With the massive brass pipes of the church organ directly behind them, stretching up to the ceiling, WHCN took to the stage and played old favorites as well as their own originals. Jim Watson, mandolin, Bill Hicks, fiddle and Mike Craver, keyboard, founding members of The Red Clay Ramblers were also joined by well known banjo picker Joe Newberry replacing another Rambler original, the late Tommy Thompson. Lighted stained glass windows fixed in the ceiling, stages left and right and throughout the balcony area gave the place a very warm presence, reminiscent of the Grand Old Opry’s Ryman auditorium.
The evening was filled with music and stories, both intimately expressed to the “family” of audience members. At times it was raw and raucous, break-downs that got everyone shouting, songs that kept Jim Watson’s hand flittering across his mandolin and which powdered Bill Hicks’ fiddle with white rosen from his frantic bow. Other selections featured tender folk ballads by Joe Newberry and humorous ragtime-style show tunes by pianist Mike Craver, such as, “How Does A Glass Eye Work?”. Afterwards, the band as well as musicians from the audience split up and formed groups throughout the building for informal jams.
The Great Aunt Stella Center is a beautiful venue indeed. Once a Presbyterian church, the Center is now an island in a sea of concrete and modern skyscrapers. I peered out the window and noticed a cold, gray parking garage that seemed to creep ever closer to this historic red, brick building. In a time when, from what I’ve heard, the city of Charlotte seems to push, full-steam-ahead to tear down these structures in it’s race to modernize, the Great Aunt Stella Center remains. It’s a port in the storm for music like WHCN's, a place where DJ’s and pop music have no foothold, an old refuge for old music; folk traditions that lie in the foundation of much of American music as we know it today and thank goodness for it.
As a younger player of old roots music myself, I’ve definitely noticed, at times, the lack of young people supporting it. I was surprised (and then again I wasn’t) that so few younger fans were in attendance. There are groups of musicians who during the day, will profess their love for old-time music, sitting in a coffee house or on their college campus spewing out names of legendary artists. There are bands that claim inspiration and influence from American music pioneers, but at night they’re nowhere to be found when authentic acts like WHCN are performing. And last Friday night’s concert was free!
At any rate, the show was nothing but entertaining, which a good show should be. I felt like I had been let in on a Charlotte secret by hearing Watson, Hicks, Craver and Newberry at the Great Aunt Stella Center. As a musician new to the Queen City I had the opportunity to make much needed contacts and break out harmonicas, jug and gutbucket bass to present my own “resume” to the other musicians. I’ll definitely continue to support the Charlotte Folk Society if these are the kinds of acts and shows that they produce. Be sure to check out this link for WHCN to see when they might be passing through your town and stay in the loop for other great shows presented by the folk society at www.folksociety.org.