Clifftop: 'It's just the best thing on earth'

Kenny Kemp
Musicians (from right) Colby Pegg-Joplin, Sam Stallings, Scott Friend, Gray Nelson, Ben Purdue, Ian Friend and Ethan Hawkins play a tune together under and oak tree. It's a common sight at the Appalachian String Band Festival, better known as Clifftop.
Kenny Kemp
An audience on the grass acknowledges the start of Clifftop's Neo Traditional Band Contest.
Kenny Kemp
The festival attracts people from all walks of life. Of course some, like John Fried, choose not to walk. He's been bringing his Segway to the Camp Washington Carver event for about three years.
Kenny Kemp
Rebecca Dixon looks at new banjos for sale at a vendor's tent inside the festival.
CLIFFTOP, W.Va. -- After eight days, Rebecca Dixon hadn't quite had enough of sleeping outdoors or listening to string band music. She probably won't be tired of it when the annual Appalachian String Band Festival at Clifftop concludes Sunday afternoon after the informal group hymn sing.The North Carolina native arrived the night of July 26 at Camp Washington Carver in Fayette County. This is her fourth visit to the annual music festival and she's having a wonderful time.Taking a break from looking at a table loaded with new banjos to pet a friendly dog, the petite woman said of her arrival, "I slept in the front seat of my car."In a rain storm," she added, sounding a little surprised at herself.The festival didn't even officially begin until almost a week later. Workshops, contests, dances and classes started Aug. 1, but arriving a week before the festival starts isn't unusual."There was a line of cars," she said. "I was 30th in line."Dixon and many others don't necessarily come for the events, although they're glad to have them."Oh, it's the music and the people," she grinned. "There's this whole community of old-time music that comes here. It's just the best thing on earth!""Community" is the word repeated again and again at the Appalachian String Band Festival. Community is what brought Canadians Arielle Arnold-Levene and Sharon Joseph back from Toronto to rural West Virginia."We don't really have this where we're from," Arnold-Levene said. "The people here are just so nice. Everyone is so nice, and there's the music. It's like stepping into a different world."The community is global. In the campground, flags from New Zealand, Britain and France fly next to tents and RVs. Hans Martin Austestad came from Norway to be at the festival. "It is the main event of my trip to the U.S.," he said. "I got a government stipend from Norway to do this -- to come and play music and learn about the culture."The crowd at Camp Washington Carver might be considered a mismatched bunch, with some of them sort of buttoned down and some with bright pink hair, but there's a sense of kinship everywhere.There's a lot of music being played, as you can scarcely go 10 feet without hearing a banjo or fiddle, but there's not a lot of noise.There's music everywhere.
While a lot of bands take their turns to try and win some of the prize money the festival offers, ensembles of varying sizes strike up all over the grounds. People play at their campsites, then venture out to find old associates and new partners.
Under the shade of an old tree, brothers Ian and Scott Friend carve out a tune with a group of young men they've been meeting up with to play with for about six years. They have been coming to the festival since before either of them can really remember."We've been coming since we were babies," Scott said. "Our parents used to come. I'm 23 now, and I was 1 year old the first time we came to Clifftop."His brother added, "I don't think I've missed this more than three times my entire life."People return again and again. For some, like John Field from The Villages in Florida, coming to the Appalachian String Band Festival is part of a circuit. He attends other similar festivals and so do many of his friends -- but not all of them."Some of the people I see here I only see here," he said.
It's a big reunion."And a chance for me to make some noise," Field added.There's friendship at the festival and hospitality.Jamie and Sandy Hart like to feed a crowd. In the middle of the day, Sandy was very leisurely straightening up while her husband and a few friends were playing in a circle.Jamie, she said, handles most of the cooking (aided this year by a friend named Jared, who they met at the festival two years ago). The eats are better than average campsite fare: no pork and beans and no greasy hotdogs. Instead, they prefer barbecued pork ribs, fresh watermelon and maybe just a little bit of wine."We always eat good," Sandy said. "At least we do now."She said her husband has been coming to the festival for about 20 years, but she's only been at it for 10."They used to live off tomato sandwiches for a week," she laughed.There is a lot to see, Dixon said, and she explained that the best part of the festival for her is probably the part most people don't see."Around midnight or 1 a.m., there will be jams going on. You'll walk around and the camp will be lit by candles and lanterns. The music will just sweep over you, and then it will just change as you keep walking."Spending a rainy night sleeping in her car to get to be part of that seemed like a pretty good trade to her.Reach Bill Lynch at or 304-348-5195.
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