The Fiddler’s Jam!

Earl White is driving the jam. It’s 2am at the far end of his 75 acre lush farm in the heart of the Blue Ridge mountains on a mid-July Saturday night, and he and his wife, Adrienne Davis, have just hosted 300 of their friends and new acquaintances since Wednesday. Not only have they provided free camping space in one of the prettiest valleys in Virginia, they have fed all of these campers two meals a day! Not only have they fed them, they’ve made lamb stew from their own flock, prepared some of their free range chickens as tingling meat for tacos and burritos and served up breakfasts featuring pastries from their own organic bakery.

It’s two in the morning and Earl is in a groove, as he often is. Adrienne, Earl’s musical collaborator is punching his rhythmic fiddling with her own solid guitar backup and Mark Olitsky who has driven from Ohio is getting an African primitive popcorn beat on the banjo. Nearly everyone else is asleep or lying in campers and tents grooving to the music coming down the valley. It is Earl’s time to shine and those of us listening don’t want this moment to ever end.

Earl White and Adrienne Davis

For the past seven years, in mid to late July, Earl and Adrienne have hosted the Fiddler’s Jam at Big Indian Farm in remote Floyd County, Virginia, and for the past seven years I’ve been honored and I guess lucky enough to be there. Knowing the vastness of their farm, I didn’t hurry to get my camper over there from my cabin, just 15 miles away, so I was totally astonished to find that nearly every inch of the just mowed camping area along Big Indian Creek was full.

Although the Jam has happened for seven years, Earl and Adrienne have just lived full time on the farm for the past five years. In that time they have built and managed a major organic sourdough bakery, begun raising free range chickens, raised five amazing boys, established a sheep farm, begun growing organic produce to use in their bakery products but also to share, and become a major force in the area’s exploding old time music scene. That’s a lot of work for two former California medical professionals who “retired” to the mountains of Virginia. They have created a ray of hope in the region that has nearly become a food desert, especially where wholesome and organic food is concerned.

Oh, and by the way, Earl is one of possibly 10 Black Old Time fiddlers in the world right now. He is also a scholar of Old Time music who is on a mission to teach young people about the importance of Black fiddler’s contributions to American Folk music and thus recruit more young people of color to play America’s indigenous music. His fiddling and his knowledge of folk traditions has recently been featured by The Smithsonian, The Handmade Music School, The Moss Arts Center at Virginia Tech, in Zoom casts and documentaries and in the Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) program that teaches school children to play traditional music of the Appalachians in after school programs.

Earl, who is originally from New Jersey, grew up spending summers on his grandfather’s farm in Eastern North Carolina, near Greenville. It was there that he first saw his grandfather and great uncles cut up after a day of hard work on the farm and start to play hambone or flatfoot dance to invisible music in the dirt. Years later, as a student at Eastern Carolina University, he was majoring in psychology and minoring in drama when a friend and fellow psychology major came back from a fiddle convention dancing a strange dance he had learned. At first, Earl remembers, “He looked like he was affected, but over time, he got it and started to teach us.”

The group started to meet regularly and dance to recordings of bluegrass and old time music. Since they were psychology majors, they often performed for the patients in a nearby mental hospital. When the local paper showed up to one of their performances and described the positive effects that they were having on non communicative patients, the community took notice. So did their neighbors. They got kicked out of their house for dancing too hard so they had to move their practices to an auditorium. Soon they were getting requests to dance all over the area. And thus, the infamous Green Grass Cloggers who have been chronicled in story and documentaries ever since, was born. The founding members who still survive, like Earl, have been dancing together on and off for 50 years.

The Cloggers began to build a national reputation and were favorites as bluegrass festivals, fiddler’s gatherings and even rock festivals. What Earl looked for and couldn’t find at all of these festivals were other Black dancers and musicians. He began to ask “Where are they?” and “What are their names?’ Although some of the old timers at festivals like the Old Fiddler’s Gathering in Galax, VA. remembered there being, in the past, lots of Black players and dancers, Earl couldn’t find any. At one festival, the legendary founder of Bluegrass Music, Bill Monroe, walked over to Earl after watching him dance, and said, “You know, you remind me of a fellow I used to know and learned a lot of music from.”

“What’s his name?” Earl thought. Later he would learn that one of the main influences on Bill Monroe, and thus Bluegrass, was Arnold Schultz, a legendary Black musician. Earl wants us to know the names of the Black fiddlers and dancers who influenced our music, but he also doesn’t want to cancel any culture. “It was a mix,” he told one interviewer, “Just like dance, Appalachian music is a mix of the Scots/Irish, the Blacks, the Native Americans and other traditions who settled into or escaped into these mountains, and what came out is great music”

It wasn’t until the Green Grass Cloggers danced at a festival in Maine, that Earl met and heard a Black fiddle player. “We were on the bill with Alice Cooper, Seals and Crofts, The Jefferson Airplane and Little Feat. I walked into the green room back stage, and there was, to my surprise, a Black Fiddler warming up to go onstage with Jefferson Airplane!” Earl said, “His name was Poppa John Creach, and I thought, that’s it! I can do that.” He’s been fiddling ever since.

In most recent years, Earl’s reputation has largely spread by word of mouth. He an his family have been prominent fixtures at the Appalachian String Band Competition in Clifftop, West Virginia, holding forth near the tennis courts on the large Clifftop camping area and attracting large crowds of listeners. He has been teaching across the country and most recently he and Adrienne have started hosting a series of music camps for serious musicians on their land. Their band, The Earl White String Band has recorded one album and is beginning to play out after a hiatus during Covid.

See a video of the Earl White String Band Click Here

Over the years Earl has had his share of culture clashes from being a Black Old Time fiddler. Like the Black couple in California when they heard him playing fiddle on a street corner and walked a distance away with their heads hung down who told him that music brought back too many bad memories. And then there was this:

A few years ago, living in Pennsylvania, Earl had to travel long distances between seeing patients as a respiratory therapist. Often, when traveling down I-81, he would take out his fiddle, wear the hair off his right knee by steering, and practice fiddle while he was sailing down the highway. One night on a long stretch he was literally driving a tune at nearly 90, when he looked to his left and saw a highway patrol man waving him over, lights flashing. The patrolman jumped out of his car as Earl pulled over and quickly laid his fiddle down. “Son,” the officer growled, “Tell me I didn’t just see you playing the fiddle while driving.” The proof was sitting beside him, so Earl honestly told the man that indeed he was. “Well, I’ve been trying to stop you for miles. Didn’t you hear my siren?”.

Earl had been playing too loudly. “Get out of that car and come over here,” demanded the officer, “I don’t even know what to do, I’ve never dealt with anything like this.” Earl got out and started to walk. “No, bring that fiddle over here,” demanded the officer. Then he turned on his radio and pushed the talk button down. “I want to know if you can really play the fiddle,” he said. Knowing that there would be others listening over the officer’s radio Earl cut loose on Devil in the Strawstack and played it once through, loud and hard. When he was done, he heard applause coming through that radio. “Well, l guess you can damn well play that thing,” the officer said. “Since I don’t know how to write this up, I am going to give you a ticket for defective equipment!”

Earl couldn’t believe his good fortune, no 90 speeding ticket, no distracted driver, just a small offense. Earl thanked the officer profusely who told him if he ever saw him playing the fiddle again on his highway post, he would be going under the jail. Earl politely got back in the car, drove 15 miles down 81 and finished the tune.

This year’s Fiddler’s Jam was much like a Who’s Who of the Old Time scene with prominent players from Seattle to New York City, and up and down the East Coast. Throw in a lot of locals from the Blue Ridge region and you’ve got a great party. Each night, after readying the outdoor serving area and guiding countless volunteers, 300 people would stop playing and run towards Earl as he rang the dinner bell. Then he and Adrienne would great and hug each old and new friend, wearing themselves thin with kindness and servitude. Diners would be greeted by a few roosters and a host of hens, young and old, gadding underfoot, lots of dogs and kids everywhere. Like a great reunion friends ate quickly to run to campsites to jam under dim light, playing and telling stories early into the morning.

Earl spent his spare time online doing interviews with Virginia Tech and a film crew making a documentary on the history of Black fiddling in American followed him around. Adrienne joined jams and then solved problems for the young people swimming in the creek, and then checked on the goodies in the bakery and then answered phone calls and ran around making sure all were having a good time. And everyone was. I have some good neighbors here in the Blue Ridge Mountains!


~Listen to a great interview with Earl during the Fiddler’s Jam: click here

~Listen to Sepia Tones: Exploring Black Appalachian Music Featuring Earl: click here

~Follow the Earl White String Band on Facebook: click here

~See a prelim trailer for the Black Fiddler’s documentary: click here

~To learn about Earl and Adrienne’s Big Indian Bakery and find out about events and camps: click here


The Wednesday morning sun glared off my mirrored sunglasses as the highway twisted and turned up and down in the Meadows of Dan.  The wind blew the sleep out of my eyes and ruffled the dog in the back seat’s red coat.  

In front of me an oil battered “farm use only” Chevy pickup with no exhaust popped and screamed up the road.  Suddenly the driver swerved to the left lane in a chug of accelerated exhaust and I sat staring wildly into the face of a 400 pound brown bear who showed no fear nor terror in his stoic gaze.  We locked eyes.

            I was helpless.  The crunch of plastic, metal, glass and fur surrounded me.  I heard the silent groan of deeply rooted pain.  My front tire on the driver’s side rose and dropped over the carcass.  In my rear view mirror, I saw the blood and body parts rolling towards the shoulder.

            I stopped my badly beaten truck and cried.  For the victim, for the wildness I had tamed, for they chain of natural events my driving would surely produce. However, I cried mostly for all of us: those that made the trucks and those that drive them.  Then I started the broken machine and drove to the farm to pick blueberries while telling the bear tale to any who would listen, leaving out essential elements of the story to protect the guilty and the innocent.

Farewell to an Old Time Character and a Banjo Building Genius: Mike Ramsey

Sometimes our lives become loosely entwined with remarkable people, human beings who possess incredible talents, minds, ideas and actions. Often we fail to recognize how important they are to our lives. They bring a joy of artistry and spontaneity that our lives sorely need to be rich and fulfilling. And then, without warning, they are gone.

Mike Ramsey and I outside a biker bar in Northern Missouri

The first time I met Mike Ramsey, I had driven an hour into Kansas City to peruse the local banjo supply at Old Town Music, a long gone acoustic music store run by a great banjo player and his mother. For me, this was like a trip to the library where you could touch and feel all the old books that the world had to offer. Here was a jungle of open backed banjos from some of the world’s greatest masters. As I was demonstrating my limited tune knowledge on a variety of exquisitely designed instruments, I noticed a guy in a pair of overhauls and a flannel shirt with wildly curly hair watching me. He made me nervous, so I bleated out a weak, “Howdy,” to see if I could unnerve him.

To my dismay, he headed straight towards me. I knew he didn’t work in the store, so I was wondering what in the hell this guy wanted. “Say,” he said, “I noticed you were looking at a lot of banjos. Which ones here do you favor?” he asked.

I hesitated. What business was it of his? “Well if I had to say,” I cautiously replied, “I’m kind of partial to this Mike Ramsey ‘Woody’ model.”

“Right answer!” declared the stranger gleefully as he stuck his hand at me for me to shake, “I’m Mike Ramsey.” Damned. I was speechless. Standing right there with my banjo building hero and not a penny to my sorry ass. I wanted to buy that Woody 12″ cherry banjo right there, from the maker and live happily ever after. Well, in a way I did….

A couple years later, in 2007, having never saved enough to own a Mike Ramsey Woody banjo, I got up the nerve to attend one of his infamous banjo building workshops near Appomatox at the 4H Camp. It was Spring and quite cold as I can remember but the 8 or so of us locked away in the temporary woodshop Mike set up at the camp didn’t notice. These many years later, I refer to it in my memory as a weekend of guys, whiskey, power tools and eventually banjos. Mike was not only a master banjo builder, having built over 2000 banjos in his first 10 years in the business, but was an inspirational and remarkable teacher. In three days he helped each of us build, inlay, finish and play a quality banjo, largely from scratch and hardware. When each of us knew we had just ruined our project and took it to Mike with tears, he just laughed and said “The thing about wood is, it forgives you!” Taking our partially built instrument to the belt sander, fixing our wounded wood and sending us on our merry way.

After getting to know Mike at the banjo building fling, I decided I’d write an article about him for The Old Time Herald, a magazine that follows traditional musicians as well as luthiers like Mike. What I learned about him was pretty amazing. Born in 1949, Mike first heard old time music when he was in college, a business major at the University of Tennessee. Originally from Roanoke, Mike had heard the music of the mountains most of his life, but never really listened until a moment in college when he walked into a jam with his guitar that he happened to pass at an old church in Knoxville. Inside were two fiddlers and two banjo players who showed him the chords to “Liberty” and off he went. “I was mesmerized,” Mike told me. Soon he was traveling to Old Time Music Festivals across the South soaking up some of the great players of the time. “It changed who I was, forever,” said Mike.

After college, Mike went to work in the corporate world as a manager for Proctor and Gamble. He soon realized he wasn’t cut out for supervising hundreds of people and towing the corporate line. “They just couldn’t stuff me into that jar,” Mike told me. In 1983, Mike started a small hardwood lumber business in Ohio, learning about wood just as he was learning about old time music. He took banjo lessons and in 1986, won his first banjo contest. That same year, with the help and encouragement of friends, he built his first banjo. When he held it in his hands, his life changed once again. Having ordered a banjo from Kyle Creed the legendary builder from Galax, Mike was so disappointed when he found out Creed had died before finishing his banjo that he set out on his own quest: to build the perfect banjo. The one that Kyle would have built.

Soon, banjo making consumed much of his spare time and began to eat into his business time. In 1992 he met banjo builder Bart Reiter who became a tremendous supporter of Mike’s advising him about his work and helping him set up a production shop. In 1995, in Appomattox, his banjo shop was complete and his business Chanterelle Banjos was born. Mike started off by putting a beautiful rendition of the planet Saturn in the h eadstocks of his banjos and built them to sound deep and throaty like Kyle Creed. Before long, he was building banjos at a record pace and his banjos were featured in high end music shops from New York to Portland, Oregon.

Mike was an innovator in many ways. One was the speed at which he could produce a quality, hand crafted banjo. At one point he was able to produce a banjo a day, unheard of by most small builders. Another of his great innovations was the banjo head or skin itself. Mike, like many builders, was always searching for that authentic sound, that mysterious Kyle Creed plunk. He like other builders experimented with a variety of drum heads and skins to get the right sound. In the early 2000’s he was approached by a company that made timpani drum heads who was experimenting with a new synthetic head they called Fiberskyn, because of its resemblance in sound to skin heads without the hassle of using real skins which took great care and skill to fit and maintain. Mike loved the idea and was one of the first banjo builders to use the fiber heads, which have now become standard among open back banjo builders.

Mike was also known as a character. He liked whiskey, Volkswagens, cooking and collecting guns among other things. He was kind and generous, fun loving and an endearing friend. He was also wild as hell.

About a year after my story about Mike appeared in The Old Time Herald, I was at my home in Lawrence, KS when the phone rang early on a Saturday morning. It was Mike. “What are you doing right now?” he asked.

“Thinking about breakfast,” I answered honestly.

“I need you to come get me at the airport,” he said totally out of the blue. “I’m at the Kansas City Airport. We have a mission. I tried to explain to my wife why I had to spend the day driving to Kansas City to go on a mission with a banjo builder I barely knew, but she finally just shrugged and waved me away. I picked Mike up in my pickup and he handed me a banjo case to put in the back of the truck. Other than the banjo, his only luggage was a backpack.

“What’s up?” I nearly begged, wondering what I had gotten myself into. Mike jumped into the truck, throwing his backpack in the back and pulled out a wad of papers from his front pocket. “Your mission is to find this place,” he handed me a piece of paper that had some Northern Missouri address in a rural town I’d never heard of.

OK, I said trying to decipher his MapQuest printed directions. “I bought me a VW Bug on Ebay, he told me,” and you’re going to help me find it. After a couple of hours driving we pulled into a strange farm with a small house but two huge barns. A tall slender fellow with a cowboy hat met us in the drive. He brought us into the house and filled two huge bowls with some of the best and hottest chili I had ever tasted. Turns out he was an international Chili competition winner and was preparing for the Tulsa, OK chili cook off. Go figure.

We headed out to the first barn and the fellow raised the door to reveal several VW’s in varying states of disrepair. Except one. We had discovered a Missouri anomaly – a VW ranch. Mike got in the small black bug, shoved some cash at the guy through the window and yelled, “Follow me!” as he left in a haze of dust. I followed him out of the drive and onto a road, knowing full well that Mike had no idea where he was or where he was going. It was clear, however, that he was looking for something. And then he found it. In the middle of nowhere Northern Missouri, Mike had somehow led us to a biker bar.

He came over to the truck and took out his backpack which seemed to only contain a fiddle case. He handed me the banjo in the case and smiled, saying “Let’s go have some fun. Bikers love old time music!” I wasn’t so sure.

Once inside the bar, Mike was holding court. Teasing the young waitress, telling jokes to bikers and consuming copious amounts of alcohol. Soon, he handed me the banjo case and said “Here.” I opened the case to find a brand new Mike Ramsey 12″ Woody with a beautiful inlay in the scoop that was a “peace banjo” identical to the one I have tattooed on my right knee. I tuned the banjo up and we proceeded to play the day away in that bar. Finally, at about 6pm, Mike leaned over to me and in a fog whispered “Time to go.” I figured he’d finally had enough. As we got out to the parking lot, he asked “How’d you like your new banjo?” I couldn’t believe it, he had remembered that day in the store. I finally owned a real Woody. I pleaded with Mike to to home with me and rest up before he drove back to North Carolina where he was living. “Gotta go!” he proclaimed, and drove out of my life, only to be seen as a glimpse at a festival or concert here or there.

Mike Ramsey was a wild genius. He was an innovator, a master craftsman and a lover of humans. He had his flaws, as we all do. He made some mad, but many more happy. He made the world he lived in a better place because of the joy he got from hearing people play his banjos. He is survived by two beautiful and incredible daughters Sarah Rovnak and Racheal Kerns and by his sister Gayle Brown and his brother, Kevin Ramsey. He is also survived by a world wide community of old time musicians who often tell stories about him around campfires high in the mountains late at night, or play dance music on plunky banjos early in the morning. His thousands of banjos live on!