My summer so far has been pretty all-American: I’ve mostly been driving. I will be spending the summer in and around Asheville, NC, looking at the relationship between bluegrass music and community building. I’ll be playing my mandolin, going to bluegrass festivals, and talking to as many people as I can about their experience in the bluegrass community. To do all of that, I decided I would need access to my car. So I left Portland a few days after commencement and drove east, past Mt. Hood and out into the Oregon desert. I went through Boise and then through the sagebrush and fuzzy country radio of Eastern Utah and Northwestern Colorado, stopping for a week to spend time in the mountains with my family. After that, I was on the road again, down from the mountains and across Kansas. Kansas is as flat and featureless as advertised, but they make up for it with high-quality billboards: paintings of Jesus peaking out from a wheat field and advertisements for the world’s largest prairie dog (50 feet tall!), along with the typical “click it or ticket” reminders.
I stopped for a night on the banks of the Mississippi River in Alton, IL, the town where my dad grew up, and went on to camp in Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. After Kentucky, I had to make a stop in Nashville, Tennessee. Nashville is the epicenter of country music in a lot of ways, but I went there for only one reason: I wanted to see the Ryman Auditorium. The Ryman is the mother church of country music and the place where the Grand Ole Opry radio show was originally broadcast. Almost every major star in country and bluegrass music has performed on the Grand Ole Opry, and it’s where the father of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe, really became famous. Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys played “Mule Skinner Blues” the first time he played there. Apparently it was so good that the audience demanded an encore – the first time they had done so at the Opry. I had to navigate through Nashville’s CMA Music Fest to get there, but I saw the Ryman, resisted buying a t-shirt, and made my way on to Asheville.
Now that I’m in Asheville, I’ve spent my time getting my bearings. I’ve found a place to live for the summer, so I don’t have to live out of my car, and I’ve started to figure out where bluegrass happens and who’s involved with the scene. Right now, I’m camping upstream from Asheville on the banks of the French Broad River. Huge trees grow up along the banks, and trains roll down the tracks across the river, lighting up the night and drowning out my mandolin during the day. Everybody I’ve met so far has been kind and open; one lady gave me her hatchet after hearing that I was not only camping alone but also had no way of splitting firewood. In the next few weeks, I’ve got a lot of bluegrass festivals to go to – 14 days of festival within about 20 days, plus a few smaller festivals and week-long workshops later in the summer. Outside of that, I’ve got lots of music to play and people to meet from now until August.