Day 66: Interstate Tour 2018
It was 2008, the year that I first journeyed to Townsend, Tennessee. I'd met Connie and Mike Clemmer at a festival somewhere; might've been the NGFDA Fall Festival at Unicoi State Park in Helen, Georgia. Mike and Connie owned a music store called Wood 'n' Strings - located right at the mouth of the Great Smoky Mountains - and they had a concert series on their gorgeous riverside property with a venue called The Pickin' Porch.
I'd heard about it from some other instructors ("totally sweet!") and was stoked to be invited up for a show, plus I'd be able to teach some workshops if I wanted to.
And I wanted to. I always do.
That first year, their guest apartment wasn't available the week of my scheduled appearance, so I stayed with Mike and Connie in nearby Maryville and got to know them a little better. Turns out that Connie and I both have southern California roots and Mike's a longtime rocker-slash-soundguy-slash-gear head, so we all just kinda got each other. Some reminiscing on my experiences in the 80's Christian music scene led to wondering if we were actually at some of the same concerts - totally wild.
Their daughter, Cherith, still working in the store at that time, was also really easy to get along with - everyone in the shop, all the family and friends and regulars, just a pure joy to be around. Over the years, the relationship grew beyond the music and teaching, leading to just hanging out in real life, and hitting theme parks, because we love each other and because we can. It's been great getting to know The Clemmers. Check out this ten-year old Dulcimerica episode that produced on that first trip to Townsend:
A busy and complex 2017 schedule meant that I missed my first Pickin' Porch show in almost ten years and it seriously felt like there was a huge hole in my life, that I didn't get to go to Townsend and have that experience. But Jae and I did stay in Cade's Cove a few years back on a non-musical tour and stopped by to see everyone, so that very likely make up the difference.
So, when Connie contacted me earlier this year about playing the last season of The Pickin' Porch, I did some schedule-shifting to make it happen (which is why I've driven from southern Ohio to eastern Tennessee en route to upstate New York - not great routing, but I wasn't going to miss it) and didn't ask any questions. I figured it was a good reason.
As it turns out, talking to Mike today, it is a good reason. They've been running the business since 1996 and have been blessed beyond belief. Now, they're looking at retiring and maybe selling all or part of the store, maybe leasing the property. It's an incredible parcel, bordered on one side by the Little River with a two story apartment/meeting area at the lot corner, diagonally across from the store itself. An ample lawn wraps around the store and provides a seating area for the raised Pickin' Porch stage, which boasts a backstage area that is literally a straight drop off to the river below.
It's a magical little space at all times of the year.
And the store itself is very nicely stocked with Mike's own mountain dulcimer creations along with a wide selection of other instruments, books, CDs, sheet music, accessories, jewelry, etc. They've done well over the years, have gone through a lot, and are just ready to slow it down some, lay on a beach. Maybe take a workshop or two, see what it's like! Good for them. They've earned it - and the standing ovation that they received during my set was an awesome display of love towards this family. Lotta good memories there.
The workshops were terrific - lots of very good players and also players who really wanted to be better players - we really had a good time, and laughed a lot. I think laughter is important when you're learning something new. It takes the edge off, relaxes you.
I love proving to students that they can do something that seemed impossible moments before.
There were some music educators in the workshops, always encouraging, because these are the folks who are finding ways to teach mountain dulcimer in the schools and that's so important for the future of this instrument. Talking with them about their programs and what they can and can't really do was super-enlightening. I would love to see a well-financed network of distributors who will send out as many cardboard mountain dulcimers to schools as was needed. Train the teachers unfamiliar with the instrument, show how easy it is to play, how it can be used to teach basic music theory, this kind of effort would be enormous in terms of visibility of the instrument.
And then I think about how much work that would be to orchestrate and I just get tired, stop thinking and play Boggle With Friends.
Anyway - it was a great day.
The concert was another one for the books. One year, my date fell on the 4th of July and it was the largest Pickin' Porch crowd in the history of the series. Connie thinks tonight's attendance beat that, and legitimately, with no holiday boost. There were quite a few folks there and I just took a couple of mountain dulcimers, no pedals, and gave 'em a show.
Saw a lot of wonderful friends, met a lot of new ones and saw some that I hadn't seen in years (Bill Taylor!) and it was just love, love, love - oceans of it. I can never get enough of the vibe here.
We went to Monte Real for our traditional post-concert meal with good friends Melissa and Rodney Barnes and Cherith's daughter Katy-Beth, who had the funniest school-girly crush on me at one point, but is almost 20 now and plays it cool. If they do end up retiring later this year, we'll just be seeing them down in Florida more often and that would be fabulous.
Back in Imua, preparing for a slow journey north to New York. I'm feeling the need to record and I think that a lot of time will be put aside this week to do just that. In fact - I'm going to go outside and catch an Improv Files recording with the Little River streaming by in the background. What a perfect end to a perfect day.