Approaching the front gate, an elderly woman, someone’s grandmother in these parts probably, slides the window over and greets you with a smile. You’re here. You’ve arrived.
“Welcome to Bean Blossom, the ‘Home of Bluegrass,’” she proudly stated.
That high, lonesome sound
My journey to Bean Blossom began a little over three years ago. Although I was aware of bluegrass, and somewhat dabbled in seeing it performed live, that “high, lonesome sound” didn’t click until I arrived in Haywood County in 2012. I’ve always said you can’t throw a rock in this area without hitting a picker, or at least someone who will follow the sounds of bluegrass and mountain music to the ends of the earth.
Look around Waynesville, Sylva, greater Western North Carolina, and you’ll find a plethora of string instruments, all held and plucked by those with a grin from ear-to-ear. From backporch friends and family on a Saturday afternoon to International Bluegrass Music Association “Entertainer of the Year” Balsam Range (who have seemingly won every honor possible at the IBMAs), Wednesday night jam sessions at the watering hole around the corner to up-and-comers Mountain Faith taking the stage at Radio City Music Hall in front of millions on the “America’s Got Talent” hit television show. It’s all here, and more.
The more I’ve wandered down this rabbit hole, as a journalist and a music lover, the more questions I have about just what this sound is, what it means to those who nurture it, and what does the future hold for honest music that some might say has been passed by in a modern world of fast-paced priorities, short attention spans and instant gratification, where substance is often traded in for bright lights, loud noises and gimmicks.
And the one person who has fascinated me the most in all my melodic travels around Southern Appalachia is renowned banjoist Raymond Fairchild. Tucked away in the Maggie Valley Opry House for the better part of the last 30 years, Fairchild, at 76, has been performing and touring since he was a teenager.
Once crowned “The Fastest Banjo Player in the World,” Fairchild has played from Timbuktu to Kalamazoo and everywhere in-between, selling millions of records and captivating audiences every night of the week. If there’s a stage to play, he would unbuckle his case, pull out his banjo and stun whoever was in earshot.
Soon knocking on the door of 80, I find my fascination with Fairchild has evolved into a bonafide friendship. I want to document what he has to say or think, and what the “good ole days” were like. Part of that drive comes from my blossoming passion to track down these mountain music and bluegrass old-timers before they’re gone. Part of it comes from the mere fact that Raymond Fairchild is a legend, and yet, why is nobody jotting down his story or giving him the recognition he deserves?
Some might say it’s because Fairchild had more enemies than friends, while others say it’s because he got off the road a while back due to health issues. Perhaps it’s a little bit of column A and B, or just the aches and pains, emotionally and physically, of simply getting older. But whatever the case, it all resides within a music industry that resembles plate spinning when it comes to staying in the public eye, staying on the charts, and staying relevant in the hearts of the fans.
And when Fairchild was chosen this year to be inducted into Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Hall of Fame in Bean Blossom on Sept. 26, a renewed sense of interest also emerged. Some folks thought he was long dead. Some figured he was unable to play anymore. But nobody questioned his place in the Hall of Fame or whether he was deserving of the honor.
It was about time he was placed up there in southern Indiana, besides the likes of Jimmy Martin, Doyle Lawson, and Jim & Jesse. It was also about time for my own ambitions to throw me on the road once again, in search of not only Raymond Fairchild, but also the fate of bluegrass.
Fingers like lightning
So, just who is Raymond Fairchild?
“Raymond Fairchild is an icon to me, of mountain music and of bluegrass banjo,” said Marc Pruett, banjoist of Balsam Range. “He was, and is, very gifted. He has the fastest, quickest right hand thumb I think I’ve ever seen. He and Don Reno were the only two guys I can think of who were that fast and that talented. The way Raymond plays the banjo pulls such a sensitive, accurate melody out of it that most players just can’t do it.”
A Grammy-winning musician and bluegrass legend in his own right, Pruett remembers being a kid and seeing Fairchild playing alongside the road, performing at the Hillbilly Funhouse (now a campground) in Maggie Valley. It was the mid-1960s, a time when the town was bustling with tourists along a two-lane road, a far cry from the five-lane easy access to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort these days.
“Back then, the musicians would play and place speakers near the road. There was no air conditioning in most cars, so folks had their windows rolled down and could hear the music when they passed,” Pruett said. “And my goodness, was that music powerful. You could hear it a quarter-mile or more away.”
To this day, Pruett never forgot the influence Fairchild had on his musical aspirations. Alongside Flatt & Scruggs on the radio and television, Pruett places Fairchild up there as one of the first who helped pave the way to his ultimate passion in life.
“For me personally, Raymond has been a friend and an inspiration musically,” he said. “He is a person who is determined to work hard, with a strong ethic to make a living from his talents, and I just have the utmost respect for that.”
Those sentiments and memories are something echoed from another acclaimed Haywood County banjoist, Steve Sutton. A Grammy-nominated, multiple IBMA award-winner, Sutton has toured with the likes of Jimmy Martin, Alecia Nugent, and Rhonda Vincent, to name a few. And through his lifelong pursuit of bluegrass and mountain music, Sutton also remembers where it all began.
“Raymond was the first banjo player I ever saw in person,” Sutton reminisced. “It was 1965, I was about 7 years old, watching Flatt and Scruggs on TV. I loved watching Earl Scruggs play that banjo, and my daddy said he knew of a guy who played up on the side of the road in Maggie Valley.”
Sutton was in awe of Fairchild’s intricate playing. He’d never seen something like that, and immediately wanted to be up there, onstage, doing the same thing.
“I wanted to play,” Sutton said. “I asked my daddy right then and there if I could get a banjo, and I did that Christmas. I learned how to play through the winter, and come spring, I was over there at the Hillbilly Funhouse playing alongside Raymond, learning everything I could from him, watching everything he did.”
In an effort to maybe get a few extra tips from passerby tourists, Fairchild would pass off Sutton as his son onstage, saying the folks in the crowd (Sutton’s parents) were kind enough to watch him for Fairchild when he was up there trying make money “to pay the electric bill.”
“And if we drew a crowd, we’d pass the hat around and it’d fill up with tips,” Sutton chuckled. “And Raymond would always give me all the money in the hat, which is what I saved up and used to buy my first real nice banjo a couple years later.”
Sutton never forgot Fairchild’s generosity, nor the influence he had on the starry-eyed youngster ready and eager to take on the world, which for bluegrass musicians is the Grand Ole Opry and Bean Blossom (something Sutton has done numerous times since then).
“He was just so unique in his style, and still is. Nobody can play like Raymond. He was such a stylist, just like Don Reno and Earl Scruggs — he could play anything,” Sutton said. “With Raymond, it wasn’t tricks or gimmicks. He’d take that banjo and make it do things nobody had ever seen before. Hell, I’ve seen Raymond play Earl Scruggs own banjo and it still sounded like Raymond.”
What about Fairchild being perhaps overlooked for years?
“Well, Raymond quit touring a lot and stayed home at the Opry House, and in this day and age, you get forgotten so fast,” Sutton noted. “I really hate that a lot of people didn’t get to see Raymond in his prime, or even know he’s up there in the Opry House, because he is one the greatest that ever was. He was so respected by all of his peers and all of the top-tier banjoists.”
And now that he’s getting inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame?
“Hopefully, it’s just the beginning of some recognition that’s long overdue,” Sutton added. “Bean Blossom is certainly a fitting place for him to be honored, and I hope this could someday mean he also gets honored by the IBMAs. I’ve learned so much from Raymond and he deserves every bit of this induction.”
Streaming into Bill Monroe’s Memorial Music Park & Campground in Bean Blossom, you find yourself entering a space, a bubble I think, where the atmosphere takes on a different feel than anywhere else. The air takes on a more carefree tone, where your stride slows down and your mind is at ease. You gaze up at trees hanging overhead and look down at stones along your path, all the while wondering just what sights and sounds they have witnessed. It’s the type of place you swear you’ve been before, even if it’s the first time you’ve ever stepped foot on the property — you’re at home, even if you started out thousands of miles away.
It’s Friday, and though Fairchild isn’t going to be inducted for another 24 hours, I take the opportunity to immerse myself in the sacred location and distinctive people I’ve read and heard about for years. This is the 41st anniversary of the fall festival (Uncle Pen Days, when the Hall of Fame induction occurs) and also the 49th year of the spring celebration. Stepping onto a nearby tour bus, a firm handshake is extended my way from legendary mandolinist Doyle Lawson who was set to play that evening.
“For me, and for a lot of people, Bean Blossom is hallowed ground,” he said. “I always look forward to coming here. Each time we get off the highway in Columbus, head through Nashville and up to Bean Blossom, I always think of Bill [Monroe]. I see him in my mind like it was yesterday.”
At 71, Lawson is considered an elder statesman of bluegrass. It’s an odd thing for him to ponder, thinking back on being a young kid around the likes of Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and Jimmy Martin. But, it’s also the nature of the beast that is life — a constantly moving wheel of time and space, purpose and pursuit.
“I know you can’t undo the past, and time marches on, but it means a whole lot to me that Bean Blossom is still here, that Bill’s festival is still here after all these years. It’s a privilege to play that stage,” he said. “I’ve been playing bluegrass since I was 11 years old. It all started with hearing Bill Monroe on the radio when I was a kid. Something about that high, lonesome tenor voice of his, something about that sound known as bluegrass just got into my heart and it never left.”
When asked about Raymond Fairchild being inducted this year, an honor Lawson himself received in year’s past, he gets quiet for a moment, with a laugh soon echoing out of a big smile.
“It’s ‘Fairchild Style’ — Raymond always played the way Raymond wanted to play,” he said. “Raymond is an individual. He carved his own way, and that’s what’s so great about him. He and I grew up in the old days when it was important to have your own identity. He’s not only a great guy, he is one of fastest and finest banjo pickers I’ve ever seen.”
A couple buses over sits Bobby Osbourne, iconic front man for The Osborne Brothers, a group whose faces would easily be found on the Mount Rushmore of bluegrass, mountain and country music. Known for their hits “Rocky Top” and “Ruby Are You Mad,” only Bobby, age 83, still hits the road these days, walking onstage each night in innumerable towns and cities, doing what it is he was put on this earth to do — play music.
“I got started out in country music in the 1950s, but when I heard Bill Monroe play on the Grand Ole Opry, I fell in love with that sound,” he said. “There’s always been bluegrass and there always will be. You can’t hide behind bluegrass. You can’t hide anything. If you can’t play, you might as well get off of the stage.”
What about Raymond Fairchild getting added to the Hall of Fame this weekend, alongside names like The Osborne Brothers?
“I’ve known Raymond a long, long time,” Bobby said. “He’s always been a great guy, a great player, with a great band. He being inducted should have happened before, but it’s just his turn right now, and he deserves to be in here with the rest of us.”
Saying goodbye to Osborne, I step off his bus and immediately recognize a face sauntering by. It’s Ronnie Reno, son of late banjo legend Don Reno. Front man these days for The Reno Tradition, Ronnie was born and bred on Bean Blossom, coming here as a kid and watching his day perform in the 1950s.
“It’s a special feeling to come and play, and be, here,” he said. “I was raised in bluegrass, and back then, it wasn’t even called that. It was ‘hillbilly’ or ‘traditional.’ This music isn’t mechanical. You can’t go in a studio and replicate what you see onstage here. It is what it is — it’s America’s music.”
Seeing as Ronnie’s father is Don Reno, I have to ask his thoughts on Raymond Fairchild.
“In terms of the banjo, there’s my dad and Raymond, and then everyone else,” Ronnie said. “Raymond is a wonderful banjo player. I’ve always enjoyed his showmanship, and it means a lot that he’s getting inducted this year.”
Leaving the bus lot, I head towards the stage. A pretty basic structure of wood and nails, the building is anything but ordinary, especially when one sees all the autographs on the back walls, where if you look closely, you can see “Merle Haggard,” “Dr. Ralph Stanley” and “Peter Rowan,” among an endless alphabet soup of signatures.
Around the corner, on the back balcony, Summer (fiddle) and Brayden (banjo) McMahan of Mountain Faith are warming up for their performance in the coming minutes. The Sylva-based group recently had their first number one hit on the national bluegrass charts, with Summer taking home the IBMA “Momentum Award – Vocalist” that following week, which spotlights the finest up-and-coming bluegrass outfits. Fresh off their star appearance on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” at Radio City Music Hall, she looks at Bean Blossom as the pinnacle of bluegrass stages alongside the Grand Ole Opry and the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee.
“I’ve dreamed of playing Bean Blossom my whole life,” she said. “I walked around early this morning and you can just feel it, the legends that have come here. We’ve worked our whole lives to play this venue, and it’s a real honor to get up there.”
Also Western North Carolina natives, Mountain Faith are well aware of the importance of Raymond Fairchild, one of their own, being inducted.
“I remember as a kid seeing Raymond on the Grand Ole Opry, and I cannot tell you how many times I went and saw him play at the Maggie Valley Opry House — he is a legend and an idol of mine,” Brayden said.
“Raymond is a living legend,” Summer added. “He was really good to us growing up, always encouraging us when we were just starting. You always know what you’re going to get with a Raymond Fairchild show, and that’s real music from the heart.”
The home of Bill Monroe
It’s Friday evening and the music is in full swing. All throughout the day troves of folks steadily emerge from their campsites and RVs, many in jean overalls, a cowboy hat, with handkerchiefs hanging from back pockets. By the time Bobby Osborne & The Rocky Top Xpress step up to the microphone, the crowd is restless. The want to here the voice of “Bobby Boy,” with numerous voices shouting song requests from the darkness, the most popular of which being “Ruby Are You Mad.”
Osborne plows through his set. Though his hands may shake a tad strapping on his mandolin, once the instrument is around his neck, his fingers flutter up and down the fret board like a hummingbird. The band is cooking behind him, running on all cylinders. Finally, his signature howl radiates from the speakers, “Ohhh Ruuuubbbbbyyyyyy, honey are you mad at your man?” The crowd erupts in applause, cheering on Osborne. And though the audience is made up of mostly hearing aids and white hair, there’s a youthful vibe that shoots through them, as if time has no meaning in the presence of songs immortal.
It’s a sense of pure love and appreciation at Bean Blossom. You see it everywhere. Folks are silent during each performance. You could hear a pin drop. They’re here to hear every note played, every musician who takes center stage and let’s his or her heart push through the speakers and into the heavens above.
And standing there, during Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver’s magical set of angelic vocal harmonies and joyous pickin’, I started to wonder — why in the hell am I pretty much the only person under 55 here? Where is everybody? Aren’t there bluegrass freaks like myself, my age, who would claw their way to Bean Blossom if they just knew who was here?
“Well, most kids your age don’t appreciate these guys,” an older gentleman said to me back at the campground, around a fire, as he handed me a beer. “Most kids your age like these hippy bands who jam, and son, that ain’t bluegrass — it just ain’t.”
“No matter what it is, hippy band or traditional, it’s about string music and being part of something bigger than yourself,” another said from across the fire. “This music needs to live, and thrive, and this is the mecca for that.”
“You need to tell all those young folks back home just what you saw here,” a lady nearby added. “You need to tell them just how special this is, that it’ll be gone someday if they don’t come here and bring Bean Blossom into the next generation.”
“To be honest, when I saw Jesse McReynolds (of Jim & Jesse) up there playing today, I thought he was long dead,” I replied. “He sounded incredible up there, and yet, I thought he passed away years ago.”
I paused for a moment when that statement came out of my mouth. Standing backstage next to McReynolds earlier, I had no idea who he was until someone introduced him to me. At 86, his live show was something to behold, full of trademark old-school bluegrass and mountain music, with friendly banter between each melody. A true showman, where others could stand to take note and see just “how it’s done.”
“At my age, I’m just thankful to be anywhere,” McReynolds laughed backstage. “I’ve been coming to Bean Blossom since the early 1950s. This is acoustic music, ain’t nothing added to it. It brings people together, and this is the place to be — the heart of bluegrass.”
Man of the Hour
Early Saturday morning. The sun has only been up a short while. And though it may seem early to rise for a 30-year-old journalist, most of the attendees are already on their third cup of coffee and planning out what’s for lunch.
After tracking down some bacon and eggs, I head towards the main pavilion to find a place to sit. Halfway through my meal an old tour bus rolls up. It parks itself a few yards away. A moment later, Raymond Fairchild appears. The man of the hour has arrived. He walks with a slight limp through the morning dew of the grass, the dust of the roads surrounding the performance field.
Popping open his cases, he displays a handful of banjos, a few of which are for sale if the right price is suggested. There are boxes upon boxes of albums ready to be taken home. Once he has set up shop, we head for the tour bus for a sit-down interview (see page 25). He’s cordial, a tad feisty, with a presence that demands your attention. After about 15 minutes I turn off my recorder, but not before Fairchild introduces me to his bus driver, Bill Scoggins.
“You need to say hello to my friend Bill,” Fairchild stated. “If you don’t talk to this fine man, you might as well not write about me. Bill has been with me for years. We’ve traveled hundreds of thousands of miles together.”
A long-time friend of Fairchild’s, Scoggins also played for several years with him onstage at the Maggie Valley Opry House.
“Raymond is the best banjo picker I ever saw,” Scoggins said. “He does thing most can’t, he can make it almost talk like a human being. He’s one of the last of that original generation. You don’t hear people play like that anymore. This induction is important to him, to me, to his fans, and to bluegrass music as a whole.”
A few hours later, Fairchild is sitting up onstage, in front of the entire Bean Blossom faithful. There’s a slight grin creeping up from each side of his mouth. For a man who usually plays it straight ahead and is a little rough around the edges, Fairchild is truly humbled by the induction ceremony. Standing proudly behind him is Scoggins, with a few noticeable tears in his eyes.
Stepping up to the microphone, bluegrass legend Larry Sparks gives a speech to present Fairchild with the honor. Fairchild’s grin turns into a full-fledged smile when a letter is read to him by Sparks. It’s a letter from another legend of the genre, another dear friend from along Fairchild’s long and sometimes arduous journey — Alison Krauss. A Hall of Famer himself (at Bean Blossom and the IBMAs), Sparks knows just how important this award is.
“This honor is your work and your life,” Sparks said afterwards. “It’s for all those friends and family, those people and those fans who stayed with you all these years. When you’re walking on the grounds of Bean Blossom, you’re walking on the grounds of history.”
Like many, Sparks also feels Fairchild’s induction is long overdue.
“Raymond has been with us a long time and he deserves to be in here as much as anybody who is already there,” he said. “He’s an original. When you heard him play, you knew exactly who is was.”
In a couple hours it’ll be Sunday. I pack up my gear and ready myself for the seven hour trek back to Haywood County. Walking back up the hill from the stage, I see Sparks signing a few autographs and talking with a handful of friendly faces. They eventually mosey on, with Sparks standing there, by himself. I approach him and ask for a few more minutes of his time. I want to know, what’s next for all of this, for Bean Blossom and bluegrass in general?
“You can ‘drive’ any car you want, but you got to stay within the lines, the boundaries that make bluegrass great. It’s not easy to do, but that’s what it’ll take to survive,” he said, scanning the property. “It’s about the young people, where I hope they learn from the older ones who have made it work — this music needs someone to take care of it.”