The Porch Music Club fills the Mountain Heritage Center with the rhythms of the Southern Appalachians
By RANDALL HOLCOMBE
Student William Ritter doesn’t mind making the cultural jump from portraying the “Fiddler on the Roof” in a university theatrical production to sawing away on his fiddle in WCU’s Mountain Heritage Center, if that means he can participate in his newfound passion of old-time string band music.
On any given Thursday during the fall and spring, about 5 p.m. or so, Ritter and other members of one of campus’s newest student organizations, the Porch Music Club, carry their stringed instruments into the museum’s lobby, exchange a few greetings, then sit down and start playing. There’s no Roberts Rules of Order here and no approval of the minutes from the last meeting. There is a good bit of string-tuning, followed by a suggestion of what song to play first (“‘Soldiers Joy’…? Okay.”) Then the action begins.
Suddenly, the lobby is filled with live music that seems to fit perfectly with the museum’s exhibits and artifacts. The combination of sounds coming from guitar, fiddle and banjo blend together to create something that sounds sort of like bluegrass, but not really. Imagine bluegrass played with more of a folkish, mountain-sounding rhythm. One big difference is that the banjo is played in the traditional “claw-hammer style” rather than with the three-fingered roll that exemplifies bluegrass. Whatever it is, it works. Spectators soon have grins on their faces, and the mountain folks in the photographs on the wall would be clapping their hands in time, if they could.
The formation of the Porch Music Club was sort of a humorous accident. Ritter, a Bakersville resident, and Andrew Payseur, a guitar player and entrepreneurship major from Lincolnton, had been getting together to play old-time string band music informally at the A.K. Hinds University Center. One day, they saw some fraternity brothers pledging, and joked that they should start an “old-time fraternity.” That comment led to the idea of starting a real student organization for fans of the music. They put fliers up to attract other musicians, “but mostly we just got people’s attention by sitting around the UC playing our instruments,” said Ritter, a theater major who works as a shop assistant in his program’s woodworking shop.
David Brewin, curatorial specialist at the Mountain Heritage Center, invited the group to gather at the museum for its weekly sessions. Brewin serves as the club’s unofficial coordinator and has helped the students get several performance dates off-campus.
When Thursdays roll around, they never know how many musicians are going to show up. Once, 14 people gathered to play, but a core group of four can usually be counted upon – Ritter; Payseur; Patrick Brady, a banjo player from Cullowhee and graduate student in anthropology; and Benjamin Rudolph, a guitar player from Asheville majoring in electronic and computer engineering. Sometimes local residents not associated with WCU join in, which always is a gratifying development, Ritter said. “One reason we started this club was because of community outreach,” he said. “This area is a hotbed of traditional music. We wanted to get some songs from the real deal.”