Pickin' on Canton

Weekly gathering bonds young and old, amateur and professional, through mountain music and dance
By Stina Sieg | Jul 18, 2011
Photo by: Stina Sieg Don Fowler, right, plays and sings with Bobby Ammons at Pickin' in the Park on a recent Friday evening.

Last Friday night, the Canton Rec Park didn’t look like itself. Despite the rain that had ended only a few minutes before, the place resembled the site of a massive, musical family reunion. The large expanse of manicured grass was chock-a-block with groups of bluegrass singers and pickers, not to mention clogging troupes, practicing steps in their matching duds. The pavilion, which housed the Lisa Price Band (the night’s headliners), was ringed by an all-ages crowd of onlookers sitting in lawn chairs as they clapped, visited and ate ice cream.

This night of joyful, down-home music making is called Pickin’ in the Park, and it features an official band and two clogging teams every Friday for 14 weeks throughout the summer. But you probably knew all this. Weren’t you there? A good deal of the county was — and always is.

That’s how it has been since Pickin’ started 22 years ago, or at least that’s when co-founder Carroll Nelson believes it began. The 73-year-old Canton native can’t be sure, because sometime in the past the county lost those records. That’s a moot point, however. What really matters is that ever since he and the late Joe Turner, Canton’s former parks director, came up with the idea for the night of mountain music and dance, it has been going like gangbusters.

“It just gets bigger, seems to me, every week,” Nelson said.

Though he admits he’s not one for estimating a crowd, he thinks this year has been particularly busy. This is especially exciting because Pickin’ isn’t exactly a heavily advertised, glitzy affair. For the most part, people show up because of the decades of word of mouth. Nelson imagines they’re looking for the exact same things he was when he began this weekly celebration. Like him, they simply want a place to listen to country and bluegrass music, see some cloggers and maybe even dance a little themselves.

“I like to see the dancin’ and hear the pickin’,” Nelson said. “It’s just a lot of fun, just a family night.”

These thoughts of his were echoed time and time again at the most recent Pickin’. Everyone with something to say about the night pretty much said the same thing. It’s just fun, they all explained, the words and anecdotes varying only slightly person to person.

Alex Swaringen, a fresh-faced 19-year-old Haywood Community College student, was playing an impromptu bluegrass jam session with a few fellow musicians when he attempted to describe the close-knit feel of the night.

“I can’t really explain it,” he said, holding his banjo. “If you play music and you get around a bunch of people with that common interest, you kind of have a connection.”

It’s a connection that clearly goes beyond the dividing lines of hometown and age. Swaringen is a  native of Stanley County and is probably a third the age of all the other pickers who were playing alongside him that night, but it didn’t seem to matter to anyone. Swaringen explained that he can learn more from players who have lived longer than he, anyway. More than anything, he just seemed happy to have a place to play every Friday night.

“Makes me feel like I’m back home pickin’ again,” he said.

Al Skipper, who was playing with Swaringen, has been coming out to the summer series for about four years. He always meets “a lot of nice people,” he said, but that’s not the only reason he shows up with his guitar religiously at this and other jams across Western North Carolina. For him, it’s also about Appalachian heritage.

“It’s maintaining the old music,” said the 65-year-old Clyde resident. “We play a lot of the bluegrass music, kind of keeping it alive.”

Skipper, who’s been playing his guitar almost as long as he can remember, mentioned that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bill Monroe, the so-called “Grandfather of bluegrass,” who actually coined the genre’s name. Nights like this one and others across the region have convinced Skipper that this old-timey music is far from dying away. In fact, it’s growing — of which he is reminded whenever he sees a group of strangers come together and harmonize over a bluegrass ditty that’s been tried and true for decades.

“A lot of people who don’t know each other can get together and play the same songs,” he explained.

This warm sense of accessibility isn’t only for the musicians at Pickin’, but for the throngs of music lovers as well. That night, between songs by the main band and performances by the Blue Ridge Hi-Steppers and Stoney Creek clogging teams, everyone with itchy feet was invited to take the stage in a traditional folk dance. The scene was a joyful one, with people of all ages and abilities flashing huge grins as they swirled and stomped and clapped to the fast-paced mountain music. Many of these folks had known each other nearly since birth. Many were strangers. No one seemed to care either way.

After the song and dance came to an end, Blue Ridge Hi-Stepper Marcia Jones, 37, tried to put into words exactly what makes these nights so special. Catching her breath, she said that it was all about the dancing — well, the dancing and the people watching.
Watching people here “is better than the mall on the day after Thanksgiving,” she joked.

What makes it so good, it seems, is the same thing that makes the music and dancing so enjoyable. Pickin’ in the Park doesn’t just draw one type of people. It draws everyone, from fifth-generation Canton locals to Florida snowbirds. Jones, who works in Waynesville, actually lives in Hendersonville, though she knows it doesn’t matter to a soul on these Friday nights.

“It’s Haywood County,” she said, with a big smile. “Everyone’s welcome in Haywood County.”

Pickin' in the Park schedule:

July 15 — Hillcountry with Mountain Tradition and Green Valley clogging teams

July 22 —  Appalachian Bluegrass with the Southern Appalachian Cloggers and Fines Creek Flatfooters

July 29 — Hominy Valley Boys with the Southern Mountain Smoke clogging team

Aug. 5 — The Can’t Hardly Play Boys with Smokey Mountain Stompers and Stoney Creek clogging teams

Aug. 12 — Jerico Hill Band with Southern Mountain Fire and Blue Ridge Hi Steppers clogging teams

Aug. 19 — Cherokee Band with the Smokey Mountain Stompers and Stoney Creek clogging teams

Aug. 26 — Country Heritage with the Southern Appalachian Cloggers and Extreme Tradition clogging teams

Sept. 2 — Country Sounds with the Southern Appalachian Cloggers and Blue Ridge Hi Steppers clogging teams




Above, from left, Alex Swaringen, Bill Harris and Al Skipper play a bluegrass tune. (Photo by: Stina Sieg)