By Lacy Hilliard
Freelance writer, photographer
If you made your way through Laurel Bloomery this past weekend you may have noticed a shift in the demeanor of the normally sleepy town. An influx of hundreds of music lovers from Johnson County and beyond all headed toward the often overlooked blip on the map can only mean one thing; the Old Time Fiddlers Convention was in town and this year the event itself could be classified as a bona fide old timer, celebrating its eighty-seventh anniversary.
Though the convention originated from the modern day Heritage Hall in Mountain City, it has been taking place in Laurel Bloomery at the Old Mill Music Park for the past 15 years. Though smaller and perhaps less convenient than the conventions original locale, Laurel Bloomery, (much like old-time music) isnt lacking in Appalachian history or culture. There is a local misconception that Laurel Bloomery achieved its name from the cascades of mountain laurel blooms that grace the lush greenery throughout the Cherokee National Forest region every June and July. Though the myth partially lends itself to the name, the Bloomery aspect is a bit lost in history. In 1797 Lewis Wills (one of the first white settlers in the area) began smelting iron in the present day Laurel Bloomery. The furnaces used in the smelting process are referred to as bloomers and the facility in which they reside, a bloomery.
The Old Time Fiddlers Convention caters only to the genre for which it was named. To the untrained ear, old-time music is sometimes mistaken for its similar cousin, bluegrass. But to those in the know, the differences are unmistakable. The differing characteristics are often joked about, like in a blog post by Peter Feldmann posted to bluegrasswest.com, where Feldmann jokes that Old-time guitarists stash extra picks under a rubber band around the top of the peghead. Bluegrass guitarists would never cover any part of the peghead that might obscure the gilded label of their $3,000 guitar. Though the two genres seem to possess a good natured rivalry, the most accurate definition of the differences between the two is that the old-time genre pays homage only to the roots for which it was borne without the obscurity of modern interpretations. The stories told in old-time tunes are as old as the earliest American settlers and the genre is often hailed as the earliest form of traditional North American music.
For the majority of its existence, The Old Time Fiddlers Convention was organized by the Johnson County Chamber of Commerce; but since its move to Laurel Bloomery fifteen years ago, the Warden family has played host to the event. Today, Jackie Warden is the prime organizer and owner of the Old Mill Music Park. Since the passing of her husband, Douglas, in 2003, Jackie Warden has been doing the necessary work to see that the convention takes place as scheduled each year. Douglas Warden was an old-time aficionado having played bass with the likes of Clint Howard and Doc Watson. He had a true love for the genre and it is this love and the happiness the event brings to all those in attendance that inspires his wife to continue the convention to present day.
It is estimated that over 1,500 people were in attendance at this years Old Time Fiddlers Convention and the attendees themselves make up a colorful array of ages, origins, and backgrounds. The musicians and fans hail primarily from North Carolina, Virginia, and Johnson County but some traveled much farther, like Barbara Wine, who flew in from her native country of Poland just in time for the convention. Wine is a member of the band Boogertown Gap. The band is named for an area in Sevier County, Tennessee and is comprised of Keith Watson, Ruth Barber, Jesse Wine, and Barbara Wine. A clear crowd favorite was the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers out of Roan Mountain, Tennessee. The group is a family affair led by Bill Birchfield and his wife, Janice. The Koenig family also has a long-standing Fiddlers Convention tradition. Scott Koenig and his wife Melanie were married on the Old Mill Music Park stage 15 years ago. Their daughter, Laurel was named to honor the town in which the convention takes place and as fate would have it, she was awarded first place in this years Youth Dance portion of the competition.
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