Prior to the 1920s, it was just called music, and it came to America with the English, Scottish, Irish and German settlers. In the United States, the music naturally kept growing, changing and evolving, creating a number of variant styles throughout Appalachia. In time, musical styles throughout the eastern United States were as unique and clustered as English accents are even today. You could tell, within a few miles at times, where a player was from just by hearing him play.
The old-time style that you are most likely to hear today is the Round Peak style, a highly influential music that comes from Surry County, North Carolina. Rhys Jones, Jeff Miller and Jim Nelson are in the direct lineage of the Round Peak players. They play lots of classic tunes, including "Blackberry Blossom" and "Red Bird," and they remain close to the traditional style. Up front is the fiddle, taking the melody and embellishing it through bow work and all those beautiful drones. The banjo is played clawhammer, and supports the syncopation of the fiddle melody. The guitar is largely relegated to a back seat, mostly providing rhythm for the fiddle and banjo.
What's wonderful about the music, though -— and I realize that this might take a bit of a leap of imagination for the uninitiated —- is the subtlety. Slight variations have meaning. The social aspects of the music are what make it truly unique, and perhaps are the reasons that the music persists today. You are more likely to see Jones, Miller and Nelson playing music for dancers than a seated audience. And while they are a delight to hear on a recording, the best case is to be in the room with them live. When they come to town, you owe it to yourself to go check them out and, if so moved, to get up and dance along.
All photos by Joe O'Toole.