By Dan Cullinane
The Johnson County Center for the Arts was heading into its biggest Long Journey Home weekend, celebrating Johnson County’s unique and vital contribution to old-time music. A few of the events planned for the jam-packed weekend were tributes to Fiddlin’ Fred Price and G.B Grayson, live music on Main Street, and a new mural unveiling.
But, with COVID-19 still hanging around, the Center made the painful decision to move all the events to a virtual format. It was disappointing for the second year in a row, but as is so often the case, the right decision leads to even better outcomes in the end.
“We had folks from all over the country,” Cristy Dunn, the Center’s director, reported when we talked about the online response over Labor Day weekend. “In fact, people from Ireland, Japan, and Canada were able to participate, and that could never happen with a live-only event.”
Visibility for unveiling the I’ll Fly Away mural was boosted by its lively, music-filled, online video presentation.
“We had a lot of people take pictures and tell us how meaningful it was to them,” Dunn said, pointing to the dozens of photos online, taken by people young and old, who stand in front of the murals angels wings and pose in positions both serious and silly.
Sculptor Val Lyle’s presentation of her work on the Fiddlin’ Fred Price bronze sculpture was made extra poignant because the Piney Woods Boys were able to participate. Frontman Wayne Martin, the Director of the North Carolina Arts Council, recalled how, when he was a teenage rock and roller in Raleigh, his life was forever changed when a friend introduced him to the album Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s, leading to a lifelong role as a fiddle player in an old-time music band.
“I was especially attracted to the fiddling of Fred Price,” Martin recalled of his first exposure to Johnson County’s legendary musicians. “He played so gracefully, but his rhythm gave the music an incredible vitality. He was always able to convey such emotion through his playing.”
The world premiere of Kelley St. Germaine’s film, Short Life of Trouble, about G.B. Grayson, took place on YouTube rather than live, and according to Dunn, director St. Germaine was too excited by the event to note how many people tuned in. He did notice over 100 at one point before he stopped paying attention.
Even one of the local musicians who had planned to participate in Buskin’ on Main got in on the action. At a little after midnight on September 4, Michael Scoggin posted on Facebook, “Couldn’t busk on Main, so here you go Long Journey Home. Buskin in the holler.” Then he pulled out his banjo and killed with a version of My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Except for Short Life of Trouble, all the videos can be found on the Johnson County Center for the Arts Facebook page.
These past two years have shown Dunn how powerful online visibility can help fulfill Long Journey Home’s mission, and she is determined that there will always be an online component to the weekend, but not just for the visibility.
“I got a message yesterday from a lady in Maryland,” she said. “She was telling me what a blessing it was for her Mom to get to watch Long Journey Home from her bed in hospice. Her Mom has Johnson County roots, and she told me it was just so meaningful for the family.”
I asked her if that made all the extra work worthwhile, and she didn’t hesitate when she answered.
“Absolutely. All the problems, and all the bumps in the road, they’re all worthwhile when something like that happens.”