During unbearably hot summers, Floridians traditionally retreat to cooler weather in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Places like High Hampton Inn and Country Club cater to visitors, offering upscale rooms, fine dining, and golf. In recent years, vacationers have become retirees, building dream homes and creating demand for fine restaurants and boutiques. Jeeps and pickup trucks no longer rule: Mercedes and BMWs crowd parking lots.
But original mountain folk still live here, and we joined them one evening at the Lake Toxaway Community Center for the Friday Night Jam, an open microphone event where locals play country music. It begins with a volunteer-prepared dinner prepared in the center's commercial kitchen. On the night we attend, the fare consists of an overcooked pork chop, canned peas, canned applesauce, dinner rolls, iced tea, and a selection of homemade desserts. Mine is strawberry-flavored Cool-Whip "cheesecake." Haute cuisine it's not. It probably doesn't even rise to the standards of Zeke and Earl's Hot Dog Shop (five stars).
But our eight bucks buys us not only fuel for the evening ahead, but three hours of authentic music. And that's what we're there for.
At the Friday Night Jam, everyone is welcome to put their names on a sign up sheet. The performers are mostly local residents, mostly amateurs. A few are gifted musicians. A few. All are entertaining.
They perform bluegrass, old timey, country, and traditional Appalachian folk songs. Here the Hooper Sisters sing a gospel song.
Clarence Zachary, Laura's distant cousin, picks his Martin dreadnaught and sings in a fine, nasal country voice. He's an audience favorite.
Musicians whose turn has not yet arrived remain on stage to pick along with those who are soloing. I counted six guitars, two mandolins, a fiddle and a stand-up bass. One or two versatile musicians fill in from time to time on five-string banjo, dobro, or pedal steel guitar.
You can dance, but please don't swing on the ropes. People dance alone and in threes. Children dance with their parents. A man twirls a wheelchair-bound woman around the floor.
An elderly couple shows moves honed after decades of dancing together. He's wearing an oxygen bottle on his hip. You're never too old. Nobody seems shy or self-conscious.
Nor is anyone shy about airing dirty laundry. The bass player and emcee (visible behind the dancers, above) recently left Mary Etta, his wife of many years, for another woman. Mary Etta, accompanied by the fiddle player, works out her anguish, singing:
I've had nothing but sorrow
Since you said we were through.
There's no hope for tomorrow.
How's the world treating you?
Her ex stoically plays bass behind her while we all endure her strange quasi-operatic falsetto.
A slogan on a sweatshirt seems to deliver a message consonant with the social conservatives of the Cashiers Valley but leaves me wondering exactly what the point is.
The ensemble—if that's what it is—is anchored by this man, Joe Byer, a retired picker who once played with the Stanley Brothers. From time to time he steps up to the "redneck" mike and makes his old Gibson boom and twang, earning cheers every time.
Tonight's music is much like the dinner: not particularly good but extremely satisfying. An elderly man, apparently having studied guitar for about six months, painfully picks out Wildwood Flower. A little girl with way too much voice for her years sings I Am a Child of God. I hear my favorite country songs about lost love, like Pick Me Up on Your Way Down.
At the end of three hours the emcee says "I've enjoyed about as much of this as I can stand." For him, maybe so. But I could sit there for hours more.
If I moved to Cashiers or Lake Toxaway, I'd spend a couple of months rebuilding the callouses on my chording hand. Then I'd get up there on Friday nights and pick like I did forty years ago. I'd sing Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger When You Go Out at Night with all the pathos and solemnity that song deserves, with tears in my eyes and Joe Byer taking the breaks.