About every Thursday, sometime around 6PM, a few locals and those whose live close by in Wytheville and Wythe County go down to the Old Stage Mall on Tazewell Street, to play and enjoy a little music. On the town’s website it is described as “mountain music” or “old time music”, and perhaps the latter title fits the best, because I found that those there certainly tended to match one of the adjectives used! That said, these old (and a few younger) folks were an enjoyable group, and had a lot of good music and conversation to share when I went to listen and talk. For the advertising that it gets on the Wytheville site, the event is small and cozy, and the Old Stage Mall itself is really just a little collection of stores on a bit of Tazewell Street seen here.
The atmosphere of the event was nice, and the people friendly. I think one of the most interesting experiences of it for me, was the feeling of the transition between what I would call an outsider, to a local friend. I had known about this jam before, and multiple times while going home from or going to my karate classes on thursday evenings, I would drive or walk past the Old Stage mall and hear and see the jam going on inside. I could never bother to stop and enjoy it though. When I walked in this evening however, I was a bit ill prepared. Due to having to attend an ice cream social for the Virginia Tech Summer Academy participants shortly before having to drive back home to go to the jam, I had forgotten both the tin whistle and low whistle I had intended to bring to play (even though I just wanted to listen, I think its good etiquette to bring an instrument to a jam regardless). I was also a bit overdressed, as the ice cream social had been a formal event, with the president of the university in attendance. Thus, when I arrived, I was a socially awkward kid dressed up in rather nice clothes with a camera, who introduced themselves as a student on an assignment for an Appalachian Studies class from Virginia Tech. Needless to say, this brought up what I would call a little bit of confusion and curiosity, but this slowly faded as I took chair and they went on to playing the music of the night.
Some music it was as well! While some tunes I didn’t recognize, there were others I was very familiar with and pleased to hear, such as “Blue Ridge Mountain Home”. The music was mainly bluegrass, with bits of old hymns and other songs which I couldn’t exactly put a style to. I asked if it was alright if I recorded them a little, and they did not mind, so I took a brief minute long video. I don’t know if they were comfortable with me mentioning names, however I believe a couple of the members are thinking of recording some music soon, so I would keep my eye out for that.
As the evening progressed I got into a conversation with a lady who was sitting beside me, I think I eased into the situation much better then, and slowly the “outsider” feeling began to fade. I think this was most obvious when I got the chance to mentioned that I was in fact born and raised in the town! While friendly initially, I felt the attitude shift to familiarity at this point. I knew the places, sounds, people, and culture that they did. It helped that this lady very talkative, as she asked about my intended major, mentioned various facts about those playing music, and talked about her relatives (some of which were there). Soon I felt very at ease and fairly pleased with my situation. She reminded me of a calmer version of my grandmother, who tends to talk in the same manner.
I eventually found myself just enjoying the time passing, listening to music, drinking some coffee I was offered, and occasionally getting another story about people from the woman beside me (a few about some engineering students she knew like myself). I enjoyed it overall, and as I took my leave along with a few others later in the evening, I was asked to come back whenever I could, and I certainly intend to. It was an interesting experience, because despite the advertising for it on Wytheville sites which seem to market it as part of the downtown renovation and construction (and on this website it is pretty directly stated that that is the purpose http://www.virginia.org/listings/Events/OldStageJaminWytheville/), which is a pretty big and slightly controversial development for the town, it seemed most people who were there just seemed to be there for music. They did briefly talk about having held a wedding for the first time in the reception area of the Classic Homes and Farms LLC where the jam is also held, which I suppose is a good sign that the downtown is becoming more popular and liked in accordance with the towns hopes in renovating it, but otherwise it seemed very little talk of business went around. This was, more than anything I think, a routine of good music for the people there.
After leaving I briefly took a walk around the downtown area to reflect on it, considering the involvement of the jam in its renovation. I remembered being quite annoyed with it all when I lived in the town, as the construction constantly forced me to use different routes to get through town while walking (which could waste lots of time), and the work was often noisy and made travel difficult on Main Street. Even now things are still being done to complete it, but I have to say it looks far nicer than it used to. Whether this has the intended economic and social effect the town desires is up for debate, but at least I suppose, in offering more publicity to an event such as the Old Stage Jam, the changes have done some good. The more people to enjoy the sort of music and environment the jam offered, the better, in my humble opinion.