The Charlie Poole Music Festival in Eden

by Amy Kingsley

The Charlie Poole Music Festival is not a daylong concert in the vein of say, Lollapalooza or Coachella.

The music isn’t loud enough, for one. Nor are the merchandise and foodstuffs priced as exorbitantly. There is a peculiar strain of musical subculture on display, but its adherents sport untrammeled chin growth and bib overalls instead of tattoos, piercings and leather.

It is not unusual to find families that have lived in Eden for generations gathered – grandparents, parents and children all – on picnic blankets and lawn chairs. And if you throw a stone, which I’d advise against, you’re more likely than not to hit a distant relative of the festival’s namesake, Charlie Poole.

For more than a decade, music fans in Eden have been holding this annual shindig to honor the native son who was, in the years preceding the Great Depression, one of the best-selling American recording artists. Poole, a banjo player who, alongside his brother-in-law and fiddler Posey Rorer and guitarist Norm Woodlieff, comprised the North Carolina Ramblers, has seen his star rise in recent years thanks in large part to the release of a triple Grammy-nominated box set.

You Ain’t Talking to Me: Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country Music came out in 2005 on Columbia Records’ Legacy imprint. The handsome cigar box packaging features an illustration of Poole by none other than R. Crumb, and the musical contents aim more at mythologizing the banjo player than stockpiling his work. To that end, curator Hank Sapoznik (who also helps organize the festival) placed Ramblers songs alongside both predecessors and contemporaries in an effort to locate Poole firmly at the nexus of old-time and bluegrass music.

The success of You Ain’t Talking to Me spurred growth in the Charlie Poole Music Festival, which last year added instrumental competitions to a performance lineup larded with old-time music talent. Last year fiddlers, banjo players and string bands traveled from as far away as Alaska and England to vie for prizes.

This year’s festival kicks off on June 8 with a concert headlined by the New North Carolina Ramblers and featuring Skyline Drive, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Uncle Earl and No Speed Limit. The Carolina Chocolate Drops will inject some much-needed diversity into an event traditionally as white as baking powder biscuits.

Planners added a duet singing competition to Saturday’s contest, which also includes three different banjo categories: bluegrass, clawhammer and three-finger old time. A Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented to master fiddler Benton Flippen, followed by a performance by Wayne Henderson. On Sunday attendees can participate in a guided tour of historic Eden, which, in Poole’s time, was three mill towns: Spray, Leaksville and Draper.

I skipped the Saturday night concert when I attended last year. By that time I’d had my fill of the old-time music that permeates the Eden Fairground like a fungus on the weekend of the Charlie Poole Festival.

Hardcore fans treat Eden as one stop on a summer competition schedule that will take them all over the country. At night in the parking lot, impromptu jam sessions form in the firelight.

The music starts early, with junior competitions that get under way just a few hours after daybreak. The fairground is primitive, just a performance shell, hay bales, bleachers and a half dozen vendors offering popcorn, cotton candy and hotdogs. Audience members crowd close to the stage to hear virtuoso renditions of folk classics rendered by acoustic players amplified only with microphones.

Documentary filmmaker George Goehl is working on a movie about Charlie Poole scheduled for release later this year. Depending on its success, this might be the last year that old-time music fans can pilgrimage to Eden for an unspoiled taste of that old Charlie Poole music.

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