The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

August 4, 2013

West Virginia Woodstock

Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop celebrates musical heritage

By Wendy Holdren
Register-Herald Reporter

CLIFFTOP — “If people knew how appreciated our heritage is overseas, they’d appreciate it more at home,” Jeff Bronfield said Saturday at the 24th annual Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop.

Bronfield hails from Brighton, N.Y., but during the festival he met people from all around the world, including musicians from the Czech Republic, France, Sweden and Australia.

He stopped by a vendor at the festival, Gardner’s Dulcimer, and chatted with Don and Jackie Gardner about stringed instruments, Appalachian culture and how much they enjoy coming to the festival each year.

“We had some friends that kept saying, ‘You have to go.’ They told me that for 15 years,” Don said.

When he retired at age 62, five years ago, he was finally able to join in on the fun.

“This is good,” he said with a smile. “It’s not about the amount of sales. It’s about the people.”

He and Jackie spoke about all the musicians and crazy characters they have met at the festival over the past five years, including one French man who bought a banjo from them, picked it up and immediately started playing Carter Family songs. “It’s a hoot.”

If you’ve never been to the festival yourself, imagine a West Virginia version of Woodstock. Banjos, fiddles, guitars, mandolins and even ukuleles were found at every corner, whether they were being played, being sold, or being toted around by barefooted campers.

Bands with crafty Appalachian names hit the stage Saturday night, including The Bucking Mules, Thunder Bucket & the Other Pluckers, and Nervous Tick & the Bites.

“I always tell my family, you can’t die or get married during this time,” Fred Crouse, of Baltimore, Md., said of the festival. “The quality and the amount of music — It’s just amazing. You hear some of the most off-the-hook music.”

This year marked Crouse’s second time at the festival, but he said he can’t get enough of it.

He plays five-string banjo and fiddle himself, but he said, “I get so inspired while I’m here.”

One of his favorite acts was a jugband called the Drunken Catfish Ramblers, who played Friday night. “They had washboards, banjos, and even a tuba player.”

He said they circled around the camp, true New Orleans style, before taking the stage.

“There’s just something about this type of music,” Crouse said.

He described each area of the festival, where to go if you were looking to stay up late and party, or where you could go if you wanted to catch some shut-eye.

The water tower, also dubbed “Geyser Hill,” is where some of the older folks hang out, Crouse said, but he said there’s no shortage of talent there. “There are some of the best banjos players here you’ll ever meet.”

No matter where you are in the campground, you’re sure to here some killer tunes, whether someone was testing out a new instrument to buy or a new group of friends were creating a makeshift band.

Also Saturday evening, Appalachian dancers were peeling off their shoes and getting ready for the flatfoot dance contest.

Marilyn Branch, of Kalamazoo, Mich., walked away from the registration booth with a No. 8 pinned on the bottom of her floral print skirt.

“I’ve only ever missed four,” Branch said of the 24 Appalachian String Band Festivals. “My husband and I come on Day 1, rain or shine. Anyone who came in 2009 and survived the nine-day rain can survive anything.”

Branch has taken flatfoot workshops before and has even won the competition at the festival before.

“This is our community. We really build this town while we’re here. When I go home, there’s this void. I think, ‘Where are all my friends? Where’s the music?’ It’s just lovely to have a week of this intense immersion.”

For more information about the Appalachian String Band Festival, visit

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