On my way back to Atlanta to deal with the dreaded taxes (for 2010) I took a slight detour to visit my friends Ruth Barber and Keith Watson, who live near Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Since the city is built on tourism and offers a myriad of Disney-like attractions and rides, I’ve always found it a bit difficult to get beneath the verneer and really learn about the culture of the area. On my last trip through, my friends had introduced me to “the real Gatlinburg – The Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community.” This time they decided to treat me to a musical tour.
Ruth and Keith left their traditional jobs a few years ago to pursue their true passions – Old Time music, the music of Appalachia that would have been heard in and around the Great Smoky Mountains prior to the 1930’s and hailed from ballads brought over by Scottish and Irish immigrants. They formed their own band, Boogertown Gap, and when the City of Gatlinburg decided to provide free musical performances on the streets of downtown each night during the summer months for the enjoyment of tourists, they were one of the first to be hired. Now, three years later, they are old hands in the Tunes and Tales program, so they introduced me to all the other performers and invited me to tag along as they performed one weekend.
I walked from one end of downtown to the other, my ears peeled for live music. From bluegrass to barbershop to clogging; from country and western to hammer dulcimers, the streets reverberated with tunes of all kinds and, in the case of my friends, songs were accompanied by tales about the history of the various Old Time selections they performed. Visitors grabbed park benches or formed circles around the performers when they stopped to play; in one cases the town had even put out wooden rocking chairs in front of a stage. Gatlinburg may seem a bit touristy, but scratch just below the surface and a whole lotta’ culture bubbles up.