Monday, October 25, 2010

Fiddlin' Around in Ashe County

This past Saturday I took a day-trip to Ashe County, NC, for two reasons: to view a small property (100-year-old farmhouse on just under five acres) and to meet Audrey Hash Ham, a well-known fiddle maker in the mountains and daughter of the (late) legendary fiddle maker, Albert Hash. More about the property in another post --

Leaving the Charlotte area at the crack of dawn, heading north:


On Highway 421, headed west toward Wilksboro, you come over a rise and catch the first sight of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains rising in the distance. A gorgeous sight:


The Ashe County imitation of a Swiss mountainside collection of cottages. Who says the sides of mountains aren't valuable? This was taken between West Jefferson and Warrensville. On a trip to the area a few years ago, I saw a beautiful painting of this very collection of buildings with the Virginia Creeper running along the tracks at the bottom of the mountain. The Virginia Creeper was a steam locomotive rail line that was built in this area in the early 20th century to haul out the massive virgin timber that was being cut off the mountains. The painting was contemporary—the artist had painted these houses and inserted the Virginia Creeper train into the picture as it would have looked a hundred years ago. The owner of the painting told me that an elderly local resident once saw the painting and said, "That's not right." She pointed to one of the buildings in this photo and said, "That house right there wasn't built when the Creeper was running through the area. It was built later." That's the kind of priceless information that passes out of existence with the patriarchs and matriarchs of the world:


Mountainsides in Ashe County are now used to grow Christmas trees by the millions:



The route to Audrey Hash Ham's place led me through Lansing and a fresh look at the old Lansing School. This noble structure was built of stone back in the New Deal days when Roosevelt put people to work all over the country building things, some of which weren't needed. Ashe County was even more sparsely populated then than now, yet this school was built and used by the children that could make their way to it. I was soon to learn that Audrey Hash Ham, living in Grayson County, VA, just over the NC-VA border, attended this school through the 8th grade. When I first saw this silent memorial standing empty 4-5 years ago on my first trip to Lansing, I immediately wondered if it could be bought and put to some good use -- a craft center or community center or some such thing. It now houses a winery, so at least it's being used for something. What a gorgeous building -- I remember looking in the broken windows at the HUGE, high-ceiling classrooms and solid wood floors and thinking, "What a shame." The handrails in the foreground of this picture are for stairs that go down to a tunnel bored under the highway so children could have safe passage to the ball fields across the road:


To find Audrey Hash Ham, I was headed for a gravel road north of Lansing called Bear Wallow Road -- seriously -- that looked to be almost on the NC-VA border. It was a good weekend to go -- the heart of the Appalachian leaf season:





The roads were paved into the seriously-high mountains until I hit Bear Wallow Road, which was gravel. It climbed up and up and up until this kind of view was possible:


I went past Audrey's place and stopped twice to ask directions from a couple of lovely mountain folks. Houses are about a half-mile apart, the road being single lane until you reach a driveway where you can turn around. I eventually found Audrey's (and husband Bob's) double-wide sitting beneath a HUGE maple. The NC-VA border runs through their front yard, their trailer and barns being in VA, the front yard and driveway being in NC. That's Audrey's workshop to the right, requisite mountain barn in the background:


Albert Hash built instruments on the side. He was a founding member of the Whitetop Mountain band, one of the earliest of the now plentiful old time/traditional bluegrass mountain bands. It's still in existence today, though with different members. His fiddles were highly sought after, and he was an instrument-making mentor to legendary guitar-maker Wayne Henderson who lives and builds guitars in Rugby, VA, in Grayson County (pop. 7). Eric Clapton wanted one of Henderson's guitars a few years ago and Wayne put him on the list along with everybody else who wanted one. And he finally got it 6-7 years later. Pre-owned Henderson guitars (if you can find one) now sell for around $15,000 or more.

Albert's daughter, Audrey Hash, began building instruments as a young girl, making about a hundred dulcimers before turning to fiddles, of which she reckons she has made about 80-85. She only has one of her father's fiddles -- but it's beautiful:


Maple is the standard wood for fiddles, this one remaining unstained with a beautiful one-piece back:


A signature "H" is carved into the neck's heel:


And an eagle's head in place of the traditional scroll:


Audrey Hash Ham, holding her father's fiddle (on the left) and one of her own built in 2009 -- stained a reddish mahogany color (I came home with this one):


In this video, Albert Hash, Audrey's father, is playing a fiddle that looks very much like the one Audrey is holding above (the light, maple fiddle, on the left):

Audrey told me in our conversation that she wasn't the greatest player: "I can play well enough to clear a room in a minute." She took a few strokes on the red fiddle and said, "Told you I could clear a room:"


We spent a couple hours talking about music, the Bible, life in the mountains, and instruments. It was a pleasure to meet Audrey (and Bob) and be able to acquire one of her fiddles -- she doesn't build much any more, so the one I bought will likely be one of less than a hundred by the time Audrey is promoted to heaven.

Inching my way back down the mountain, stopped to marvel at this beautiful setting -- a cross-shaped farmhouse sitting down in a valley. When you are in the mountains, there's not a sound except the wind and the occasional crow. The silence is startling at first:



On the way back to Lansing, saw this barn and quilt design. It's part of the "Quilt Trails of Western North Carolina" project, an effort to reproduce traditional Appalachian quilt designs on the sides of barns and buildings throughout Western North Carolina:



Left with the dawn, returned in the dark -- following the harvest moon from the mountains back to Matthews:



  1. Beautiful country, pictures, and commentary. Thanks for putting all that together. I miss it dearly,

  2. Awesome journalistic photos, William, love seeing the Fall leaves (it's been a while!)... and your new fiddle (wow!). Wonderful journey, thanks for taking us along!

  3. What a trip, and beautiful story to go with great photos!

  4. I hope to make this same trip, as Albert was my 3rd cousin and would like to meet Audrey.

  5. Very cool ! I am a descendant of John Alay Ham Of Ashe County, NC.