Hidden in the Hollow, Falling off a Cliff:

A Music Adventure in East Tennessee

Fresh from topping up my music degrees with my brand-new MFA in nonfiction writing, I’m heading to the Hollow to write a review I hope will serve as an audition piece for local arts media. Fortune peeks out for a moment, waving her wand of good sense over interstate drivers, so nobody drives like a fool and the only real problems come from the rains that make you wish you had Noah & Co.: Ark Builders to the Stars on speed dial.

Fate relents about thirty miles on the other side of Nashville on I-40 and I begin to relax into a calm drive in the verdant undulating hills of Middle Tennessee. But it turns out that Fate was just catching her breath. Another 100 miles forward outside Kingston on I-81, she snorts over bridge construction work that slows traffic to the pace of a Conservative embracing the concept of transgender toilet use.

Fortune comes back from her break and points me to a gas station attendant who, in turn, points me to a good detour (by good, I mean one that actually works). This gives me the opportunity to drive through Kingston’s charming downtown area. Back on I-81, I’ve begun to get into Fate’s portentous rhythm, refusing to fully relax, so she can’t get a big laugh out of my reaction to the massive multi-car pileup (no ambulances required, thank goodness) outside of Knoxville that reduces my speed to something like the number of truthful statements in a Donald Trump speech.

I creep closer and closer to the Watauga Lakeshore Resort in Hampton TN, adjacent to the Cherokee National Forest. After moving my bags into the simple cabin overlooking the lake, I check directions to the festival campsite. This is where Fate really starts tuning up her laugh machine.

To understand, I’ve got to back up and give you some context. The “hidden” designation of the festival, as my old friend Barb the historian often says, is “more than a notion.” Once you find out that the festival exists, you submit an online request for an invitation. Once you get the invitation, you get a password that allows access to the website where you buy a ticket. The password? Words from a Grateful Dead lyric. You get the gist. Once you buy your ticket, you get a GPS address to the secret location. Since the on-site cabins were already taken, I’d emailed for suggestions. They pointed me to the resort which they said was “nearby.”

Now, I’ve taken literary translation courses, so I know that “nearby” has different meanings in different contexts. “Nearby” in New York means “around the corner within walking distance,” while “nearby” in Houston means “a 15–20 minute drive if it’s not rush hour.” But in this case, it meant half an hour of roads snaking through the foothills of the Smokies.

Fate coughs up some more rain, but Fortune had been keeping up with the Harbinger section of the omens newsletter, reminding me that I had a rain slicker in my trunk. Wearily shrugging it on, I get back in the car heading compass north onto Hwy 321 (for mystery lovers, that “compass north” is a clue), following that serpentine alley further into the hills. Turning off where my GPS sister tells me to, I go to the next turnoff, a single-lane dirt road. Readying myself for the last turnoff, I see a white guy in a green pickup truck. “You headin’ for the party?” he drawled.

“Content of his character, content of his character, content of his character,” I doggedly intone inside my head, remembering that I’m in the backwoods of Tennessee, birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, which might not have been the focus of my thoughts had I not recently seen a Confederate flag proudly displayed on somebody’s front porch fewer than five miles back. Fate guffaws, clutching her aching belly.

Mr. Pickup Truck tells me to go back to 321, look for a sign similar to the “Sugar Hollow Resort” sign beside him, then turn right and the gate would be there. When I get to the other sign, there’s no gate. Maybe he meant for me to go toward 321, then take the other road at the fork, but this leads to an even narrower one-lane dirt road. Yikes. I find a steep driveway surrounded by sheer drop-offs down the mountain cliff and gingerly, inch by inch, turn around. I go back to 321 and turn left. After a mile or two, there’s nothing but another 321.

Turns out there are many manifestations of 321 in this area, going in a variety of directions, all twisty-turny. The 321 Mr. Pickup meant was the bigger 321 that has lane markings and yellow reflectors. I had to turn around, come back to the sign where there’d been no gate, keep going to another sign where there actually was a gate, then I had to drive up a steep hill to the check-in tent.

By this time, at nearly 9 pm, after hours of miles, mishaps and misguidance, you can imagine that, as my girl Victoria once said, I am not amused. The check-in chick adds fuel to the fire by giving me a page-long, single-spaced document allowing myself to be all but burned at the stake without finding them liable. I’m supposed to sign this. She thinks it’s strange when I ask for a copy of what I’m signing. Apparently, in this neck of the woods you don’t get copies of contracts you sign. (The motel had had the same mile-long abdication of liability). To park near the amphitheater is supposed to cost $20 extra, but when her dizzy aura gets a whiff of my pre-sulfurous one, she doesn’t charge me a dime.

Nestled against a cozy mountain cliff, the stage mimics the inside of a barn edged with Sixties-style daisies projected on the walls. The group onstage? Keyboard, bass, drums, and the front line of guitar, banjo, and dobro.

Scenic Detour #1

For those who don’t know the dobro, it looks like a bionic guitar, the offspring of a mésalliance between its two cousins, the guitar and the banjo. Shaped like the guitar, it’s made of wood that’s had a belly-ectomy, with the middle replaced by banjo-shaped metal with internal conic resonators. Bluegrass pickers play the square-neck like an open-face sandwich so the player can pick the strings with the right hand and stroke the neck with their “steel,” a cylindrical metal slide.

Emily Robison of the [Dixie] Chicks
Emily Robeson of the then-Dixie Chicks on dobro

The dobro was created by three Czech-American brothers surnamed Dopyera, who took the first syllables of Dopyera Brothers to name the instrument. Serendipitously, dobro, is the adjective “good” in the Serbian tongue. Like kleenex or xerox, “dobro” was a privately owned Gibson Guitars’ trademark, with all others technically known by their genus “resonator guitar,” but vox populi rules, so despite legal ownership, it’s “dobro” for all these days.

Back on Track

The outdoor amphitheater has worn log seats (did I say worn? I meant exhausted). A determined drizzle of rain begins turning umbrellas into the candles that flicker up and down at indoor concerts. The speakers are covered with tarps, and little fan-huddles dot the seating. Vendors can sit under their canopy tents, watching the show, and imbibing the rain mist infused with an insubstantial essence of marijuana.

Meanwhile, the band puts a Bluegrass spin on their Who cover “Mama’s Got a Squeezebox.” You’d have to hear it to believe it, but it works (I guess those big country families had to come from somewhere). The soothing combination of Bluegrass with a Grateful Dead jam sensibility siphons off the stresses of the day like the rain’s runoff. I listen for a few hours till the end of their set and head back to my car. Fate, having had a nap, has gotten her second wind, so she pounces into action.

On the Road Again

On the way back to the inn, my cellphone GPS refuses to function, but since I’d turned compass north on 321 to get here, I say to myself, I’ll just go south. So I do. The WELCOME TO NORTH CAROLINA sign convinces me that, in this situation, logic is as nonfunctional as my GPS.

I turn around. Blessed Fortune causes a blue dot to throb on my GPS screen. Several miles further, I seem to be moving back into Tennessee. A twenty-minute drive drags on and on and on as I poke along, giving thanks for the yellow reflectors between the yellow mid-line lane markers.

Scenic Detour #2

Did you know that those reflector things actually have an official name? They are . . . wait for it . . . reflective raised pavement markers or RPMs, informally called “cat’s eyes” because they reflect light like their feline namesakes. They were invented by English inventor (and my hero) Percy Shaw in 1933 who used them to found his business, Reflecting Roadstuds. They were particularly useful during the blackouts of WWII. The Queen of England named Shaw a member of the Order of the British Empire for his service to British inventiveness. If Catholic priests could keep their hands off little kids, maybe they could spend more time making a saint’s day for Mr. Shaw. Of course, the fact that he was an agnostic could present a problem, but hey, no guts no glory.

Reflective raised pavement markers at night
RPMs at night

On the Road Again

Up to this point I’ve been alone on the road, but now there’s a car behind me adding pressure to the ordeal. It’s not a monster truck or some egomaniac trying to run me off a cliff, it’s just that having someone behind me keeps me feeling guilty about my arthritic-snail’s pace.

I forge ahead. It’s either that, or find a place to pull over and cry. But there’s no place to pull over. Over there! There’s the scenic overlook I definitely remember, because I’d considered stopping there the next day. Finally pulling into the resort parking lot, I have rarely felt so relieved.

Twisty Road Redux

The next day, Saturday, I meander confidently back, stopping at a closed market that has a soft drink machine outside. I buy a bottle of water and move on to a gift shop, also closed. There’s not a cafeteria, burger joint, or barbecue place to be found. In Tennessee. In the South. Not in all my life, both real or imaginary, had an area in the South without food ever appeared.

When I get to the festival gate, it turns out that I need to go back to the original place I had gone to last night and enter that way. The same guy who had directed me the night before directs me this time, but in the light of day Mr. Pickup is actually in a pale green SUV, not the truck I had apparently hallucinated based on his backwoods accent. But the light also reveals a half sleeve of creepy tats. I go around the back way, picking up J.L. as he trudges up the hill.

J.L., a staff member who lives in Oregon, explains the origins of the festival as a wedding celebration that continued as an annual event. This is the fourth formal event. He remembers me because he had helped me park last night. In exchange for the ride, he helps me find a good spot near the music and the porta-potties, where I can leave whenever I want, which turns out to be twelve hours later, around midnight.

Hunkering under my umbrella on a log seat as the next group sets up, my view is restricted to mud sloshed by galoshes, Birkenstocks, beat-up sneakers, crocs, hi-tops, and bare feet. As the rain clears a bit, I emerge from my bunker to misted mountaintops covered in glistening forest of conifers.

The Real Deal

The next band’s curious name, Unaka Prong, actually has quite a prosaic origin, an offshoot of the Unaka River (pronounced “you-NAH-kah”)in Boone, North Carolina. Ironically, the band itself looks rather prosaic, but actually isn’t. Like a concatenation of the best of college white-boy garage bands, these fresh-faced, clean-cut guys are misleading.

Chris Pope, the keyboard player, has the Seattle grunge look of Kurt Cobain, but jams on the keys like Billy Preston. John Hargett, the drummer, could have been Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson surfer guy, but plays with the delicacy of a symphonist. In his horn-rims, Jonathon Sale, the bass player, looks like Paul Desmond of the Dave Brubeck Quartet — or chess club president; while lead guitarist Mike Welsh seems likely at any minute to leave the stage and sub-in with the Allman Brothers. Rhythm guitarist Daniel Stevenson doesn’t leave much of an impression on me beyond a backup player for Garth Brooks or Willie Nelson.

Unaka Prong: Jonathan Sale, bass; John Hargett, drums; Nic Pressley, trumpet, vocals, rhythm guitar; Mike Welsh, lead guitar; Daniel Stevenson, rhythm guitar; Chris Pope, keyboard

And then there’s the rather unexpected touch of lead man Nic Pressley. I think to myself, “Shouldn’t he be playing first trumpet in somebody’s marching band or carrying a Tiki torch in Charlottesville?” Turns out, he’s the leader of the band and has clearly had what Funk icons Tower of Power called a “soul vaccination.” What with his swiveling hips and rubbernecking, I’m convinced there’s been some hanky-panky down on the ol’ plantation. But, then, I should have known something was up when I saw that surfer boy had brought his own cymbals. Serious player, that little drummer boy. Paa-rum-pa-pum pum, for real. Every other drummer has just played the drum setup on the tiny stage area. Good cymbals are typical of Cool Jazz players who take subtleties like timbre seriously.

“Clifford” by Unaka Prong from the album Margot

The fusion of Prong member looks presages their fusion of musical styles. They call themselves a “Progressive Funk Rock band,” but in the moment I don’t care what they’re called, I’m just with them when they easily steer from complex jazz chords, topping lowdown bass rhythms, all supporting extended solos for the trumpet or lead guitar, while the drums keep the driving beat, and those lovely cymbals shake and shimmer, crash and cuddle, sear and sooth, all layered beneath Nic’s bluesy voice with its raspy, half high-or-drunk vocal timbre. I forget the endless rain, the knotty benches, the twisty roads. Lots of skills comfortably handled, all for the music, little for the ego. They’re tight. I’m loose. And with that, Fate and Fortune lay down together as lion and lamb becoming one. Life.

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