Bluegrass in Appalachia under the Harvest Moon

Keller and the Keels, Yonder Mountain and Railroad Earth at the Devil’s Backbone Brewery base camp. What?? Tonight? Hell, yeah!!!

Now and then you feel that you are where you are supposed to be: part of the flow, with your peeps, one with the universe. To a hillbilly, there ain’t nothin’ like dancing under a full moon to accomplished and imaginative bluegrass musicians with our fams. This is a language our bones have known since these mountains were formed.

I had just returned from the Bourbon and Beyond festival, an eclectic smorgasbord of American musicians drawing a pleasant and sweet crowd. This crowd was notably scruffier. Untrimmed beards, unbrushed hair, tie-dye and jeans, Adam’s apples, little kids and unvarnished speech. With a passion borne of tree frogs and creeks, moss and ferns, rock cliffs and sledding hills. And moonshine.

The banjo and fiddle light our hearts on fire and our feet do not hold back. We give each other room to stomp. We laugh with kooky abandon, with unbridled joy and appreciation and we share a joint. Even post-Covid.

Larry and Jenny Keel hail from these parts, we are proud of that, and for once, Keller keeps his ego in check and lets other talented musicians equitably share the stage. Yonder is always tough without Jeff Austin and I have to drift away from another oldster reminding me of this. If we accept the world as it is, we can better appreciate the moment. It is a different band, I reminded her.

How long have I followed Railroad Earth? It feels like forty years, but I look it up and it’s only been twenty. Bluegrass holds the timelessness of these hills.

When I woke that morning, I played the Mavericks’ Harvest Moon. The encore, the last song the musicians played…Railroad Earth shared the stage with Larry Keel and Keller and possibly some of the musicians from Yonder (I was dancing in the back where I had a lot of room and had a beeline to the full moon infusing me from the sky behind)…was a lovely romantic version of Harvest Moon. The crowd knew every word and sang along, softly but with the full-throttle emotion of my peeps.

Being gifted with a ticket at the last moment, I did not have a campsite there, but I am little and my Subaru is decked out with the most comfy bed you can imagine, so all I need is a parking space. It is verboten at the brewery, so I returned to a spot I had noted on my way in. Naturally, I wondered why there was a park ‘n ride at such an unlikely spot, at the apex of a winding mountain road, a healthy hour from anywhere on either side of the ridge. But there were plenty of cars and space, so I pulled in and after a while of music still buzzing through me, fell fast asleep. I woke to realize this was a trailhead of the Appalachian Trail, Reid’s Gap at the crest of the Blue Ridge, right along the Blueridge Parkway, a section with some of the most breathtaking views along the trail. I had not only a can of Nitro Brew coffee, but two granola bars, plenty of water and hiking clothes in the car. This was a sign as clear as the AT sign that I should take a long morning walk along the trail.

Along the trail, it hit me again. That feeling that I was one with the tiny, exquisite wildflowers, with the dark rocks slippery from low clouds dripping their dew in the cool night, with the deep green moss comforting my brain. I was okay with death meaning only that my chemicals would be released to transform into the reincarnation of flowers, fecund earth, damp bark.

It was later, exploring a side road from the parkway leading to a lake, that I came upon this sign of civilization, of fear and a carefully-crafted morality to meet that fear, and began to come down from my mountain high and remember the world we live in.

But I could still laugh. Truly, who would want that kind of heaven? Not me. My heaven was the night before and earlier that morning. That is one I can keep in my heart and dance to, revel in, while still walking this earth.