Roots of the Red Clay Ramblers
1970 [Union Grove] Fiddlers Convention
by Bill Hicks
[Introduction:  I wrote this piece for the North Carolina Anvil (Vol. 3, no. 149 a weekly newspaper of politics and the arts April 4, 1970).  It commemorates my joining the Fuzzy Mountain String Band.  I'd just come back from 4 months in San Francisco, where, at that time, it felt like living in a new nation.  Len Bias was probably about 5 years old, and getting pretty good at ball bouncing.  Life seemed fairly easy and predictable if you didn't happen to be in or going to Vietnam.  We were calling ourselves "freaks" in those days.   --Bill Hicks, 12/23/'01]
Union Grove used to be things like the tent, the firehouse, the gym, and more frequently in the last few years, the cops.  It is a great and bearded tradition, this gathering of old-time and bluegrass bands and their followers from all over the eastern part of the country - 46 years old this year - but Union Grove did not carry its age and consequential notoriety with placid dignity.  Union Grove, after all, is with the exception of its yearly Eastertime aural celebration a very small western Carolina farming community.  There was always (since 1924) the convention, but until some indeterminate point in the early sixties, this simply meant a gathering of good mountain boys and some good hard liquor.  After that point - so it must have seemed to the townsfolk, or at least the school board in whose fief the actual goings-on occurred - the place seemed more and more filled with freaks and their various unexpected and probably unholy activities.

To make matters even more disconcerting, bands composed of young urban kids with weird clothes and long hair started winning top prizes.  Last year, after an excessive number of arrests for public display of alcohol, the school board and the Van Hoys (promoters of the convention) parted company.  Not long after that, the Van Hoys split among themselves, Harper and J. Pierce each hosting his own convention when Easter weekend arrived.

I went to Pierceís convention.  So did nearly everyone else.  People began to arrive on Wednesday.  Friday afternoon a boy and girl ascended briefly in a red and white hot-air balloon.  Friday evening campers and tents, crackling fires and bubbling stew, were everywhere around the green and yellow two masted tent which housed the stage.  There was still lots of room.  Pierceís farm is much bigger than the Union Grove school yard.

It was cold Friday night - about 25 degrees - but this only meant that the musicians crowded more closely around the campfires, or played hunched over kerosene heaters or huddled in blankets and coats in their tents.  Music could be heard until three or four in the morning.  It was getting there.

Saturday morning was bright and sunny, and the cars continued to pour down rural road 1849 and only the dusty trail to the parking and camping areas.  Saturday is usually a time for wandering around with instrument in hand in search of old friends and pick-up bands, and this year was no exception.  By 10 a.m. the musicians were at it again.  Along the road past the front of the big tent, more and more vendors set up their stands or opened their car trunks, revealing cases of old-timey or bluegrass records, leather goods, and, for you, a slightly used D-35.  Competition involving some 148 bands and individual performers began at 2 p.m. and continued unabated until a short supper break at six.  Nearly half the bands had still to play.

In the evening it began to get cold, though not as cold as Friday, and the fires were cranked up and the music began once more, the groups outside breaking up to amble over to the tent and play the tightest tune or song of the dayís experimentation.  Then the long wait in line - ďare we still in tune, christ, I canít hear the banjo at all, my third peg just slipped out.Ē  Finally the rush on stage - all those people - and the piece is faster than it ever was and itís over already.

The music outside continues, this time in the rain under tarps or again in tents, and the hour is later and the beer finally runs out.  In the sleepy dawn haze, a drunk in an army fatigue jacket and cowboy hat shuffles down the hill through the grey pines, stumbles over a tentís guy-wire, and sleeps fiddle tunes in the mud while a girl from Hollins College whispers,  ďIím sure thereís a man lying outside my tent.Ē

Sunday morning everything was mud. Sunday is its own exquisite fatigue at conventions like Union Grove, with everyone straining to catch and hold the very last possible note before itís really goddam over and the road is four-laned once again.  So here and there, amid roaring tractors dragging family station wagons out by their tie-rods, the music goes on, singing weíre still right on top of it you bastards, and the tempo of the night before hangs on through the fingers and arms and legs and feet aching and numb.  And finally, finally, it is really over.

* * *
In 1970 the freaks were in the majority.  There were plenty of excellent mountain musicians, - Tommy Jarrell was there, and white-bearded John Hilst from West Virginia, and Kilby Snow, and of course George Pegram.  But the audience was almost entirely composed of long-hairs, and the band which tore the tent apart was the Raleigh-based New Deal String Band, with Leroy Savage.  The 46th Annual Union Grove was the first at its new location.  In the old-time band competition, the Spark Gap Wonder Boys from Brookline, Mass., won first prize.  The Constitutional Wiretappers, with John Burke on the fiddle and Durhamís Jim Watson on guitar, placed second in the same category.  The Fuzzy Mountain String Band, also of Durham, took fourth prize in the old-time category.  There isnít a farmer or a grey hair in the whole bunch.  Other winners included: banjo, Roger Sprung of New York; guitar, Tom Edwards of Siler City; fiddle, Joe Drye of Galax.  The best bluegrass band was Jim Holderís Border Mountain Boys of Statesville.

Union Groveís new location is certainly comfortable.  This year was only the groundbreaking.

[Note:  about 4 years later Pierce's Union Grove died of gluttony, exploded by a attendance of 200,000 or so people, most of whom had no interest at all in the music but were just looking to party.  The festival under these circumstances required the attendance of the entire NC Highway Patrol--and they had other things to do that Easter Weekend.  Harper Van Hoy was smarter.  He moved his version of the festival, which still exists today, to a weekend in late May, and attentance is by invitation.  It's a lovely festival very much about the music.  I was honored to judge there 4 years in a row in the 1980s, and again in 2004.  --Bill Hicks]
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August 7, 2004
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