DOBSON — When the Surry Old-Time Fiddlers Convention is staged on April 6-7 in Dobson, a tradition will be continued in a unique way.
Of course, this area’s old-time musical heritage will be further perpetuated by the convention that is being held for a ninth-straight year on the Surry Community College campus.
The event scheduled for the first Friday and Saturday in April also will be completely dedicated to the old-time genre, as its name implies. This represents a major departure from fiddlers conventions in general, such as those held in Mount Airy and Galax, which feature both old-time and bluegrass music.
Tammy Sawyer, a co-organizer of the local event, was hard-pressed Friday to name another convention devoted entirely to old-time music — finally mentioning the Johnson County Old-Time Fiddlers Convention in Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee.
“That’s the only one I know of,” Sawyer said of a gathering held since 1925.
The Surry Old-Time Fiddlers Convention, launched in 2010, is on its way to eventually matching that record for longevity with a proven formula that once again will feature a traditional Friday evening community dance on April 6.
That will be followed by a full day of workshops and competitions on April 7.
More than 100 bands and individuals are expected to enter the Saturday competitions, with nearly $5,400 available in prizes for winners in both youth and adult categories.
“Our cash prizes are right in line with the bigger festivals, and that helps us get good-quality bands,” said co-organizer Buck Buckner, who serves with Sawyer on a convention committee.
“Typically, we have anywhere from 18 to 24 bands competing,” added Buckner. “And last year, we actually had 95 individual competitors. The bulk of those were in the youth categories, and we were really pleased with that.”
The April 7 youth competitions begin at 11 a.m.
Individual categories include variety, guitar, folk song, banjo, fiddle and dance, along with the category for bands. Adult competitions begin at 3 p.m., followed by band and dance performances.
Festivities that Saturday also will include instructional workshops for fiddle, banjo and guitar, as well as open jam sessions across the campus. The fiddle workshop is to be led by Earl White, the banjo workshop by Frank Lee and the guitar workshop, Allie Burbrink.
The college’s grill will feature a luthier display along with dining options for attendees.
Square dance popular
A square dance that will kick off the two-day convention on April 6 is one of its most popular attractions, always drawing a big crowd with music featuring well-known bands in the region.
This year, The Slate Mountain Ramblers, based in Mount Airy, will perform as will another crowd-pleasing group that appeared for the Friday night dance last year, The New Ballard’s Branch Bogtrotters of Fries, Virginia.
The Slate Mountain Ramblers is a family band with deep ties to the old-time music world.
Its patriarch, champion fiddler Richard Bowman, grew up learning from such masters as Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham and was featured in the first issue of the Old-Time Herald publication in 1987.
“The Slate Mountain Ramblers play the traditional Round Peak style of music, and that’s the style around here,” Buckner said. “They play in such a way that the dancers are eager to be involved. They can get after it, and so can The New Ballard’s Branch Bogtrotters.”
Founded in 1986, the Bogtrotters, led by fiddler Eddie Bond, have been a driving force in carrying on the traditional music of the Blue Ridge Mountains for future generations of performers.
Admission to the Surry Old-Time Fiddlers Convention will cost $5 daily, with children 12 and younger admitted free. Contestants will get in free on the competition day. More information on the convention is available at www.SurryOldTime.com.
Sawyer pointed out that the emphasis on old-time music goes back to the pre-convention days, when Buckner was serving on a county planning group.
He had conversations with local government leaders about holding some type of event in Dobson, which at that time was devoid of activities such as music conventions.
And the Surry “Old-Time” Fiddlers Convention was settled on, given the county’s long history and heritage surrounding that specific type of music as popularized by fiddler Tommy Jarrell and other old-time performers.
“Also, since it’s just a one-day event,” Sawyer said of the competition portion of the convention, “there wouldn’t be enough time really to have both categories (old-time and bluegrass).”
The casual music fan might consider the two interchangeable, but that’s not the case.
Old-time music took hold in the Southern Appalachian region around the early 1920s, and bluegrass could be considered an offshoot that emerged decades later in the 1940s as embodied by Bill Monroe — known as the Father of Bluegrass.
A key difference between the two is that with bluegrass, each instrument has its turn in the spotlight supplying the melody and improvising around it, while the others provide accompaniment. In old-time music, all instruments carry the melody together or one instrument will have the lead throughout while the others supply accompaniment.
And rarely do the two converge.
There are fiddlers who cross over between old-time and bluegrass, says Sawyer, an old-time musician who plays the stand-up, or upright, bass.
“But as far as bands go, they are generally one or the other.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.