Sunday, December 28, 2014

Dueling Banjos: part 1

We pulled up to the gatehouse to the campground. An older lady greeted us, tried to collect money and get me to sign something, but then I told her I was with the press and there to cover the string band festival.

As usual, nobody had said anything to anybody. Puzzled, she told me to wait right there.

"I'll go check."

Off she went to call somebody.

Five minutes later, she came back, all smiles, and told me, "Sure. You're expected."

We were told we could park and camp just about anywhere we could find a spot. She gave my son a bracelet to wear --proof that he was supposed to be there. I was given a lanyard to wear around my neck with a big, laminated card that said PRESS.

"You have to wear that at all times," she said pointedly, almost as if to challenge me.

I didn't like their damned sign. I'd come to experience the festival, to immerse myself in it. This had been explained. The tag felt heavy handed, unnecessary, and more than a little insulting.

With a camera around my neck, a notepad, and pen in my hand, it seemed pretty obvious who and what I was.

Honestly, they were lucky to have me there. The String Band Festival is a small event -at least compared to other festivals along the same lines, like the Old Time Fiddler's Convention in Virginia. It's out of the way, about an hour and a half along a two-lane road that winds around the side of a couple of mountains.

There's not much near the campgrounds and cell service is limited --particularly if you're a dummy like me who can only afford a cheap phone through Sprint.

Promotion for the festival is poor to very poor --at least on the local level. The division of culture and history sends out email blasts about the string band festival, if they send them at all, which are indistinguishable from their other regular announcements about quilting exhibitions, historical lectures and the like, none of which have anything to do with someone like me who covers arts and entertainment.

At best, their approach is uninspired and lazy. At worst, it's comically inept. 

The Appalachian String Band Festival has been around for right at 25 years and it's still kind of secret to anyone other than the music nerds who play this kind of music.

Even getting to go cover the festival had been a little tricky. Because of deadlines, workflow and even newspaper resources, getting approved for an overnight story was hard. The paper didn't want to pay for anything. My editors wanted the story, but I think they only agreed to paying the mileage because I'd agreed to shoot pictures.

I wanted to go because, two years back, I'd gone to Clifftop with a photographer and spent about an hour chasing over the grounds to get material for what felt like a very superficial take on the festival.

I wanted to dig a little deeper, really look around, and I also wanted a change from what had become my regular routine.

Most of the work I do is on the phone. I am endlessly chatting with actors and musicians to the point that it sometimes feels like I'm chained to my desk. That work has to get done because Brad Paisley or (more likely) the bass player from some 80s rock band that's coming to town isn't going to make a special trip out to meet me for coffee. Likewise, I am not going to be approved for a flight to L.A. or Nashville for a meeting.

Talking on the phone is fine, but it gets old, and it feels like an insufficient use of my abilities.

All throughout 2014, I'd made plans to get away from the newsroom for stories. I'd worked out plans to attend several regional festivals. All of those dried up after a minor car accident drained my bank account.

Free tickets to the show is fine, but you still can't go if you don't have any money to buy food or pay for a motel room --things the newspaper would absolutely not cover.

By the time of the Appalachian String Band Festival, it was the end of July. Half the year had gone by and the only other trip out I'd managed to make happen had been a bus tour to Southwestern Virginia, which was just weird.

So, on a personal level, just being at the festival was important to me --and I was well outside what I considered comfortable. 

I don't even like camping. I hate it. Of the many places you might choose to call it a night, inside a flimsy nylon shell, atop the cold, hard ground is about the worst. I'd rather a good bed in a cheap, chain motel than a sleeping bag in a tent staked next to my car.

But here I was at the gate house. A story had been approved and I had promises to keep. So, I agreed to their terms, put the stupid sign around my neck, and went looking for a place to park and set up camp.

It would be dark soon.

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