Arts and Culture 2011

Amy Holtcamp



Bluegrass with a view at Music on the Mountain

Posted 5/8/2012 10:36:00 AM

My days as the S.C. Arts and Culture Insider – usually spent in theaters, museums and concert halls – rarely end with s’mores.

But that’s exactly how the day ended recently when I spent the day at Table Rock State Park at its Music on the Mountain bluegrass jam session.

Jam sessions take place in the upcountry park’s historic lodge, which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. From the beginning, the lodge was conceived of as a community-gathering place.

That’s just what happens on the second Saturday of each month from 2 to 6 p.m. as bluegrass pickers and strummers gather to play their guitars, mandolins and banjos. Bluegrass is more than just music in South Carolina. It’s part of the area’s history and culture and is deeply embedded in the daily lives of the folks who live here.

On our recent visit, my husband and I wander into the lodge about 3 p.m. to find a cheerful woman greeting us at the door. “Is this your first time here?” she asks. When we answer “yes,” she takes us under her wing and showed us around. The musicians are taking a break from the jam session to eat lunch. The refreshment table is full of potluck dishes, reminiscent of a church picnic with hot dogs, coleslaw, deviled eggs and ambrosia. There’s no charge, but donations are requested to help defer the costs. Our hostess explains that the music will start back up “when everybody’s full.” In the meantime, she says, “the kids” are playing downstairs.

Sadly, we’ve already eaten, so we head downstairs to the patio to see what “the kids” are doing. There, a circle of musicians, seeming to range in age from 13 to 25, are gathered, their fingers moving impossibly fast over frets and strings. One of the girls begins to sing along with a sort of angelic, heartfelt voice that reminds us of Allison Krauss.

One song wraps up and the young musicians start negotiations for the next song. “Do you know Whiskey Road?” Some people nod, more shake their heads. Over their heads looms a stunning view of Table Rock. It’s easy to see how the mountain got its name; a tall flat piece of granite, you can easily imagine, as the Native Americans who lived here did, that a giant sat down on the nearby hill (the “stool”) to dine at this impressive rock formation.

While the bluegrass players decide on the next song, we decide to wander down the trail to the lake. As we descend the hill, the band starts up again, playing a song that’s perhaps more blues than bluegrass, C.C. Ryder. It’s nonetheless charming. After spending some time on a bench by the lake, letting the music blend with the sounds of happy children playing with sticks nearby, we decide to head back up to the lodge.

By the time we get there, people are cleaning up lunch and the jam session is starting up again. Upstairs, bluegrass experts sit in a circle and pass the microphone around. The person with the mic chooses the song and whoever knows it joins in.

“Amazing Grace. Key of G.”

“This one’s going to be Cotton-Eyed Joe.”

The people in this circle have clearly been playing this music for most of their lives. It’s in their bones. Younger musicians fan out in a concentric circle around their elders, greedily soaking in their moves and plunking away learning new songs. Some of those young fans are as young as six or seven (one tow-haired girl walks with purpose around the room carrying a guitar that is taller than she is). Incidentally, this is no “old boy’s club,” women, some donning cowgirl hats and crooning Patsy Cline, have quite a few seats in the inner circle.

When the jam session begins to wind down, we head back to our cabin. Several of these gracious, fully appointed cabins are available for rent at the park, in addition to the many traditional campsites. After whipping up some dinner, my husband puts his Eagle Scout know-how to work building a fire in the pit on the patio.

As we toast our marshmallows over the open fire and enjoying the quiet of the woods, my toes still seem to be tapping to a bluegrass rhythm. As my husband sandwiches his marshmallow between two graham crackers I wonder aloud…

“Maybe I should take up the mandolin?”

Music on the Mountain takes place on the second Saturday of each month from 2 to 6 p.m. For a complete schedule, click here. Admission to the park is $2 for ages 16 and up, $1.25 for S.C. seniors and free for kids 15 and younger. There’s no admission fee for the bluegrass jam, but donations are requested to offset the cost of refreshments.

If you’re interested in renting a cabin while you’re at Table Rock, nightly rates rare $80-160 depending on the size of the cabin and the time of the year. Minimum stays are required.

For more information about Table Rock State Park, click here.