No mountain country for old men
Raymond Fairchild is a man of few words.
But, it only takes those few words to truly grasp a man that ultimately lives up to myth and legend.
If you didn’t know where the Maggie Valley Opry House was, you’d probably pass right by it on the way to the bright lights and chance of Harrah’s Casino in Cherokee or to the hip hustle and bustle of Asheville.
The unassuming music hall is tucked behind a quaint motel that’s seen better days, in a town that’s seen better years. But that doesn’t deter Fairchild from opening his banjo case, picking up his trusty instrument and heading for the stage every night of the week from the late spring until early fall.
After 25 years of do-or-die devotion to his Opry House, Fairchild struggles to stay relevant, yet as he laments the dwindling crowds over the years, he’s unwilling to sacrifice the purity of the music.
“It’s great here, but people just don’t turn out to sit like I think they should. They got other music on their mind, especially the youngsters,” he said. “Some of the old people will come here and sit, but very few young people. I think bluegrass is the greatest music in the world, and it’s done suffered. Music doesn’t have to be jazzed up.”
Raised in nearby Cherokee, Fairchild holds tightly to his Native American ancestry. Learning how to play banjo by ear when he was teenager, plunking coin after coin into the jukebox, he developed an enormous passion for the timeless melodies of Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs.
“When it comes down to bluegrass, the only bluegrass man that really did it and could take anybody and train them to do it, is buried six feet under in Kentucky, and that’s Bill Monroe,” he said.
While perfecting his sound, aptly called the “Fairchild Style,” the 73-year-old got by as a moonshiner, running through the thick woods and backcountry roads of the Appalachians, always one step ahead of the law. “I was just too fast to be caught,” he chuckled.
Though he still makes moonshine jelly that’ll cure any ailment you may have, his signature ‘shine recipe is now being produced by the new Howling Moon Distillery in Asheville — a legal operation quite different from Fairchild’s back in the day.
“You ever go through a laurel, hauling a 50-gallon barrel of moonshine in the pitch-black, without no flashlight like you have today?” he asked. “If you haven’t, I recommend you try.”
Fairchild’s Opry House is celebrating 25 years of music, memories and mountain culture. With two gold records proudly hanging on the wall, Fairchild’s resume is as long as the road out of town.
It includes his revered appearances at the Grand Ole Opry, induction into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, five-time recipient of the “Banjo of the Year” award from the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America, not to mention his music (the renowned “Whoa Mule”) and image featured in numerous documentaries, articles, television and radio programs.
“Twenty-five years means I’m 25 years older. I ain’t got rich, but I could have done things and ended up a lot worse,” he chuckled.
At his peak of popularity and touring, Fairchild was on the road doing upwards of 200 shows a year. With him away on business, his wife Shirley decided to open the Opry House, which would serve as a place to not only celebrate but also preserve the traditional music all too easily lost in the mix of modernity and mainstream radio.
“She wanted to open a place for nothing but mountain music,” he said. “If you want to live to be old, don’t walk through that door with an electric instrument. You’re dead on the spot. She loves mountain music that much, all acoustic. That was our goal, and that’s the way it’s going to stay.”
Fairchild sits like an old tree with a few branches missing in his musty armchair, carefully positioned in the corner of a small pavilion covering the front entrance of the Opry House. Rising inch-by-inch like an unpeeled Band-Aid, he walks inside slowly, almost as if to not pull his roots out from under him if he were to move too fast.
His fingers are filled with enough grit to sand down the toughest of questions posed. A watchful glare shoots out from his eyes, letting visitors know that though he may not say much, all it takes is a certain glance to get a point across.
“Mountain music is what this country was founded on. That’s the only pleasure they really had back then,” he said. “Most of them had to make their own instruments. That was their entertainment. And then Bill Monroe came along and put it in overdrive.”
It’s a Saturday night and like clockwork Fairchild readies himself backstage.
While Fairchild glides through his storied catalog of melodies, Shirley holds down the fort in back of the room, selling popcorn, soda and moonshine jelly (although there is a strict “No Alcohol” policy).
The smell of the popcorn wafts through the venue like the notes spilling off the stage from the banjo. The crowd is sparse for a weekend, even more so for mid-August, which is still tourist season in the mountains. There are as many empty seats as there are dusty photos lining the walls — and there are innumerable photos.
Of those in the audience, voices are hushed and ears tuned to the sounds radiating from the stage, only to clap enthusiastically when each song comes to a joyous close. Mountain music involves respect, patience and a keen awareness to the art of listening, something patrons always seems to know when entering the venue.
His backing group includes other local musical heroes, including a 17-year-old fiddle/vocal prodigy from nearby Robbinsville named Julie Nelms. Fairchild swears he’s “never heard a tone like that come from a human being.”
“It’s not everyday some random 17-year-old can get onstage and play with a legend,” she said. “It’s truly been a blessing for me, and I hope the Opry House can be a blessing for other people.”
Placing his banjo strap over his shoulder, Fairchild graciously walks onstage, saluting the faces staring back at him, only to jump right into the music.
“I think what makes this music special is that a college man can understand it, and a fool can understand it. But, the music they play today, nobody can understand it,” he said. “The youngsters are growing up with all these electric sounds, and you tell them to play a tune, and they play it, then they look at you and want you to say it’s good, but hell, you don’t even know what they played.”
Also playing with the back-up band that night was Kevin Kaiser on spoons and drum burshes, a visiting musician from Indiana. Back home he performs with symphonies in Indianapolis, alongside some of the world’s finest and most acclaimed soloists.
But, there’s just something about Fairchild he can’t shake, something that’s provoked Kaiser to think about relocating to Maggie Valley just to be able to perform and live among the culture he finds so mesmerizing.
“I kept hearing about the Opry House, and I finally came down to check it out for myself,” Kaiser said. “Well, by my second day here I was in the band, playing onstage with Raymond. He has a purity that the greatest soloists on the planet only wish they could possess. This music has to live on because music today has no soul. When he’s gone, it’s gone.”
First performing alongside Fairchild some 17 years ago, mouth harp/harmonica player Danny Blythe continued down his own path for years, only to come full circle a few years back and once again find himself in the Opry House band.
“I started playing blues, and Raymond plays a lot of blues licks,” Blythe said. “His timing is phenomenal. He’s the best and most generous musician I’ve ever played with. He’s always encouraging us to incorporate our own styles onstage.”
The show ends with a scattered round of applause from the faces in the audience. Fairchild comes offstage to shake a few hands, sign a few photos and albums for folks with hair as white as a mid-winter storm in South Dakota. Outside, patrons head for their vehicles or take a seat on the well-worn couches and chairs lining the wide, covered pavillion that serves as a front porch.
Meanwhile, jovial noise from a bar next door echoes loudly towards the Opry House, a scene far different from Fairchild’s hallowed halls of music purity. A rock band soon takes the stage to hearty applause from a good-sized crowd. Filled with piercing electric guitars and barely audible words, the sound is fuzzy and chaotic, one that would have Bill Monroe turning over in his grave.
Fairchild sits back down in his musty armchair. He’s a little tired, from the show tonight and from the shows he’s played every night for the majority of his life. But, no matter, for tomorrow is another day and another show, in front of another small crowd of curious people.
“Well, I don’t know how long I’ll be here at the Opry House. I may be here five years or this may be my last year,” Fairchild said. “My wife’s sick. I’m sick. But when I leave here, it’ll be sad day. With a quarter century, this has become a second home. I’m here for the people and of course you got to charge to pay the light bill and the rent. I’m here for them. I just hope they would realize this is the place to hear it.”
Maggie Valley Opry House
3605 Soco Road • Maggie Valley
828.648.7941 or 828.926.9336
Shows begin at 8 p.m. (Call for updated schedules)