Creating community, one tune at a time

Published 4:24 pm Friday, November 3, 2017

On Wednesday evenings, every available corner of Tryon Fine Arts Center is filled with students strumming banjos and guitars, learning traditional ballads, or trying out square dance steps. The Pacolet Junior Appalachian Musicians program (fondly called PacJAM) has become a staple for traditional music enthusiasts in the Foothills. Program Director Becky Osteen has overseen PacJAM’s growth, and took a moment to share her experiences with the program.

Michelle: How did PacJAM get started?

Becky: Seeds were planted to start a JAM program in the Tryon area in early spring of 2014. Marianne Carruth, now TFAC’s executive director, along with local musicians Russ Jordan, Phil and Gaye Johnson, Woody Cowan, Bibi Freer, and Bob Buckingham formed the PacJAM advisory board, and I came on as a program director. TFAC wanted to include a JAM program in their arts and education program, and advisory members were looking for a way to preserve Appalachian Music and related arts in this area.

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We received assistance through operation guides provided by JAM, Inc., the affiliate organization started by Helen White in Sparta, N.C. more than 15 years ago, and conferred with other successful programs like the Young Appalachian Musicians program in Pickens, S.C. to get started.

PacJAM began the first fall semester of singing, dance, folklore, guitar, banjo, and fiddle classes in September of 2014, with an enrollment of 20 youngsters. Since then we’ve added mandolin, ukulele, and mountain dulcimer to classes offered, and implemented adult beginner and workshop classes, serving over 70 students from Polk, Rutherford, Northern Greenville and Spartanburg counties. Additionally, we hold a one-week day camp in July each year.

Michelle: All PacJAM instructors are professional,
working musicians. How does this impact the program?

Becky: From inception, the primary focus has been to provide the highest quality instructors, to insure each child has an excellent group learning experience. We’ve been so fortunate to have some of the best talent available in this area on the PacJAM staff, to include the much-loved local husband and wife duo, Phil and Gaye Johnson, and the award-winning fiddle phenomenon, Carley Arrowood, and her sister, Autumn, now playing at the Grand Ole Opry.

Bob and Amy Buckingham of the Blue Ridge Rounders, with great dedication to old time music and arts, have joined us, along with Dan Keller, a fantastic Asheville musician and instructor teaching ukulele to our youngest students. Phil Jenkins, the nephew of Old Time music legend Snuffy Jenkens and a renowned banjoist from Harris, N.C. in his own right, is also part of the team.

All PacJAM instructors have an extreme passion for their craft and a great desire to share their knowledge with the new generation of musicians, to enjoy and then pass on. Their focus is on making the music accessible for a new generation.

Michelle: Why do you think traditional music is valuable for children?

Becky: Traditional music, in all its complexities and simplicities, shares a common thread with all music genres. In my opinion, it’s the best place for kids to begin their journey. Many of our famous entertainers today have their roots planted in old time and bluegrass music, taking their crafts in new directions, but still sharing this same theoretic commonality.

The musical landscape of the Appalachian region, steeped in the old time cultural heritage, is rapidly changing and traditional music instruction provides not only a path to preservation of heritage music and arts, lest they be lost forever, but also a pathway to the basic understanding of music. Some parents have even attested to their children’s improved school achievements, overall confidence and heightened social skills, attributed to attending the PacJAM program.

Michelle: What goals would you like to see PacJAM achieve in the future?

Becky: The motto of all JAM affiliates is to “create community, one tune at a time” and PacJAM is becoming a widely known program in the area, dedicated to this purpose.  We’re providing opportunities for kids to attend jam sessions, perform at local events, and we encourage them all to play music together, to form cohesive ensembles of new, old time musicians. We’re staying the course, and soon we hope to see many area performances by successful music professionals who got their start with PacJAM at TFAC.

Michelle: PacJAM is holding a community dance soon.
What is the impetus behind this event?

Becky: The Folk Dance at Green Creek Community Center on November 4 is the first of what is hoped to be many well-attended dances for PacJAM in the following years. Funds raised will help in continuing to provide excellent instruction by retaining a highly qualified teaching staff, equip students with quality instruments and supplies, and to keep the door open for aspiring musicians who, otherwise, would not have access to a program such as this.

There was a time when community barn dances heralded in just about every seasonal and cultural occasion, whether to celebrate the local harvests, or to raise money at town, school and church events, a truly special time in our Appalachian history. Community folk dances, some “square” and some “round,” fostered a keen sense of community back then and were led by seasoned, professional “callers” who instructed dancers while the finest local musicians provided live music.

There are still many folks around that enjoyed dances once held in our area. The November 4 Folk Dance will be a wonderful opportunity to come on out and have a delicious soup and sandwich supper at 6 p.m. to benefit the historic Green Creek Community Center and to enjoy the live music by the Blue Ridge Rounders. Beginning dancers and pros, alike, will have a great time at the 7 p.m. dance, with all donations being accepted for Pacolet Junior Appalachian Musicians at Tryon Fine Arts Center to benefit our community of aspiring musicians. •

submitted by Michelle Fleming