Have you ever had one of those life changing moments when you become acutely aware that everything will be different from that point on? I had mine at Jay and Molly’s Ashokan Southern Week in 2001. I can honestly trace the genealogy of my music, friendships, family, travel and life back these past 20 years to that one defining moment, including eventually meeting my wife Becca at an old time festival in England, where we now reside.
I was an avid bluegrasser playing lead mandolin, guitar, and singing high harmony. Although dedicated to the early bluegrass sound, I felt uncomfortable in that scene politically, and as a woman and a gay person, I had always felt adrift. I did meet many wonderful musicians including elders who taught me my craft, especially singing, but at that time I was in need of a community. I dreamt of being accepted for who I was in a trad scene, and wondered if a place like that existed somewhere in the world.
Introduced to old time music in my hometown of Rochester, NY the year before, I began a new journey that I’m still on today. I became immersed, musically addicted, and realized quickly that I better high-tail it down to Ithaca’s wild and vibrant old time scene, where I eventually lived. The folks I met dreamily spoke of both Southern Week and Clifftop, an annual string band festival in West Virginia which is considered by many to be the holy grail of Old Time Music. I was in.
That summer I went from my first Clifftop to my first Southern Week in a whirlwind old time journey. I had a brand new giant white canvas Civil War tent. At Clifftop, a new singing friend kindly handed me an iPod with Ginny Hawker & Tracy Schwarz cued up, lending it to me for the week. In my total bliss, each night I fell asleep under the stars in the white tent to the tunes and jams around me, and to Ginny & Tracy’s deep archaic mountain sound. I was transformed.
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The next week, I found myself sitting at Ashokan in Ginny & Tracy’s Southern Week singing class. There I met Ginny’s niece, Sarah Hawker, and in that moment, found a new family. It was Sarah’s first time at Ashokan too, or any camp for that matter. Every night we’d meet in the white tent and sing the only song we knew together, Hank Williams’ Lonesome Whistle, and for hours. In Sarah I found the little sister I never had, and a Lonesome Sister bandmate for life. We have recorded six CDs together and traveled many miles, and even today, 20 years later, I’m back from England and sitting in her western Massachusetts home writing this article. She is my sister, and she came to me directly through my Ashokan experience. I also met my dear friend and fiddler extraordinaire Emily Schaad at that same camp, and great singer Mark Wholley, thus a lifetime of connections.
Remarkably, Ginny and Tracy hired me on the spot at Ashokan to travel, sing harmony, and play mandolin, and guitar. We were going on the road. We traveled the US countryside, playing gigs and visiting elder singers like the wonderful Wade and Julia Mainer in their Flint, Michigan home. They also lovingly took me to visit Melvin Wine in his old West Virginia farmhouse as a birthday surprise, one I shall never forget. Later they suggested to Jay and Molly that I teach at Southern Week, and there I taught mandolin and guitar for eight summers, meeting scores of wonderful people and building the musical hive I now call home. I am honored to say the Hawkers will always be family to me as well as Ashokan itself.
Southern Week took me in as I was, loved me up, then catapulted me out into the old time world, raring to go. It ever changed me for the better and I have never looked back.
Now, years later on my journey, I have had the good fortune of co-creating a new music gathering at Ashokan, the Old Time Rollick. With my co-host and amazing old-time fiddler Bruce Molsky, we had four Rollicking years of great fun. In April 2020, I will be doing the honors myself and I can’t wait.
New staff includes Emily Schaad on intermediate and advanced fiddle, (yes the same Emily I met in 2001); Rachel Eddy on intermediate and advanced banjo; Joseph “Joebass” Dejarnette, string bass, recording and sound; Sarah Hawker, singing (my sister!); Monica-Lisa Mills, singing, admin, and Jambassador; A’yen Tran, presentations, jambassador, and safe space coordinator; Max Rainwater, mandolin, fiddle, and jambassador; Nicole Ball, flatfoot dancing and jambassador; and Karen Loving providing Alexander Technique for musicians.
Our beloved returning tutors are the wonderful Val Mindel, singing; Becca Wintle, fiddle; Maggie Shar, beginning banjo; Mark Wholley, guitar and singing (also met at Southern Week 2001); Jake Blount, banjo and presentations; Nancy Spero, dance caller; and Jay and Molly will join us when they can. We are so happy to report they will be with us in 2020.
This staff was hired for their playing and singing ability, but also their hive building skills, smiling faces, old time knowledge, and lovely mojo. These are the people I share musical space with at my own Clifftop, and my aim is to bring that same great energy to you.
I hope you’ll join us for this giant 48-hour old time immersion party. We welcome all levels and ages, with a special track for beginners. There’s a staff concert, large gender-free square dance, gospel sing, workshops and thoughtful presentations, jamming until the wee hours, great food, an 11pm snack with chocolate to keep you going, and coffee (yes, unlimited coffee!), all at the Ashokan Center in the overwhelmingly beautiful Catskill Mountains. You may not get much sleep, but we aspire to send you out into the world with new friends and inspiration.
Our goal is to offer freedom of expression and loving acceptance to all who come. We welcome all folks, all ages, and all orientations.