JAM Youth Musicians Carry On Mountain Music - TribPapers

JAM Youth Musicians Carry On Mountain Music

JAM youth musicians perform in Hendersonville. Miles Krueger, at left, and Caelum Ashton are on banjo. Banjo instructor Blaine Chappell is behind them. Owen Ashton is on guitar. Youth fiddlers are (L-R): Esme Ashton, Abigail Krueger, Acacia Keller, and Agape Haviland-Pabst. Behind them are adult fiddlers Carol Rifkin and John Mitchell, who lead local mountain music jams. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

Hendersonville – A Grammy winner joined local youth as they played traditional mountain tunes on stage of one of the most popular music venues, in a concert last week to benefit Henderson County’s Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) chapter.

Two-time Grammy-winning bluegrass and country artist Jim Lauderdale headlined the show on Dec. 28 in Oklawaha Brewing Co. He won Grammy awards for the best bluegrass album in 2003 and 2008. He joined JAM youths for their final song as the opening act.

Eight of the 21 JAM youth members played eight tunes in the show, along with three adults. A half-dozen youths each sang one vocal solo. One song was the jovial “Shortenin’ Bread,” which the Andrew Sisters recorded in 1938.

A crowd of about 170 patrons vigorously applauded. Patrons each paid $20-$50 for this benefit.

Lauderdale told the Tribune that these young musicians were “phenomenal playing!” While jamming with them, at one point he nodded his head and grinned in an expression of approval. “How about those JAM kids?!,” he told the crowd.

He said how critical it is culturally and musically for young generations to carry on mountain music. “It’s really important for young folks to hear old-timey music,” he said. “This music has been played in this (Appalachian) area through the ages, by their forebearers.” He sees it as a gateway to also playing other music styles.

Organizer Rifkin

Veteran fiddler Carol Rifkin also feels pride and joy when seeing young people take up mountain music, and carry on its legacy. FBVMA’s aim is to spread to younger people the joy of playing mountain music in groups and also listening to and dancing to it, she noted. Benefits include raising self-esteem and socializing skills, belonging and contributing to a group, camaraderie, and a greater sense of community.

JAM youths learn stage presence by playing before large crowds such as at the Mountain State Fair, latest LEAF Festival, Cradle of Forestry in Pisgah National Forest, and the Carl Sandburg Home. JAM musicians of varying levels perform together. Most of the 21 youths usually participate. Some rotate back into the lineup to play songs they know.

Rifkin is the catalyst both for the JAM chapter that she started in 2019, and its sponsoring group French Broad Valley Mountain Association (FBVMA) that started in 2016. Non-profit FBVMA promotes and helps preserve old-time, bluegrass, centuries-old ballads, hymns and other traditional music and local mountain culture.

Rifkin received the Folk Heritage Committee’s Bascom Lamar Lunsford Award for “significant contribution to the art of Appalachian culture,” in 2013 at the Mountain Dance & Folk Festival that she often hosts. Rifkin is a distinguished fiddler, singer and mountain dancer. She has won vocalist contests. She has performed at MerleFest. Rifkin was part of the 2000 film Songcatcher, and the TV special Down Home, Appalachia to Nashville in 1985.

Mitchell helped organize JAM, which has chapters across WNC and in parts of South Carolina and Tennessee. He said that youths play “front porch music” just as mountain families did for centuries in Sunday family gatherings. He said JAM youths “learn the old way” of playing. He noted how old-time music spans “deep” emotions from happy to sad.

Bearded John Mitchell dresses informally at these jams. That contrasts with his wearing suits as the Henderson County manager since mid-2021. He became a Henderson County official in 2013, and has lived locally for 20 years. He and his wife’s daughters Ava, 8, and Cate, 6, are curious about Appalachian music.

Wednesday Jams

FBVMA hosts a free weekly mountain music jam in Oklawaha Brewing, year-round on Wednesdays from 6 to 8 p.m. Each participating musician gets two beverage tickets to use in Oklawaha. There are typically a dozen musicians, at times twice as many participants. Singing is encouraged more than at most area jams, Rifkin noted.

JAM Frontman Owen

JAM frontman Owen Ashton of Arden turns age 14 on Jan. 26. He is the eldest and tallest of JAM musicians who played on Dec. 28. He and his banjo-playing brother Caelum, 11, and their fiddling sister Esme, 9, each sang a solo. Esme led JAM and patrons in singing “Silent Night” to close the JAM segment. She said it is “fun” playing music with her elder brothers. The Ashton children are home-schooled. If Zach and Anna Ashton’s youngest child, Eva, 7, learns mandolin, then the Ashtons could have an entire band.

Anna Ashton plays violin/fiddle. Zach is learning mandolin. They reinforce their children’s grasp of mountain music by playing records of Doc Watson and other greats, and rising contemporary bluegrass/roots bands. Caelum said he likes vibrant bluegrass, and Eighties pop and rock that his parents liked when young.

Owen Ashton was poised and articulate as the group leader and spokesman. He often smiled. He was informative. He briefly explained the meaning and history of songs. He told the Tribune that the “background story” of a song helps the lyrics “make sense” to him.

He also injected humor. “What’s the difference between a banjo and an onion?…No one cries when a banjo is cut up.” The crowd laughed.

JAM fiddlers in the show were Esme Ashton, Abigail Krueger, Acacia Keller, and Agape Haviland-Pabst. Esme said it is fun sharing their interest in music. Abigail, who is 12, sang the 1910 song “Li’l Eliza Jane.” She said it was “fun” to get her turn in the spotlight. She likes up-tempo energetic mountain music best.

Miles Krueger and Caelum Ashton played banjo in the show. Three others shifted to banjo, for a five-banjo barrage on one song. Miles, who lives in Fletcher, maintained the erect posture that seasoned old-timers are known for. He and Caelum sang solos. The vocal soloists agreed that their nervousness subsided greatly once they started singing.

JAM Classes

Tuition fees and donations fund the local JAM. FBMVA offers small group music instruction in fiddle, banjo and guitar in the Henderson County Athletics and Activity Center. There is a singing and dancing class for older students. There are about 20 regular students ages 8-16, Rifkin noted.

Beginning students keep practicing one song until they know it reasonably well, as a crucial stepping stone. “I like them to have immediate success, in learning a song,” Rifkin said. She said intermediate JAM students typically “know half of those tunes” played in concert.

Fiddlers/violinists stand close to each other. This way, more advanced players lead by example. “There’s so much to learn from playing with other people,” Rifkin said. “They make you aware of your timing, and (in group singing) if you’re singing at the right pace.”

Beginners also gain from being with advanced JAM students in a weekly “All Play” rehearsal jam. Specialized jams begin in this month. Advanced students will play together every oher week and beginners in weeks in between, Rifkin noted.

Rifkin teaches fiddle and guitar. She now lives in Horseshoe. She learned fiddle from legendary Arvil Freeman (1932-2021), and played in bands with him. Freeman and his protege Josh Goforth were among merely five area fiddlers that UNC-TV featured on Folkways to represent various traditional fiddling styles. Freeman fiddled with the Stoney Creek Boys as the Shindig on the Green house band in Asheville for decades.

JAM banjo instructor Chappell, 36, bounces with energy. That helps the Pratt & Whitney engineer relate to JAM students. He said it is quite “fulfilling” to see his students develop as musicians and enjoy playing mountain music. Chappell calls banjo a “singing instrument” that is far quieter in old-time music than its clanging bluegrass version. He likes hows “we all play organically” (acoustically). Sheila Kay Adams has taught clawhammer for JAM.

Check https://jamkids.org/hendersonnc for info on the local JAM chapter and how to donate, and a link to FBVMA. Email Carol Rifkin at FBVMAmail@gmail.com. The Buncombe County JAM is led by Lori Cozzi. Email her at bmca@BlackMountainArts.org.