Clifftop- My first experience at the Appalachian stringed band festival

I dont even remember now where I heard about the Clifftop festival, seems it was a flyer or ad sometime last winter. But I do remember it was described as the "biggest gathering of its kind" and I thought I might go check it out. Time passed and I had mostly forgotten about it, then I went to see a local Bluegrass band and chatted with them between sets and became excited about learning some old traditional tunes.

I didnt know what to expect, but I kind of assumed it would be primarily Bluegrass oriented. So that was the beginning of my education on the Clifftop experience. The Clifftop scene prefers the term "Old Time Country Music". To the casual observer theres not a lot of difference I suppose, but there are some differences in style and substance.

For example, the preference is for pre-war open back style banjos, often with skin heads instead of the "brighter" toned Weather King style plastic heads. Some even had fretless fingerboards and Nylgut strings giving them a somewhat mellower "folk" tone. And the playing is primarily frailing or clawhammer style. The fiddle playing style tends to also be a little slower and simpler than "modern" bluegrass. A little softer around the edges, laid back and casual than the breakneck "modern" Bluegrass. Think ballads, waltzes, square dancing music. Even the occasional jig is a little more relaxed. Like I said, subtle difference. But lucky for me this is a sub-genre I enjoy and am interested in learning more about! Also lucky for me I have a wife who does her best to be tolerant and understanding of my occasional "jags". I promise the next adventure will be something your more interested in my dear!

Event wise, it quickly became clear this is performer oriented more than spectator oriented. The highlight for many is probably the campground scene where every other campsite seems to be a perpetual jam session all day and into the night. The only pauses seem to be to rotate players, sleep or eat.

We were there Thursday and Friday, Thursday the primary event at the outdoor stage was a banjo competition in the morning and a fiddle competition in the afternoon. Lets be honest, solo fiddles start to all sound the same after 10 or 20 performances. There were about 50 of each. But there was also things elsewhere at the festival like flatfoot seminars, mini concerts, square dance lessons, square dance calling seminars, and on and on. And mini jams going on at all times.

We wandered around and tried to catch a little of everything. Browsed the vendor row and took long stretching walks about the campground areas. I picked up some books and DVD's from Mr Jake Kracks fiddle repair and supply table then walked on down the row, where I met a fine Kentucky gentleman named Donnie Rogers. He picks up Fiddles and bows in need of repair, reconditions and takes them to these kind of festivals. He must have had 300 Fiddles and 500 bows displayed We struck up a lengthy conversation and I ended up picking up a modest outfit of a nice German fiddle, freshly re-haired snake wood bow, extra strings, rosin and a case. He didnt have the ability to process a credit card, and INSISTED I just take it and just send him the money. Would'nt take no for an answer. Seems Kentucky folk are often like that.

Friday morning we took a side excursion and checked out the Tamarack Arts center in Beckley. Besides local arts and crafts there was a lot of content on the musical heritage of West Virginia. We ended up picking up two Gourd Kalimbas made by the the Goshen arts school, and a Limberjack as well as some other "treasures."

I decided to wear one of my Cigar Box Nation shirts to Clifftop Friday, just to see what kind of reaction I might get. The result was many curious looks, and a few questions. Even a few knowing nods. One general music suppliy vender, who's name I cant recall stopped me to talk when he saw it, he was familiar and said he sells Shane Speal his strings and some other stuff. Mentioned Shane had suggested he should consider going to the upcoming York Cigar Box Guitar Festival. Near by another Banjo vendor looked up and just said "it should say Oil Can Nation." I looked around and sure enough he had built several oil can banjos and had them displayed in his inventory. They appeared to be some I have seen either at CigarBoxNation.com or a link from there.

 

 

I walked a little further over to Mr Dan Levensons area and looked around as he was chatting with a few people back a ways from his tables. He looked up and saw the shirt, smiled and told me "Oh that guy that makes the cigar box banjos signed one and gave it to me a while back! Love it!" Well I am not sure who he meant, and tried to explain it could be one of a number of people, but he just said, "oh you know the guy that builds them with the Macanudo boxes!" Well, still not sure but let it go. Then he invites me to come "sit and tell us what your into"........ World renowned clawhammer style banjo teacher, champion "old time" Banjer and Fiddler, contributor to various banjo and fiddle publications....... Just too little time for all this stuff!

The main outdoor stage attraction for the day was what they called a "Neo-Traditional" band competition. This basically means new or modern songs done with traditional instruments. Performances were all over the map. Some very good stuff though! From traditional to eclectic, with some noteable singer/songwriters and composers in between somewhere.

Saturday was the traditional old time band competition, and probably the best day to be there for spectating. But its a long, nearly all day drive home, and I hate getting home, getting some sleep and going right back to work! So we left Saturday morning.

Overview:

If you've bothered to read this far, perhaps you are interested in attending the Clifftop festival.

Some thoughts and tips;

I'll say that the event wasnt at all what I expected. It is actually more of a small tight knit group dedicated to preserving this old time style music. Mostly pretty cool and interesting people. Some real characters though. Range from straight laced midwestern conservative to wacky Austin chic'.

Observations:

Apparently you CAN have dreadlocks and fashionable highlights.

A well worn pair of cowboy boots goes with ANYTHING!

I guess what I am saying, is if you are a hardcore left wing conservative who cringes at the sight of crunchy, earthy liberal types you might best stay in Muskogee........

 

The directions supplied from the festival website are vague. If you use a GPS you can expect it to send you down about ten miles of bad road. Literally. Get directions from someone who has been there. Contact me if I can help.

Food and Lodging- If you prefer a Hotel, (as we did) there isnt much nearby. We stayed in Beckley and it was a good 40 minute drive each way. There is a Comfort Inn that is closer, still maybe 20-25 minutes. The food vendors on site were pretty good, but not fancy. There was an Indian Taco truck that had pretty good grub, and a vendor called "Kates Outback" that had some excellent choices. If you are open minded. There was more traditional lunch and dinner selections offered in the lodge. Bathrooms were quite acceptable. Typical campground bathrooms and showers, supplemented by outhouses, all well maintained.

Be forewarned, it is a communal camping lifestyle environment. Gypsys, hippies, young and old folks of every kind size and description. It goes without saying there is always a small percentage (Luckily) who (Cant put this gently) simply need a long shower with extra soap, and just burn your clothes. Please. For the sake of all within 30 feet (or more). Oh, and it may not be the ones you expect it from.

But it was actually kind of cool to see so many young people playing and dancing around to this old time music like they were at a Grateful Dead concert or something!

Theres a lot of other attractions in the area too. New River bridge and gorge, coal mining and railroad boom period attractions, various white water attractions, etc.

Some other notes of interest;

Cool and unusual instrument sitings.

Upon arrival to the area we visited the New River Bridge and Gorge visitors center. There was a display on life in the area during the coal mine boom period, and in a glass case was this instrument, labeled simply "home made mandolin." Interesting to note the front and back of the body were cut from one piece (Look at the neck joint area) with ribs at the sides and tail.

 

Gold Tone had about every instrument from their recently expanded catalog at the festival. Several cool variations including octave banjos, banjitars, etc. I was very intruiged to see a banjo neck on a resonator pot. Really cool range of sounds. That one has my gears turning!

Several tables had some old/unusual stuff, High and low end. Recording masters, Silvertones, etc etc. Some very nice old fiddles and mandolins and Banjos. Some very high priced stuff but most werent gouging prices in my opinion though. Had to tear myself away from a 1940 Martin Tenor guitar. Several times actually. I also had my eye on an old baritone ukelele. Generally though, flat top guitars and mountain dulcimers were surprisingly under represented. I was a little surprised not to see more primitive or home made style stuff too.

Everywhere we went this 15 year old fiddle player from Missouri was playing with someone. Campground or stage, he seemed to never stop! His relaxed style and high level of talent was obvious. This young man is really good. Seemed once he knows the key, he just goes! (And goes and goes.......)

 

 

One of the oddest performance combinations was this group with a harp, and what I can only call a bass Marimbala, though I have never seen one in this style.

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Comment by Mark Bliss on May 30, 2014 at 1:04pm

That was quite an experience for me Bill, really enjoyed the entire time.

Since then I have been exploring the crooked road, dropping in on jams and such in various places like the Floyd country store, Galax, etc. Headed back to Floyd next month for another extended visit. Love this stuff!

I am thinking the Galax Fiddlers convention might be the next big one. Maybe next year!

Comment by Bufo Bill on May 30, 2014 at 11:29am

Nice report, thanks for sharing! I have heard lots of good things about Clifftop on www.banjohangout.org, nice to see you didn't just focus on one aspect of the experience, and I enjoyed your thoughts on the "crowd" at this event.

Comment by Uncle John on August 12, 2011 at 8:54pm
Interesting stuff, Mark.   Good report.
Comment by Mark Bliss on August 12, 2011 at 1:34pm

I've seen a few videos of Don playing, he has a strong thumbstyle technique. Of note in the video is the false backs, one engineered in, the other appears to have been added on.

The Banjers comments you mentioned remind me of something I was recently reading about "banjo bullies". A banjo player complaining about another instrument sounding clanky, thats classic.

One more thing on mountain dulcimers, than maybe we will move that part of the discussion to a fine group I know of elsewhere on this site! ;-)

I remembered last night that there was another young man, who actually joined the previously mentioned MD player at the fest, along with a mandolin player and they did play together for an hour or so. The think of note was the second player had a "courting" dulcimer, with one neck capo'ed up for accompaniment and I realized he could just flip it around and play in a lower pitch! I made a mental note of that idea and then just up and forgot about it! The trio sounded pretty good together, and I noticed the mandolin player wasnt playing as "aggressively" as one might to compete with the volume of a typical banjo/fiddle combo.

The differences in volume can be a problem in a strictly acoustic environment such as campground jamming. It is apparent however that there are some very talented players who understand and adjust their "attack" as needed! Neither the banjo, nor the fiddle has to be played so loud, and the better players dont, IMO.

I am thinking of "borrowing" Dan Levenson's sign out-

Play nice!

Mark

Comment by Diane in Chicago on August 11, 2011 at 6:15pm

 

I took a class with Don Pedi, he can play any fiddle tune on MD at full speed and not bat an eyelash, even one he's never heard before.  He plays a lot with Bruce Greene.  But he needs an amp, or Bruce just drowns him out.

 

At one jam, a banjo player was griping about MDs (!), saying the clackity clack of the pick noise was what he did not like, and that's all that can be heard in a jam with fiddles and whatnot.

 

Here's Don:  <iframe width="425" height="349" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/LlrfITb5CAw" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>


Comment by Mark Bliss on August 11, 2011 at 1:19pm

Yes, that unfortunately may be part of it. I also think theres the problem of volume, that is to say competing with banjos and fiddles in a purely acoustic setting!

There were a few displayed for sale, and there was one small group performing with a hammered dulcimer that sounded great. I just felt that the mountain dulcimer kind of fit in with the period and style widely supported there.

The stigma is unfortunate and in my opinion unwarranted. There are many advanced players who could keep up with some of the best of them.

There was one fellow who seemed to come in, sit down and strum his MD off and on all day, but never wandered into the real heart of the festival area. Late in the afternoon he picked up his stuff and quietly waited for a shuttle ride back down to the parking area and left.

Comment by Diane in Chicago on August 11, 2011 at 9:26am

I may be wrong about this, but as I've experienced it, fiddle/OT/banjo players generally look down their noses at mountain dulcimers.  So that would explain the very few MDs for sale, I think.

 

MD players have their own festivals all over the place, so they mostly skip Clifftop.

 

Can't go wrong with a simple mid-century German fiddle!  My ebay one is like that, not much to look at but plays really sweet.  I'm fitting it with one of those adjustable Glaesner bridges next week, and some fresh strings.

Comment by Mark Bliss on August 11, 2011 at 12:09am
Seems I may be wrong on the name Erica, but the young lady I was describing was originally from Vermont, and went to school on some kind of scholarship to study Appalachian style music. (Nice gig if you can get it huh?) She had stayed with Donnie's family in KY for a period while going to school it seems.
Comment by Mark Bliss on August 10, 2011 at 5:57pm

Well as if the blog post wasnt long enough......

Heres a 14 minute video that gives a pretty good idea of what a walk through the campground was like.

Comment by Mark Bliss on August 10, 2011 at 5:47pm

Thanks Dianne, Glad you enjoyed it!

I wrote it while the thoughts and excitement were still fresh in my mind, but theres still much more I missed!

Yeah, Roger- thats the guy. Thanks for the link!

His mom may be underestimating the amount he played though! LOL!

She mentions Erica Weiss, I am pretty sure she is the young lady who was helping one of her students shop for a bow while I was trying to pick out a fiddle. Donnie cant hear well enough to play, so he handed the one I was narrowing in on as a choice so I could hear what it was capapble of. If its her, she plays and teaches both Banjo and Fiddle, and is good enough to be chosen for accompaniment in a "masters" performance demonstration. It sounded quite good in her hands! Donnies son plays fiddle professionally and I was told he uses the same fiddle as a backup for his "expensive" instrument.

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