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Asheville Junction, Swannanoa Tunnel

Posted by Phoeniceus on Monday, December 1, 2008

Just spent Thanksgiving in a vacational rental near Asheville. Although we live in Indiana, I have family in Baltimore and Atlanta, so Asheville promised to be somewhat in the middle, but closer to Atlanta where most of the family lives. We, the Indiana crowd, are the only musicians in the bunch, certainly the only Old Time aficionados. I was looking forward to buying a new bow and to hearing and playing tunes in the Appalachians.

We had the rental house for the whole week, but no else could arrive before Tuesday night, so I took the wife and kids down on Sunday, planning to work remotely for the first two days. We passed Asheville Sunday evening and took I-40 to the Swannanoa exit to highway 70, where we began to a complicated set of directions through the Appalachian mountains in the dark.

Asheville is a artsy, tourist city that's attracting lots of retirees and coastal hurricane "refugees."  Black Mountain is a smaller town farther down the road, similar to Asheville on a small scale, though with a greater disparagy between rich and poor.  Highway 70 connects the two towns and borders the mountains. It is a long corridor of blue collar businesses and restaurants with dirt parking lots, railroad tracks, and electric signs with burnt out bulbs. We turned off the main road and started to snake up into the mountains, passing pre-fab/trailer homes, Christian retreats (mostly AME Baptist and Catholic), horse pastures, and dogs in kennels. The trees grew right up to road and hung over, obscuring what little could be seen in the dark. The street lighting was meagre, but fortunately the directions had exact mileages to follow. About halfway up we turned aside and passed through a cattle pasture from where we had a great view of the mountains we were entering. We could only see their silhouettes in the dark, but only one mountain had any lights on it, a few scattered glows from houses up the mountain side.

We entered a key-coded, gated community as the roads got narrow and began to curve, rise, and fall. The minivan crawled through so as not to drive off a cliff in the dark. Newly built mansions passed on both sides, accessible by driveways that would have made great sledding hills if they did not deposit one over a tree-covered cliff or into a garage door.  We passed a possum on the road who gave us only a cursory and uncurious glance. I said that if snow came and the roads got slick, we could easily slide right over the edge into those trees. My wife, who was driving, said she only wished there were a few more of them (the trees) to keep us on the road. We were only half joking, until we found the driveway to the house.

It was steeper than any we had found and without any lighting. The road at the bottom was one lane wide with no room to park on the edge, so the only option was up. We could see the house perched on the slope above us, but we couldn't make out the top of the driveway. My wife shrugged, gunned the engine, and raced up the slope, but halfway up she couldn't see anything. Just as she slowed down, a turn off parking spot appeared and she pulled in. I got out and realized that it would be very difficult to unload the luggage in the dark with two children unless we were at the top of the hill by the garage. So we backed up and tried again, tires screaching on the driveway. Our tread was good, and the road was dry, but the angle was so steep that the tires left their mark on the pavement. We made it to the top alive and breathing heavily. My wife and children went inside to search and recuperate, while I did a nine-point turn in the small parking area at top (which included using the one-car garage space) to turn the car around.

I sent email to the rest of the family in Atlanta and Baltimore warning them blindfold or sedate my mother before they tried to drive her up the hill.

When they arrived two days later and screeched their way up the hill in their four wheel drive vehicles, my oldest brother said, "You know, I didn't really believe you when you said the driveway was steep, but I have to admit, you were not exagerating."

We eventually got the hang of the driveway, backing up from the road rather than driving front first. One of the first things I did was make a few calls and find out about the local jam sessions. We missed the Tuesday night jam due to a late work project, so I was determined to get there on Wednesday. We spent Wednesday morning in Asheville proper, and listened to a quartet busquing on the street - fiddle, banjo, guitar, and bass - young folks who played fast and solid. My three-year old son danced on the street and I gave him a bill to drop in the open guitar case.

That night, we left the children with grandma and drove to Jack of the Wood, a downtown Asheville tavern with lots of music and a sign over the bar that says, "If you're smoking, you'd better be on fire." There was a dozen very fine old time musicians on stage when we entered at 8:00 PM. We shyly took a seat at the bar, having been pre-warned that the early jam was an invitation-only affair. My wife and I ordered French Fries and soft drinks and tried to remember the last time we had been in a bar. It was a long time ago, way before children entered our life, and we soon dropped the subject.

The players on stage were very, very good. I especially liked one woman, perhaps forty or fifty, wearing bib overalls who cradled the fiddle in her arm like a colicky baby. She had long, strong, bony fingers that shoved the bow over the strings like it was the handle on a cast-iron pan. She sounded so good and made it look effortless. After a half hour of watching an empty seat on stage, my impatience grew. I had travelled a thousand miles to the Appalachian heartland, and I wanted to play some tunes. Finally, between tunes, I embarassed myself by asking one of the musicians on stage when the "open" jam began. He very kindly and gently told me what I already knew - the open jam started at 9:00.

So at 9:00 I got up on stage, excited as a puppy let out of the house. As other players gathered, I saw three of the four street busquers from the afternoon come on stage. I got a sweet spot between the guitar player from the afternoon busquing and one of the local fiddle players. The two of them sang some wonderful harmony throughout the night. Unfortunately, she was the only guitar player in the group, and I kicked myself for not bring my guitar. I play it much better than fiddle, and though she played very well, her instrument was cruddy, muddy, and damp. She had to really abuse the strings with her pick to be heard, and we missed most of her bass runs. Because she didn't know any crooked tunes, I borrowed her guitar during one of the tunes and afterwards promised myself that, even though I really want to learn fiddle, I would never travel without my guitar again.

It was a fun time with good music and good musicians. Thank you Asheville!

On Thanksgiving, my brothers and I took our sons to Black Mountain to play football (I am the only one with a daughter, and she wanted to stay with one of her boy cousins at home). Because my family insists on using the GPS navigation system, we stopped several times as they got their bearings. I sat twiddly my thumbs during these breaks, but on one of these unplanned stops, I looked up and found myself in the back of a parking lot staring at the front of a hidden shop called "Acoustic Corner" with a sign in the window that read "We support mountain music."

I came back on Friday with my wife. The shop was like a well-lit and comfortable cave. The ceiling was low and the only windows were on the front wall where we walked in. The temperatur and humidity control left teh air damp and smelling of finely lacquered wood. The walls were covered with stringed instruments - fiddles, banjos, guitars, violas - all hand made. In between were tables of CDs, instrument accessories in display cases, and comfortable chairs without arms. This was clearly NOT a school band music shop. The only instruments in the room that required air was a stack of penny whistles and perhaps some of the cellos which looked a bit heavy to lug up the mountain side.

A woman with straight dark hair and glasses, whose name I am embarassed to admit I have forgotten, came to help me. I explained that I was looking for a fiddle bow, that I was relatively new to the fiddle but had outgrown the cheap plastic imitation I had. She thanked me for having the forsight to bring my fiddle with me. She showed me her collection - some Chinese, some German, a few pernambuco, a couple of carbon fiber, prices ranging from $30 to $500. It wasn't a large collection, but as I worked my way through it, I realized that it was a carefully selected set. There wasn't really a bad bow in the lot. Even the cheaper Chinese bows were well balanced and produced a good tone. The high-end German pernambuco clearly gave the sweetest tone, but it was almost as hard to play as the one I already had. I wanted one that sounded good AND was easy to play, and one bow stood out from all the others as meeting both these criteria. I had not been looking at pricing and was surprised and pleased to find it was only $95. It was clearly surperior to the $300 bows, some of which did not retain much camber when tightened and which did not have the balance I wanted. Some people say pernambuco sounds the best, and my limited experience supports their view, but I'm very happy with my non-pernambuco stick.

And though I hadn't intended to, I ended up buying a new fiddle. The devil made me do it. Well, no, that's not true. But my wife sure helped. She had me try out several, and I fell in love with one of them. The tone was bright and responsive (even with Helicore strings) without being strident. I was going to put it away when my wife pointed out the price tag. It was a new Eastman violin, sold as a "factory second," because the front had cracked during construction, and the price had been reduced by nearly a third of the original price. Eastman had repaired it so well that I would not have known it had been broken if they hadn't told me.

I am one happy camper.

5 comments on “Asheville Junction, Swannanoa Tunnel”

bj Says:
Tuesday, December 2, 2008 @10:04:32 AM

So, have you managed to make your wife regret that push by ignoring her so you could practice more on your new fiddle?

Phoeniceus Says:
Tuesday, December 2, 2008 @10:19:23 AM

Ah, that's the beauty of it. I don't have to. She commutes to work and I don't, so I have an hour or so in the morning before work to practice when I'm the only one home.

robinja Says:
Wednesday, December 3, 2008 @10:51:47 AM

Wow. I am impressed that you sat in on that jam. I haven't been, but it is legendary. My husband went one time when he was on a business trip and said that there was no way he was getting his banjo out of the car. Congratulations! And congrats on the new gear, too. By the way, if you get to Atlanta to visit family, let me know. My husband and I would love to play some tunes with a mutual friend of Dean Barber's.

Phoeniceus Says:
Wednesday, December 3, 2008 @11:00:20 AM

Well Judy, fools rush in where angels fear to tread. I had no idea it was legendary. And thanks for the invitation. I'll be sure to check in the next time I am in Atlanta, though no plans anytime soon.

mudbug Says:
Monday, April 27, 2009 @3:28:15 PM

I love it when the wife "convinces" you to buy a new instrument. That's a gal that knows priorities.

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