At 66, Harrell has spent a lifetime in music — exploring it, creating it, recording it and performing it. Though he didn’t become a storied jazz drummer, he did become a renowned singer-songwriter and storyteller of Appalachian history, lore and musical heritage.
Harrell will be one of the key performers at the Appalachian Lifestyle Celebration on June 14 in downtown Waynesville. Featuring an array of string music, authors, storytellers, cloggers, traditional foods, artisans and demonstrations, the festival stands as not only a tribute to Southern Appalachia, but also a way to share with others the beauty of creativity and customs in their own backyard.
“What I’m doing onstage is trying to evoke emotions, trying to trigger things in our own brain,” he said. “A lot of people call it nostalgic, but what I’m trying to do is let you see validity in the nice things in your own life.”
Long Way From Greenwich
Raised in Eastern Tennessee, Harrell wasn’t necessarily brought up in a musical household. Music wasn’t so much played as it was generally appreciated. But, that love for performance did reside in Harrell’s genetics, with his grandfather being in a successful Buncombe County band in the late 1910s/1920s with his great uncle, who was also a three-time North Carolina fiddle champion.
“Music wasn’t in my generation, it was mostly in my grandfather’s,” Harrell said. “What I wanted to do was become a jazz drummer and yet there wasn’t a whole lot of jazz going on in Southern Appalachia at that time.”
Harrell’s parents soon gave him a snare drum, but they quickly realized that might not have been the best choice of instrument to give their son.
“For my 13th birthday they gave me a pocketknife and a card that read, ‘Do you know what’s inside a snare drum?’” he chuckled.
But that didn’t deter Harrell. His brother soon handed him a record by The Kingston Trio. The group was at the forefront of the early 1960s folk movement, mainly headquartered in Greenwich Village in New York City. Soon, Harrell began tracking down everything the Trio played, as well as the music of Peter, Paul and Mary and other acoustic icons of the day.
He eventually crossed paths with a girl who had recently moved to Eastern Tennessee from New York City. She brought with her numerous folk albums from Folkways and Vanguard, record labels who released works from Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. Harrell was now experimenting with the acoustic guitar and the two decided to put together a folk duo.
“We sang at high schools, Lion’s Clubs, that sort of thing,” he said. “I was lucky later that a folk group in my town, the hottest group in that part of the state, had their guitar player leave for college, so I got to take his slot, playing college coffee houses.”
After high school, Harrell decided to forego college and become a road scholar. It was the late 1960s and the possibilities for creativity and chance seemed endless.
“I just wound up going on the road and playing,” he said. “Just traveling and listening to folk and bluegrass, and you couldn’t even give away bluegrass at that time.”
While on the road, Harrell performed anywhere, all the while soaking in the sounds of the bluegrass greats when he was able to see them hit the stage. Names like Bill Monroe, Peter Rowan, Flatt & Scruggs and The Stanley Brothers roll off his tongue as he reminisces about their shows, techniques and stage presence. He even remembers running into a 13-year-old Sam Bush at the Roanoke Bluegrass Festival in 1965 where the youngster won the fiddling competition.
“Bluegrass music just has that drive, it has so much energy — it was like hillbilly jazz. We called it dance music because we’d play for everyone to dance to,” Harrell said. “If you played bluegrass, you could play whatever you wanted, there wasn’t as much structure as there was in country music at that time.”
Making The Connection
And as the years have rolled along, Harrell has honed his craft into an intimate stage performance of spoken word and melodic tones. Between his acoustic songs, he’ll tell a story, anecdote or slice of history, all in an effort to make a connection between him and the audience.
“People love to listen to stories, it’s in our genes. In folk and bluegrass, storytelling makes people more interested in the songs,” he said. “It’s more about how the people like you than how good you are at your craft. If they like you, you can get away with anything.”
Harrell noted the power of the energy that cycles back and forth with the audience during a show. It’s a powerful feeling for him, and for those finding truth and camaraderie in his stories.
“It’s like talking to an old friend, we’re just talking. If I put some energy out there, that’s what comes back to me — it’s all about that circle of energy,” he said. “In the audience, especially with spoken word, a lot of the time they’re laughing because they understand, they’ve been there, they agree with you.”
When performing, Harrell lets the audience dictate the timing of his show. He’ll throw something out there, some idea or thought, and let it see where it sticks.
“If you give them something to chew on, let’em chew on it for a bit before you take off again,” he said. “We’re all alike, all living lives and having things in common. No matter what, we’re all having that human experience. I’m just trying to take snapshots of the human condition, songs about life and people.”
Harrell points to his wife of 20 years, Joan, as the driving force behind his continued success and exploration of the world around him and the creativity within.
“I’m very lucky to have found her, she’s the driving wheel in all of this,” he said. “Because of her, I get to write songs, make up stories and perform — she does all the hard work.”
With the Appalachian Lifestyle Celebration quickly approaching, Harrell is looking forward to once again returning to the stage in Waynesville.
“It’s always great to be invited to the celebration. It lets me know the people are getting what I’m trying to do, and it’s always nice to be a Southern Appalachian boy accepted in his own backyard,” he said. “I’m just staying on the way and bringing it to the people.”
Want to go?
The Appalachian Lifestyle Celebration will be from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, June 14, in downtown Waynesville. Featuring an array of traditional artisans, demonstrations, cloggers, foods and children’s activities, the festival will also offer a full day of live music, with the performance times as follows:
• 10-11 — Darren Nicholson Band
• 11:15-12:25 — Michael Reno Harrell
• 12:30-1:30 — Darren Nicholson Band
• 12:45 — J Creek Cloggers
• 1:45-2:55 — Michael Reno Harrell
• 3-4:30 — Darren Nicholson Band
• 3:15 — Fines Creek Flatfooters Cloggers
• 3:30 — Joe Sam Queen (Square Dance)
• 4:30-5 — The Ross Brothers
South End Tent
• 10-11 — The Ross Brothers
• 11-11:45 — Productive Paranoia
• Noon-1 — Nick Chandler and Delivered
• 12:45 — Fines Creek Flatfooters Cloggers
• 1:15-1:45 — Anne & Rob Lough
• 2-3 — Nick Chandler and Delivered
• 2:30 — J Creek Cloggers
• 3-4 — JAM Students (Junior Appalachian Musicians)
• 4:15-5 — Nick Chandler and Delivered
North End Tent
• 9:30-12:30 — Radio Hill JAM
• 12:30-1:15 — Mike Pilgrim
• 1:15-2 — JAM Students (Junior Appalachian Musicians)
• 2:15-3:15 — Productive Paranoia
• 3:30-4 — Bob Plott & Plott Hound
• 4:15-5 — JAM Students (Junior Appalachian Musicians)
The Strand at 38 Main
• 2, 5 and 7:45 — “Cataloochee” (documentary)