Crouse Park is exactly two blocks directly north behind the Courthouse. (Take NC 18 north, East Doughton Street, past the Courthouse. Take the second left, then the next right. The Crouse House is in the park on your right.) This informal group of musicians have been showing up every Monday night around 6 p.m. and playing until around 9 for the past 25 years.
They split into a bluegrass group in the living room and old-time in the dining room. Whoever shows up can play. This is a true jam. The bands are never the same.
“We’ve had as many as 17 in one band, pickin’ at one time,” says Richard Nichols, one of the granddaddies of the Crouse House Pickers. “It’s amazing that so many players, who have never played together before, can blend in.”
Some 25 years ago Nichols was contacted by Thornton Spencer to provide guitar accompaniment for a class in old-time music Spencer and wife Emily were teaching for Wilkes Community College
in Sparta. Thornton and Emily are original members of the Whitetop Mountain Band begun by legendary fiddler and fiddle maker Albert Hash. Hash died in 1983 and the Spencers have kept the Whitetop Band alive ever since.
Students chipped in to keep the Spencers teaching after class ended. At some point they transitioned into jamming on their own.
No admission is charged, but there is a tip jar that musicians and audience members contribute to for expenses. In the winter, most of that goes to keep the ancient furnace running at the Crouse House.
Crowds swell in the summer, and on warm nights musicians may play from the porch, under the trees, or from the Crouse Stage at the lower end of the Park. If you play an instrument, don’t be afraid to join in. Members are always willing to offer tips on play or instrument repairs.
If you are a novice fan of mountain music, here’s a quick guide to its two great divisions. Old-time music is traditional ballads performed with traditional instruments: guitar, fiddle, banjo and bass. The banjo is picked claw-hammer style.
Bluegrass grew out of old time. It adds a mandolin and can also add a Dobro or resonator guitar. The banjo is picked three-finger style pioneered by Earl Scruggs. During songs, individual instruments will take turns playing lead while the others play rhythm in the background. During old-time numbers, instruments play at the same level throughout. Bluegrass musicians are more likely to sing along.
And depending upon what musicians show up, a little country or gospel tune may be slipped into the mix.
That’s a quick and dirty lesson. To really go to school on the music, be there any Monday.