Upper East Tennessee Fiddler’s Convention Celebrates Old-Time Style, Traditions

By Appalachian Places staff


A young group of musicians competes in the String band competition.
A young group of musicians competes in the String band competition.

Photo essay by Ben Bateson

East Tennessee State University


FLAG POND, Tennessee — Started in 2017, the Upper East Tennessee Fiddler’s Convention celebrates the early old-time musicians of southern Appalachia and their methods for establishing regional playing styles. Organizers of the April event consider the former Flag Pond School, situated near Rocky Fork State Park in Unicoi County, historically appropriate for the yearly gathering.


Park Manager Tim Pharis first approached his friend and fellow old-time player Roy Andrade with the idea for a fiddler’s convention.


“At the very beginning of the park they used the old school as a headquarters,” Andrade, director of the Old-Time Music program at East Tennessee State University, said. “Tim called me with the idea and asked what I thought. I said absolutely we should do that.”


Flag Pond and surrounding highland communities produced foundational figures in old-time music, such as fiddlers J.D. Harris, Osey Helton, G.B. Grayson, Charlie Bowman and others. While those influential early players made some of the earliest recordings of traditional old-time music, the fiddler’s convention also celebrates generations of other musicians who played purely for the joy, fellowship and love of traditional music.


Andrade said putting on the fiddler’s convention in the mountains of Unicoi County honors the legacy of Flag Pond native J.D. Harris, whose descendants in the community help host the event.


“My inspiration for getting involved had to do with J.D. Harris,” Andrade said. “And it had to do with this sort of misconception that these really important early fiddlers — that all these serious old-time musicians learn from — were from Western North Carolina. They weren’t. J.D. Harris, Bill Hensley, and especially these guys the Helton Brothers — all these families moved over to Asheville. But J.D. Harris didn’t move over there until he was 40 years old. So, his impact as a fiddler (in East Tennessee) was a big deal.”


Another story Andrade wants the annual gathering of old-time music enthusiasts to tell is the centuries-old tradition of developing playing styles by watching other local musicians.


“The process was kind of fluid and you were influenced by the people immediately around you the most,” Andrade said. “So regional styles would sort of bubble up. …My hope has been that this fiddler’s convention would bring people out of the woodwork locally. And that’s what it has done.”


 

The 4th Annual Upper East Tennessee Fiddler’s Convention had to be postponed twice, in 2020 and 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A category for youth includes old-time banjo and fiddle competitions. The main competition includes traditional song, dance and string band competitions in addition to banjo and fiddle. The event is a collaboration between Rocky Fork State Park and ETSU’s Department of Appalachian Studies, with support from the Tennessee Arts Commission.


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