On a recent afternoon, an old man approached a cluster of musicians, who had just started sawing their bows on a peppery “Soldier’s Joy,” and, without saying a word, he joined in with his claw-hammer banjo.
These regular, outdoor jam circles on the square in Dahlonega are, by some unwritten code, democratically inclusive. “We’re one big music family, getting all up in it together,” says Sarrah Ellen McDonald, who sings and plays fiddle and upright bass. “Young. Old. Just starting out. Been around awhile. The good, the bad, and the orta-be-better. There’s room for everybody.”
This old man’s virtuosity, though, outpaced the other players by a country mile, and they eventually ceased picking to marvel at what his arthritic-looking fingers could do. When he finished with a flourish, someone asked, “Sir, what’s your name?” The old man packed up his banjo and pointed to his feed-store cap, where the name “Uncle Henry” was embroidered, and then walked away, without so much as a word or a nod, as the picking resumed.
Such scenes have reverberated for more than a century in Dahlonega, a name that means “yellow rocks” in Cherokee. This small town was formally established in the mountains of northeast Georgia as a rowdy mining outpost during the country’s first major gold rush in the 1830s. Musicians began convening here with a fiddlers’ convention in the summer of 1905, when first prize—a five-dollar gold coin—was awarded to Fields Wilson, and a newspaper noted the “quick steps” of 87-year-old “Uncle Elisha Trammell,” who smiled while dancing “as though he were swinging a girl of sweet sixteen.” From that event, a high-lonesome soundtrack emerged, which included Fiddlin’ John Carson, who cut one of the world’s first country records in 1923; he, too, once sawed his fiddle on the square, where Uncle Henry stood and played.
“It’s Appalachia,” says Jim White of the Buzzard Mountain Boys. There’s a culture of making music on the porch for family entertainment, with musical families passing the tradition on, and because of that history, Dahlonega still draws traditional musicians to the area. You can’t hardly swing a cat by the tail around here without hittin’ an old-time fiddler.”
Music-makers were not always so conspicuous, though. Nick and Glenda Pender had driven up from Florida to scout the region for a music-friendly place to call home when they spotted a lone picker, messing around with an open-backed banjo. “We took that as a sign,” she recalls, “and we quickly learned that the music was here, but it was taking place underground, and indoors among families. Once we settled in, we were determined to celebrate and share this rich heritage more publicly.”
One day, as if on cue, a bear wandered amiably into the downtown square to have a look around. It was the talk of the town, so with an “any excuse for a party” shrug, the Penders and other civic leaders launched the Bear on the Square music festival, which has become a rite of spring every April since 1996 and has yielded a toe-tapping anthology album of its regular performers. Some of those artists also joined forces for the Mountain Music & Medicine Show, a mix of crackerjack music and cracker-barrel skits, which became public radio’s Southern counterpart to “Prairie Home Companion.” It ran regularly from 2000 to 2013, and the troupers still reunite, in overalls and gingham, to perform for special events.
“Those productions gave all of us great exposure and helped develop performing skills on stage and in the recording process,” says Jason Kenney, a 27-year-old Dahlonega native and multi-instrumentalist. “The opportunities here have enabled me to work full time in music. I’ve never had to hold a traditional ‘day job’ that didn’t involve music, so I can actually feed my family doing what I love. There’s such a strong sense of community among the musicians here that mentors are so easy to find and quick to help.” (See Candice Dyer’s review of Kenney’s latest album, Turn This Sorrow Into Joy, here).
A couple of Alison Krauss and Union Station alumni call the college town home, but the “Dahlonega sound” does not always involve banjos. Other entertainers who claim local addresses, influences, and ties include Zac Brown (Lumpkin County High School graduate), Shawn Mullins (University of North Georgia), Kurt Thomas, Curtis Jones, Beverly Smith, Larkin Grimm and Ann Whitley, with full-time resident Amy Ray acting as a sort of bohemian godmother, lending her vocals, counsel, and industry connections to up-and-comers. (You can hear her raspy tenor on Kenney’s latest album, Turn This Sorrow Into Joy.) “I can think offhand of at least eight regularly performing bands based in Dahlonega,” White says.
John Grimm’s Vintage Music shop—redolent of resonant, resiny old wood—and Jackson Pedal Steel Guitars supply the instruments for local venues such as the restored Holly Theater and the Crimson Moon, a starred destination on the Asheville-to-Athens acoustic circuit. The recent proliferation of wineries, too, is giving rise to more jazz.
“The music scene in Dahlonega is more than just old-time and bluegrass,” notes Roman Gaddis, a descendant of the white settler who found the nugget that kicked off the gold rush. He plays mandolin for Bluebilly Grit, which took top honors at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2012. “The University of North Georgia has great classical and jazz programs, and there are Dahlonega people working in Nashville now and Atlanta’s rock scene, so our music community is constantly expanding into other genres that sometimes overlap, which makes sense because bluegrass can be similar to jazz in its organic, improvisational qualities.”
Nevertheless, don’t fear the threat of a twang famine in Dahlonega, which is busily grooming the younger generation’s heirs to Bill Monroe and Alison Krauss in the Georgia Pick and Bow Traditional Music School. The program offers affordable lessons to more than 100 students from fourth to 12th grade in traditional music on fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin, and upright bass—with an emphasis on Appalachian history and cultural awareness, too. Often, siblings take the lessons together and then form family bands, which eventually steal the show at Bear on the Square.
“This past session of Pick & Bow held some especially sweet moments for me,” says McDonald, who teaches when she is not sawing a bow for the band “Good in the Kitchen.” “There was a 20-minute window when the little ones arrived early from the elementary school. Every week, two little boys would find me, and for those twenty minutes, we’d jam on all the old songs they’ve learned so far—one barely able to wrap his arms around his grandpa’s old guitar and the other one not yet bigger than the 1/4-size upright bass he plays the heck out of. That’s what it’s all about right there.”
Dahlonega is located just a little more than an hour north of Atlanta—just hang a left at the end of GA-400. Here’s just a few musical must-sees:
The Crimson Moon
This “listening room,” with the motto “where the creative spirit shines,” is one of the city’s oldest buildings, which, in its early days, reputedly functioned as a rough-and-tumble brothel for gold miners. (Baristas have reported sightings of “naked lady” ghosts.) Today, it is a premiere stop for singer-songwriters on the Asheville-to-Athens circuit, and it showcases local jam sessions every week. Shawn Mullins makes regular appearances, as do Jonathan Byrd, Stacy Earle and other marquee names. Every Sunday, the locals bring their dobros, fiddles and autoharps out for an afternoon jam session of plangent roots music. Expect a murder ballad or two. Downtown at 24 North Park Street. (706) 864-3982
For more than 20 years, this mom-and-pop store has reigned as north Georgia’s primary vendor of new and vintage guitars, fiddles, banjos, mandolins, dulcimers, and more. Proprietor John Grimm also teaches music lessons and counts Zac Brown among his alumni. If you need sheet music for the murder ballads and jigs, this is the place. Step inside the store and inhale the resiny scent of warm, old wood that always stays in tune. Downtown at 42 Public Square. (706) 864-2682
Bear on the Square
The locals refer to it as just “Bear.” This downhome, family-friendly festival, held the third weekend of April, celebrates all aspects of Appalachian culture – art, folkways, dancing, and storytelling, but primarily music, with impromptu jams wherever a fiddler can find elbow room. Under the big tent are the marquee acts such as the Skillet Lickers, Hog-Eyed Man, the Buzzard Mountain Boys, and Threadbare Skivvies. Don’t be surprised if an old-timer tosses aside his cane along with his Baptist raisin’ and starts buck-dancing. On the, well, square. April 18 – 19.
This neighborhood pub is where the event organizers do their dreaming and scheming while acoustic rockers such as Hannah Thomas and Timothy O’Donovan belt out the background music. Amy Ray drops in for a veggie burger now and then. 87 N. Chestatee (706) 482-0114
The Vickery House
An extension of the University of North Georgia, The Vickery House serves as headquarters of Georgia’s first Appalachian Studies Center, with weekly jam sessions on Thursdays for musicians; forums for storytellers and lectures; and ongoing exhibitions of preservation-oriented art, photographs, and historical research. 24 Vickery Drive, just off Main Street. (706) 864-1400.
Three Sisters Vineyards & Winery
Dahlonega’s first vineyard, holds regular music events and festivals that pair well with the wines from the red-clay terroir of “Napalachia.” The music-loving owners – the Paul family – also operate a small radio station that plays an eclectic selection of bluegrass, big band, jazz, or whatever strikes their fancy. Tastings most weekends. Look for the sommelier wearing overalls. 439 Vineyard Way. (706) 865-9463.