortly after Todd’s eighteenth birthday, he handed over Todd twelve CDs and said, “Learn these,” Todd hastened to.
“The first time I played with him was in front of a thousand people and a bunch of cameras,” Todd recalls. “I was so nervous; he’s such a legend.” Shortly after, however, scenes like these became old hat. “We were away for 250 days that year. The first week I was on the job, he said, ‘Pack your bags, we’re going to California for two weeks tomorrow.’ It was my first time ever on an airplane.” Traveling became old hat, too. “I’ve been to every state in the continental U.S.; if I haven’t played there, I’ve driven through it.” But he adds, wistfully, “We didn’t do much other than play, though. I didn’t see states so much as interstates…”
After a year of this rootlessness, Todd decided to attend school at East Tennessee State University, the only four-year college with a bluegrass major, where he’s now a sophomore. Currently he’s majoring in public relations and minoring in Appalachian Studies, but plans on switching to massage therapy (“Random, I know”). Ultimately, though, he wants to make music for a living, and has taken up bass and banjo-playing. At the moment, he plays bass and fiddle for a band called Carolina Road, which travels the countryside half the week in a big band bus formerly belonging to country sensation Amy Grant. Classes and Todd’s job at the mall are squeezed into strictly delineated slots during the other half of the week, and are not to interfere.
Bluegrass, being a ‘modern’ offshoot of old-time, carries with it all the connotations of a newcomer. Its critics deride bluegrass as “too Nashville,” in other words, too commercialized, too formal, too given to arrangement and allocating breaks. Old-time, on the other hand, is freer, looser: mountain music, whose melodies are sometimes recognizably Celtic. There are no solos, and often no words; the musicians all play at the same time, shuffling their bows or strumming their banjos ‘claw-hammer style,’ altogether responsible for creating a communal mood, a dancing mood. It’s the music people to which people flat-foot or square-dance or clog, and it is highly local; Todd claims he can tell a Carolina and Tennessee fiddlers apart, just given their sound. He shrugs. “I like both,” he says, easygoing. “My favorite, really, is old-time, but I can’t make a living playing just that. And I love bluegrass too.” He listens to ‘everything,’ he elaborates: rap, classical music, rock & roll.
No one can deny that bluegrass has changed the face of roots music. O Brother’s critically acclaimed soundtrack, sold over five million times, propelled bluegrass and its melodic kin into the limelight. “It proved we weren’t just a bunch of bib-wearing, toothless hicks singing through our noses,” says Todd. “Ralph’s prices doubled. I mean, he had a Grammy now.” On one hand, old-timers grumble, it ushered in the dilettantes. On the other, Todd feels, it made festivals “a lot more hip and fun.” He lives for festivals; particular favorites include the Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, VA and the Appalachian Music Festival in Clifftop, WV. Increasingly populated by young people, these festivals indulge those to whom jamming in the parking lot until the wee hours appeals—young and old. Increasingly, attendees and performers alike include Europeans, Australians and even a few Japanese.
“There’s a lot more women playing now,” notes Todd. Indeed, mandolin-plucking “Queen of Bluegrass” Rhonda Vincent is the first woman sponsored by Martha White flour (“Goodness Gracious, It’s Good!”), the original sponsor of the Grand Ole Opry and as such a heady cultural barometer of the past half-century’s country music tastes. “Her picture’s on the muffin packets!”
As tobacco farming and Appalachia’s other industries slowly implode, a discreet cluster of savvy businessmen and politicians who know the region could use any revitalization it can get have offered up roots music as one key to economic, cultural and political recovery. The Crooked Road, a heritage trail through the Appalachian Mountains that stretches between the western Blue Ridge to the Coalfields in the eastern part of the state, connects major music venues, local museums, instrument-makers, and music shops along the way. Formal jams are organized; informal ones coalesce at random. Blue Ridge Country Magazine, with whom Todd collaborates, also works to promote tourism in the area. “It’s a positive thing,” Todd believes. “People think they need factories, ATV trails, more logging—that it’s okay for the mountain to slide into the streams. No one’s making money on tobacco, so they’re sowing corn and soy. Putting Wal-Marts in every forty-five miles.” His voice falls to a whisper, takes on the tinge of the confessional. “I think I’ve become a bit of a Democrat!” He blames the traveling.
I follow Todd back to his apartment; he’s got a rehearsal scheduled
with room- and band-mate Josh Goforth, whose image may evoke Starbucks
over chewing tobacco but whose skilled banjo hands make short shrift of
either stereotype, throwing their very incompatibility into question.
Their apartment is typically male, collegiate: spare but for a
patterned couch, a Papazan chair and plush carpeting. But there’s a
mandolin propped up against the wall, and an upright bass case on the
floor; there’s a banjo and two fiddles. And when the boys begin to
play, exchanging wordless nods and soundless gazes, the melodies and
harmonies of old-time favorites like Arkansas Traveler and Angeline the
Baker waft up through the townhouse rafters, float over the Wal-Mart
and barbecue joints, and fade—headed for the mountains, perhaps?—into
the cold Appalachian night.
In October and November 2006, I meandered circuitously between San Francisco to Miami under the auspices of Minnesota-based nonprofit Renewing the Countryside, interviewing farmers, ecologists, musicians and activists for a book on youth revitalizing rural landscapes all across America. Hero-bosses Jan Joannides and Brett Olsen have allowed me to post my interviews here, but look for them in the Youth Renewing the Countryside book, due out in the spring of 2008.