Sunday, July 17, 2016

Fretwell's Bass Shop: An All-American Institution

When you step off of West Beverly Street in downtown Staunton VA and through the doors of No. 17, you step into one of the great institutions of American culture.  No, not a museum, or a college classroom, or a majestic courtroom with all the trappings of a justice system built upon the best principles of the ages.

Nope. You're walking into a music store with a reverence for tradition, a respect for honest, well-built instruments that people can make a living playing, and the skills of the luthier and the ability to put back together stringed instruments that have had the daylights beaten out of them over the years. And the friendliness to make you feel good about dropping in. And the inclination to drop everything, pick up a bass or a guitar or a banjo, and start jamming with a stranger or an old friend.

You're talking, in other words, about Jerry and Mary Jane Farewell's Fretwell Bass and Acoustic Instruments shop.  Every good music town has a shop sort of like this.  Barr's Fiddle Shop in downtown Galax comes immediately to mind, and I've walked through the doors of a dozen more across the south in my 70 years.  The best of them buy, sell, trade, repair and encourage jamming.

Jerry Freewill

But Farewell's is special to me for several reasons.  They fixed me up with a wonderful old 1959 Kay bass fiddle a few years ago after my 1946 Kay burned to a cinder in a house fire.  And with Jerry's semi-retirement recently (he still comes in and works, but Mary Jane says if you're looking for him, head to the nearest golf course), The Fretwells and their staff, Travis Weaver and Sissy Hutching, his wife, agreed to a request from the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation for a serviceable bass for use in the Blue Ridge Music Center's Midday Music Program.  That bass will be available for use in any of the seven-days-a-week free music performances from noon to 4 p.m. at the Music Center, located a few miles south of Galax near Milepost 213.
Mary Jane and Jerry Freewill

The Fretwells decided to donate a 1982 Engelhardt C-1 with new strings, new adjustable bridge and other work to make the bass look good again, as a way of paying back the folks around Galax for their loyal business over the years.  It's a good four hours from Staunton to Galax down I-81 and I-77 to the Galax Old Fiddlers Convention at Felts Park, and for years the Fretwells hauled a trailer full of 20 or so ready-to-go basses, plus boxes full of new strings, sound posts, bridges, clamps, glues and tools to restring and repair basses right on the spot.  Many's the night they stayed up late revitalizing old bases and jamming with the thousands who have attended America's oldest fiddle competition, as it's often described, and the Fretwells got a lot of business out of Galax. So when the Foundation, whose board I chair this year, recently requested a bass donation, the owners and their staff thought about it, did a little research, and decided it was a way for them to give back to a community that Jerry Fretwell says "was always good to us." And it leaves players in years to come a reminder of the Farewell's place in the region's tradition of old-time, bluegrass, folk, mountain and other sorts of traditional roots music.

The Farewell's generosity in donating the reconditioned bass is important.  When you're jamming, you need someone playing the bass, not just for the deep tone of the notes, but especially for the percussive time-keeping a good bass player provides.  If the bass can provide a consistent beat, everyone can play on time and sound good.  If there's no bass available, sometimes there's a musical train wreck.  I've been playing my old '59 Kay in the Friday Open Jam at the Blue Ridge Music Center for several years, but I can't be there every week.  We often has someone who can play a bass fiddle, but we don't always have a bass available.  Now, thanks to the Farewell's donation, we'll have a bass at all times for someone to play.  It's a huge thing to have access to such an instrument, and we're grateful.

Last week, Richard Emmett, the Foundation staffer who runs the music program for the Park Service at the Blue Ridge Music Center, and Broaddus Fitzpatrick of Roanoke, a former board chair who now chairs our board advisory committee on the music center, and I drove up to Staunton to see the Fretwells and pick up their donation.  We heard funny stories about the bass business, about music makers and the stars who have dropped in to jam with Jerry, about how the shop's craftsmen have put back together old basses with some life still left in them, and we heard them jam.  Here are a few more pictures from that session:
Mary Jane, Jerry, Travis Weaver and Sissy Hutching

Travis Weaver, left, on guitar, Sissy Hutching on the ukulele, and Jerry on his prized Epiphone B-1

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Denim Ball

Never knew Moses and Bertha Cone, of course, as Moses died early in the 20th century and Bertha died when I was a year old.  But I've always been grateful to them and to Moses' brother Ceasar.  You see, if they hadn't moved South back in the late 1880s to begin building what became the Cone Mills industrial dynasty -- and become the world's biggest producer of denim -- I would not exist.  It's a longish story, but the more important one is this:

The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, which I chair this year, has raised millions of dollars since its founding for the Blue Ridge Parkway, perennially either the top or the second most popular unit in the National Parks system.  And Flattop Manor, the marvelous summer home that is centerpiece of the BRP's 3500-acre Moses H. Cone Memorial Park near Blowing Rock, needs help. The Foundation has committed to raising a lot of money to help preserve the house and to undertake maintenance and improvement projects all over the park, including the carriage house.  So we're holding a fundraiser on Saturday Aug. 6 at another grand place in Blowing Rock, Chetola Lodge, to help raise money to pay for those projects.  We're calling it the Denim Ball, which seems appropriate, as Moses Cone is often referred to as the Denim King.  Here's our logo for that function:

You can read more about the Denim Ball and the needs of Flattop Manor at our website and you can order tickets there, or by calling (866) 308-2773, ext. 245.  It's $100 per ticket, with dinner, entertainment, dancing and an auction.

I confess I care about this for a lot of reason. One of them is my passion for the Parkway, and the Cone Memorial Park is an important part of that.  The other is my family's connection to the Cones. I don't mean we were close.  But there were relationships.  My father John Betts' boyhood friend was Clarence Cone in Greensboro in the first quarter of the 20th century.  My uncle Tad Paine's father was a textile executive in his own right, and had a strong partnership with the Cones, and my cousin Sid Paine had summer jobs in those textile mills, fixing looms among the racket and clamor of the mill. And I grew up knowing Larry Cone, father of Kristin Cone, long a member of our Foundation's Council of Advisors.

But here's what I really appreciate about that extended Cone family.  In the depths of the Great Depression, my mother was a school teacher in Anderson, S.C., living at home because teachers' salaries were deplorable in those days.  She heard about a company up in Greensboro that was offering qualifying teachers a pretty good deal if they would come to Greensboro and do a little extra work for a little extra money, checking up on Cone millworkers' families to make sure things were okay at home, that sort of thing.  By today's standards this kind of arrangement would sound positively patronizing, I suppose, but the Cones did a lot of good in Greensboro -- built a YMCA, held patriotic picnics, sponsored a band, helped build schools and churches, paid for athletics programs and so on.

So Olive Minor came up from South Carolina to Greensboro to teach at Proximity School, surrounded by mill houses, and got an extra month's salary for her social work visiting students' homes.  And she met John Betts at a dance, and impressed him by accidentally sitting down on his fedora at a dance and they laughed about it, and after a long courtship and marrying in 1937, and enduring a world war, they finally gave in to my sister's begging them for a little brother, and she gave birth to me 70 years ago this week.  My parents never had it easy, but they had good lives, and I'll never forget what brought them together in the first place.

That's just one reason I'm buying tickets for the Denim Ball Aug. 6.  I hope you can, too, or at least send the Foundation a donation for this good cause.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Remembering an old sailor

From a Facebook post July 4, 2016:

Our family is spread out all across the United States these days, and have been for years, but I can tell you the children and grandchildren of John M. "Windy" Betts are toasting his 110th Birthday today from Virginia, Utah, Idaho and California.

 Born in a house just across the street from the Executive Mansion in Raleigh on Independence Day in 1906, he was a happy feller every one of the nearly 48 years I spent as his boy -- but none happier, in my memory, than when we were out in the middle of nowhere camping in a pine forest or on the water somewhere, hauling in halyards and flying along at, oh, 6 or 7 miles an hour tops. He left us in 1994, at age 88, having never uttered a complaint, and rarely an angry word. 

You can see the joy this man carried with him in this photo from, I would guess, about 1913 or so -- future sailor, but already a splendid person. Happy Birthday, B.