Before arriving in Ridgeway, South Carolina for the “Bovinoche-Bluegrass Festival for Barclay,” I looked at the weather report seeing sunny skies with a high of 61 F. It’d be much cooler under the numerous hardwoods surrounding the antebellum home, Magnolia Farm. So, I donned my hat and wool scarf in anticipation of the fall weather. While slowly ambling toward the venue, my olfactory senses were overwhelmed by the delicious culinary talents of Jeff Banister, Kristian Niemi, and their squad of Bovinoche artisans.
So how did a legend like Peter Rowan find himself in Ridgeway? You could say it all started with folk and bluegrass artist, Tony Rice…and Fred Berry, Sr., driving home from one of Tony’s shows at a place called “The Handlebar.”At least that’s the impression I got while asking, Fred, chairman of the Friends of Bluegrass non-profit, how the organization started. He explained in the 1970’s and 80’s, Columbia’s music scene for folk and bluegrass music was enviable. However, artists were drawn to bigger venues as the genre grew, leaving Columbia off their list of stops during a tour. Fred would drive hours on a weeknight to hear the artists he loved, returning home at wee hours of the morning, having to rise only a few hours later for work. He and a group of other enthusiasts decided enough was enough. In the late 1990’s, the Friends of Bluegrass formed and decided to bring the music they loved to the Midlands.
“Tony Rice was our first major act,”Fred explained as we prepared our first of several plates from the Bovinoche feast. “I did it at first for my son, Fred, Jr., (who is bandleader of the Mustache Brothers) and the rest of my family. But things got bigger. Next, we brought Mountain Heart, then our biggest show was Nicklecreek at the Koger Center. That (Nicklecreek) was a real stretch for the Friends of Bluegrass.” Since the organization is non-profit, they raise only enough money to pay these renowned artists to play. Not a single dime is kept by Fred or any other members of the Friends of Bluegrass. There are no administrative fees of any kind. Fred handles all the negotiations with the bands and their agents. “It’s for the people. Friends of Bluegrass makes zero dollars.” In fact, Fred had to come out of pocket $20 to pay off a contract fee with Mountain Heart, a minuscule price to pay bringing such talent to Columbia.
When the economy downturned, the Friends of Bluegrass took a blow to chin. Several members had to leave town to find work. Fortunately, there has been an interest in the last year to resuscitate the organization. Fred brought Grammy nominated group, the Matt Flinner Trio to gauge excitement and the result was positive. Since then, Fred worked to get another act, which led him to Peter Rowan.
“We’re lucky to have him. I didn’t get the contract finalized until 6:45 PM last night!” These negotiations are arduous affairs and take a toll on Fred, hoping on hope that enough tickets sell to break even.
Artists enjoy the intimate setting of playing for 100-200 people who are genuinely interested in the music, and several of the acts have asked Friends of Bluegrass to start a Winter Tour. That might be a little much to ask this year, but if the momentum keeps up, sky’s the limit. “It’s for the people. We don’t make any money at all.” Fred assures the bands they’ll get paid. “I’ve got a ski mask and a getaway driver. There’s a 7-11 around the corner!” He’ll use that line as an icebreaker if the artists are worried they won’t be paid. Personally, I might consider a felony charge to get Sara Jarosz to Columbia.
A Good Time for a Good Cause
It’s no wonder Tom Hall would be near the center of this event. His reputation as a force for good in our community, in addition to his support for arts and music, precedes him. He purchased Magnolia Farm for the purpose of creating a school of folk-art and artisan skills, but learned the Barclay School, a non-profit effort of Columbia College for children with learning differences, needed a new place to call home. Tom served on the board of Barclay School and decided to renovate Magnolia Farm so it could serve as the new location. That was last year. Since then, enrollment has tripled and the old house has been successfully repurposed. Plans are in motion to create a working farm, teaching the children agricultural skills in addition to their traditional education. The hope is for these students to develop a vocation with sought after skills as agricultural artisans in progressive communities.
“Many of these kids were bullied and walked around being afraid. But they get out here and they interact with their animals, and they learn how to make something, and they just light up,” Tom said. Many of the children learn to make cheese, butter, and cream from goat’s milk. They also support several vegetable and herb gardens, and even raise quail.
Tuition costs at Barclay School run about $10,000 annually for each student, and are paid mostly by the state in the form tax credits, with the difference being made up by parents of the students. However, the families of most of these children cannot afford much more financial burden. Right now, Barclay School exists but this could all change very quickly should funding cease. For now, the school intends to press on and hopefully use events such as this to raise awareness and funding.
A Gentleman of the Highest Order
Behind a plume of smoke rising from a sugar kettle, I spotted the headliner of the event, Peter Rowan, seated comfortably in an adirondack chair. I approached him cautiously, not knowing how I’d be received by a man of his notoriety. My father met him down in Louisiana at “Catawba,” an antebellum house near my hometown of St. Francisville, owned by Mary Thompson. Peter stayed there and had a porch-pull with a local band, The Fugitive Poets, after one of his gigs in New Orleans. My Dad is a stand-in percussionist for the band and contributed to the set.
I extended my hand and introduced myself.
“Do you know my Dad, Robert Hartner, and his friend, Mary Thompson, from St. Francisville, Louisiana?” I suppose my Dad wouldn’t mind me name dropping.
Peter smiled and said he absolutely remembered and asked me to have a seat.
“Not only do I remember, but I wrote a song about that place called “Catawba Blues.” There’s a lot of synergy in that town, man. And at that house.”
“Yes, sir, there is for sure,” I timidly agreed, realizing that I was talking to a man who’d created art with some of the greatest musicians of our time, Bill Monroe, David Grisman, Jerry Garcia, Robert Earl Keen, and Tony Rice to name a few.
“How did you wind up here,”he asked.
What?? Peter Rowan is asking ME a question?? Next thing I know, we were in a conversation. His girlfriend is from Japan and it turns out Peter and I visited many of the same spiritual sights in Kamakura. She called from their California home while we were talking, her ears undoubtedly burning.
As we talked, I couldn’t help but notice his eccentric wardrobe, scanning him from bottom to top: Tar-heel blue Nike running shoes, dark denim jeans, an untucked azure aloha shirt with black mosaic designs, and a navy blazer with gray and black-striped scarf wrapped twice around his neck. His head also bearing a full mane of curly cotton-white windblown locks. He looked like a genius, the kind of man who knew something, or a lot of somethings, I didn’t yet know.
“I need to walk around. Wanna join me?” Boy did I.
He hoisted himself up with great effort from the deep seat of the adirondack chair. Should I have helped him up, or would that have been rude, I asked myself. We walked over to Kristian Niemi and Jeff Banister. They were just about to pull the splayed-roasted goat off the fire and offered us a sample. We gladly accepted. Delicious of course.
As we walked around the property, sitting down intermittently, our conversations drifted away from music and sallied more toward life, ladies, philosophy, spirituality, and culture. There was nothing off-limits. People would approach and ask to have their pictures taken and I felt a little guilty as if I were hoarding him. But as soon as the photos were struck, we’d continue our moseying pace, picking up our conversation right where we left off. After a while, he decided to rest before the show while other amazing local bluegrass and folk music artists showcased their talents. Patrons made plate after plate of cochon du lait, chicken jerk, and roasted vegetables. So much food.
When Peter emerged onto the stage, I heard him tell the whole audience through the lyrics of his music many of the same stories he shared with me. At age 74, he can achieve octaves higher than men a quarter his age without his voice breaking, or sink deep into a baritone to get the work done; his range is uncanny. One of his famous songs, “Midnight, Moonlight,” has been covered well, most notably by Jerry Garcia, but unless you’ve heard it done by the creator, it pales in comparison.
After the show, I went backstage and said my goodbyes to Peter and the Friends of Bluegrass who helped get him here. I found my car where I parked it in the field earlier in the day, then turned on the seat warmers and heater to cut the chill. Scrolling through Spotify, waiting for my car to warm, I played on repeat, “Walls of Time,” my favorite Peter Rowan song, racing down the interstate back home to Columbia. Peter and Bill Monroe came up with the song when their tour bus broke down and they waited on a tow. Thus, I fully expected to be in the presence of musical genius. What I did not expect was that I would encounter a gentleman of the highest order.
Feature photo by Kristian Niemi