Capturing The Magic

How a man with a camera caught the sound of a generation

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Most every moment playing oldtime is lost to eternity, and that, perhaps, is a great part of its joy. As we sit with friends old and new, we dig into the now, riding the wave of notes rising and passing away, inviting the elusive siblings of groove and drive to bless us with their presence. That is exactly as it should be.

But sometimes we might wish we could hold on to those moments, to travel back in time to get just a glimpse of what was.

In 1987, Brad Leftwich fired up the tune “Pretty Little Gal,” and Linda Higginbotham and Alice Gerrard jumped in on banjo and guitar. Just a few feet away, someone lounged on a plastic lawn chair. In 1984, the Horseflies and Chicken Chokers—who released a split album together the same year—teamed up for a hard-driving late-night jam that went into the early morning. In 1989 Rose Sinclair and Jumahl played banjo and fiddle standing about as close together as they could. 

What did that sound like?

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Musician and videographer Dave Wells caught those moments—among hundreds of others—summer after summer at Galax, Mt. Airy, Clifftop, and other festivals for nearly 30 years. Friend Vernon Tilley was a “serious field recorder” who captured a lot of audio from that era as well, Wells, who is now 70, said. “I’d hate to think of how big his collection is.” But “I’m probably the only professional videographer who went around doing this kind of stuff at that time. People may have done little clips, but I’m the only one who stood around for entire jam sessions. I went through a lot of machinery.” 

In the process, he also managed to capture many of the players widely regarded as the best of their generation, playing not in the studio or even in performance, but just socially—when, as many players know, the best music is really made. Decades later, his recordings are now a document of the oldtime music scene at a particular place and time, a reminder of how it has changed, how it continues to evolve, and how very good the music can be.

Born in eastern Kentucky, Wells started playing very young. “The music goes back several generations in the Wells family,” he said. He counted fiddler Claude Wells as a musical ancestor, and younger relation Jesse Wells has made a name for himself as a musician as well. But when he was growing up, “nobody really played in my family at the time I got interested.” 

He was ten or eleven years old. “I was just obsessed, and I begged my parents to get me a mandolin.” A well-known auctioneer in nearby Morehead, KY named Roger Lewis played. “He was kind of a celebrity,” Wells said, and when he learned that Lewis played the mandolin, “I thought that was the coolest.”

Wells got a guitar when the Beatles came out and a banjo later; he played in a bluegrass band – the Train Robbers – for 20 years, and taught lessons from the mid-70s until last year. As Wells got deeper into playing, he also got into videography as it was emerging.

“It started with the audio part,” Wells said. “When the first affordable equipment came out,” Wells bought it and learned how to use it. “I was one of the first people to own a Fostex machine, the same machine that Bruce Springsteen recorded his first album on.” He started off doing home recordings. In 1977 he went to his first Old Fiddler’s Convention at Galax, and has gone every year since.

And in 1984, Wells decided to take his Fostex recorder. 

“It was pretty heavy,” he said. “It took ten batteries to run it for about an hour and a half. I had to bring a box of batteries with me. Tapes were seven or eight dollars. By the time I bought all those batteries, I had about $150 to $175 investment in every festival.” 

In 1986 he moved to a Yamaha 4-track cassette with noise reduction. And in 1987 he started using a portable VHS recorder.

He brought his equipment to Galax, he said, because as he wandered around the festival, and particularly toward the stalls (which, famously, have been torn down since), “I had this feeling when I was taping people—it really felt like a renaissance of music. It was a really special time. The spirit, the intensity—I haven’t heard it since. Just the intensity of feeling.”

He was drawn to the sound of the musicians based in Ithaca, NY: the Horseflies, the Heartbeats, Bubba George Stringband, the people who in a few years would form Donna The Buffalo. He loved the Chicken Chokers and the Red Hots, “Any time there was a Red Hots jam session, I taped a lot of them. Sometimes it was a virtual orchestra. They had a stable filled with people and they would play forever, one song.” He had a recording of “Hangman’s Reel” that lasted for 45 minutes “and it was still going when the tape ran out.” 

He followed Bob Carlin and Mike Seeger, Bruce Molsky and Jon Bekoff, Dave Bass and Greg Hooven. He loved the way the musicians intermingled, combined and recombined their sound, and played together for hours and hours. 

“I was drawn to the fiddles. I just loved the way they sounded. I think it’s in my blood from my Kentucky roots and my family. I have no other way to explain it,” he said. It was, all told, “some of the finest music I ever heard.” 

Wells was there to record it all. “Hi-fi sound on a VHS recorder is almost indistinguishable from digital audio,” Wells said. “It had this really fat sound, really clean.” There were questions about how to record the music well, and Well’s answer was “kind of a hillbilly setup,” he said. He had two high-quality AudioTechnica condenser microphones—“they were large by today’s standards,” Wells said—and he taped them in a stereo pattern to the end of a dowel. Capturing audio and video required two people. He ran the camera. His nephew Jesse manned the microphones. “When he was a kid he went around with me,” Wells said. “A lot of the videos where the mic is showing, it’s Jesse holding the mic. He was my partner in crime.” If Jesse wasn’t around he got other kids to help him. He made videos all times of day, of people playing and sometimes just talking, hanging out—even taking helicopter rides, as happened one year at Galax.

Wells found a variety of responses to his documentary work, and got to know who was and wasn’t amenable to being recorded. “I was a social worker for 10 years,” he said. “I can read people pretty well and I’m good at dealing with people. In 10 seconds I could tell whether they cared or not. Some people got annoyed when I came around and taped them,” he said. But “there were people who liked me being there,” too. He always offered to send musicians copies of the recordings he made. One musician who took him up on that was Tom Riccio of the Red Hots. Wells sent him tapes every year. And “there were people who got used to me and didn’t mind.”

Wells.

Wells kept improving his equipment as it became available. In the early 90s he bought a Sony WAV recorder ”when it first came out. I used the heck out of it for years,” Wells said. “It just had play, record, and pause. And it made one file, a WAV file.” When Clifftop started 30 years ago, he attended it just to do recordings. He recorded a young Jake Krack playing with the Bing Brothers. He went to Allegheny Echoes and a smaller fiddler’s convention in Morehead. A digital camcorder followed in 2000.

His last recordings were in 2016, when Wells had “a really major health problem,” he said. It resulted in him having to stop going to festivals—and to stop doing the handheld camerawork that documenting musicians required. 

“Most of the stuff you see was done handheld. I can’t tell you how sore I’d be when I’d come home. It’s very taxing on my body.” He got his first high-definition camcorder in 2016, but he hasn’t done any field recordings with it. 

“I would so like to go to a festival,” he said.

He watched his favorite clips at home and said with a chuckle that “it was always disappointing that nobody seemed to be interested.” He invited people over to hear them and “after about five minutes they’d be yawning.”

Undeterred, Wells digitized “about 90 percent of my whole collection” several years ago, he said. It involved several months of playing videos into his computer. He started posting them to YouTube in 2017. “I had about a dozen” to start with, he said. “I spent a long time debating with myself about whether I should make my whole collection public. Then I thought, ‘What the hell? What was the point of recording all that stuff if people can’t enjoy it?’”

The response, he said, was “immediate. I was blown away.” Social media groups dedicated to oldtime and bluegrass, and to the festivals Wells attended, consistently posted and reposted his videos, and they now circulate widely among the community among players. 

“I just thought it’d be good to get it out there, leave a legacy,” he said.

As he releases the videos through his YouTube channel, “the hardest thing I’m dealing with right now is facts,” he said with a laugh. He has taken to relying on viewers to help him identify everyone in the videos. “One thing I regret is that I didn’t take a pad and pencil and take notes” at the time, he said. “Right now we’re having a big controversy about identifying some people. Nobody can tell whether it’s Kevin Wimmer or Greg Hooven or Mark Graham. Everybody had curly hair and beards.”

“It’s important to document who everyone is accurately,” he added. It’s “for the future—who everybody was, and what song they were playing.”

Even as he recalls mixed reactions to his recording the jam sessions at the time, the response from the community now has been overwhelmingly positive, which Wells finds gratifying. 

“I always had a sense that there was a reason I was doing it. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I was driven. I thought, ‘I have to document all this stuff,’” he said. “What I saw going on in the stables … I was glad to be documenting it.”

Wells recalled being at Mt. Airy a few years and having a thought: “Can you imagine all the great music that’s been played in this one spot? And I was able to take some of that music and keep it for everybody.” It put him in mind of what a videographer colleague had said to him once. “We’re magicians,” his colleague said. “We do something magic. We take something that happened and preserve it so that people can enjoy it. That’s magic.”