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After 10 years of serious hobby fiddling, this was the year for me to make the pilgrimage to old timey nirvana... Clifftop, West Virginia. Visiting back in the U.S. from my radical sabbatical in Tasmania, I'm - shall we say - between jobs. So, I've got plenty of time. Don't know where Clifftop is? Don't know where Tasmania is? This is a webzine after-all, so if you're interested to see exactly where, open another tab or second browser window and search for Clifftop on your Google Maps or MapQuest or whatever map-du-jour you're liking nowadays. Maybe you'll find a route that leads from you to Clifftop, if you haven't been there yet. I'm guessing that Tasmania is way out of your way (unless you're one of the Aussie readers, that is). That'll be a topic for some other musing.
The nearest large town near Clifftop is Beckley in the south central area of West Virginia. I hear there's good white water rafting in the New River Gorge in season. It's not far from Virginia, where we stopped to visit some friends and relatives along the trip. It was a picturesque ride through misty hills, not too daunting for our little old high mileage car. I thought to myself that the humidity would be good for my old fiddle, but wondered if the heat would be a problem for me, if not my fiddle. Not a problem as long as you get in some shade.
Many people make the trip with pop-up campers and all manner of RV's. Isn't it interesting to see how people create their festival homesteads? It's great fun to walk around and appreciate the way people construct the comforts of home (or not). My two- person tent and a cheap-o dining canopy did me just fine. I had some morning shade from the canopy and evening shade from some brush. And, I met some mighty hospitable folks from all around willing to have me join in for a drink or snack or chat or tunes.
My partner, however, appreciated the motel room about ten miles away. (Sorry, but there's not that many motels nearby, so I'm keeping the whereabouts my secret.) Although, there was some discussion between us about which was louder - the air conditioner in the motel room or jamming around the tent at Clifftop. There were showers onsite, but I jumped at the chance for a motel room shower and a trip into Fayetteville to the Cathedral Cafe to hit the internet every other day or so.
I'd never seen so many old timey folks in one spot. I even ran into two friends from Australia. The official website says that 3,000 folks attend. The official festival runs from a Wednesday through Sunday, but campers can come as early as the Saturday before, I think. I got there on the Monday, so my pickings for a camp spot were better than some later arrivals. I'd done a lot of searching on line, but didn't find anything like a map of the grounds, so I didn't quite know what to expect beforehand. I wandered around aimlessly for a bit getting to know the place before choosing a spot for my tent. My sense of the layout divided the grounds into roughly four segments; two sections of camping in the woods, with some full-sun sites around the perimeter, an RV section near the stage, and staff/camper area around the water tower. I was quite amazed by the site of a huge water truck backing up to unload at the tower. No small feat considering a 90 degree elbow turn and hundreds of campsites to avoid. I hope they pay that driver well. Shower times were limited for conservation purposes, and I could understand why after seeing what it takes to deliver water.
There's a lodge where tasty and reasonable meals were served. The workshop hall was next door where the Masters Showcase programs were presented. This years Masters were Alice Gerrard, Bob Carlin, and Gerry Milnes. I only went to one although I would have liked to go to the all. I firmly believe that you can't do it all at music festivals. For any one person that you talk to, you'll probably wonder if they went to the same festival, what with all the varied combinations of experiences. Relax already about missing this or that and enjoy what you are doing.
Luckily my festival neighbor admonished me that I should not miss Gerry Milnes workshop. She said even if I only went to one of the master programs, that should be the one.
My neighbor was so-o-o-o right. Gerry played tunes he's collected over many years in West Virginia; some on fiddle, some on banjo, some songs, and talked about the places and oldsters from whom he'd collected, the likes of Melvin Wine, the Hammons Family, J.P. Fraley, and Ernie Carpenter. To be honest, I have not spent much time paying attention to styles of the old timers. It often seemed so academic and I'm plenty busy just trying to hit notes that are close to where they should be. Now I have more information to recognize and compare styles and maybe a little better prepared to try out some new ones. Plus, places that I've only known from tune names have a little more meaning to me: Elk River, Cheat Mountain, Maysville, Shelvin' Rock. Gerry said at one point that his list of West Virginia fiddlers included more than 200 fiddlers from one county alone. West Virginia used to be a far away place of John Denver-ish 'almost heaven' imagery, but now is much more real to me. I understand better about the influence that West Virginia fiddlers have had on old timey repertoire.
I think the lodge was also where the dances were, but I never actually got to any of the dances, so you'll have to ask someone else about that. Again, you can't do everything. There's a big porch that attracted some jammers and old timer cloggers. Fancy steppers, gentlemen in their 70's and 80's, I would guess, showing off their best steps!
There also was a good collection of food and craft vendors, too. Now I'm able to say that I've tasted alligator. Yep. And, you might be happy to know that a good cup of coffee was available every morning. Plenty of ice and munchies at the camp store. Plenty of instrument vendors and crafties for folks who'd like to take something home from their time at Clifftop. For folks like me on a budget, the ambulance crew handed out some free frisbees.
Let's see, what else to do at Clifftop? Lot's of 'stars'. There were a few CD release parties under cover in one of the camping areas with drinks and snacks and jamming and CD sales, everyone invited. It was a chance to see the musicians up close and personal. A neighbor had the bright idea to have a lesson with Jake Krack. He talked me out of my bow hold. Said they'd been making bows for hundreds of years for a reason and I might as well take advantage of that by holding it by the frog instead of higher up. And, what a treat to walk along a dark path at 2 AM and hear the unmistakable sound of Rayna Gellert's fiddle coming closer and closer. I keep missing Uncle Earl concerts, so this was my first time hearing Rayna live. I'm not much of a night owl, but I turned off my recorder at 3:15 because I was falling asleep on my feet.
About the Author
I've been spending my time between the U.S. and Australia in Tasmania for the past few years, going to festivals and jamming. I do workshops and websites because I'm also a trainer and geek
There are more resources and musings, particularly for new adult fiddlers, on my blog http://fiddlejammer.blogspot.com.