Houston Caldwell was a talented young musician who lived in Galax, Virginia, a hotbed of traditional old-time and bluegrass music, where the annual Galax Old Fiddlers Convention has been held each year since 1935. Houston had recently graduated from high school, served as a member of the local fire department, and enlisted into the U.S. Army, all while gaining local recognition as a talented and enthusiastic banjo player. In 2010, Houston died tragically in a motorcycle accident on his way home from MerleFest. In his memory, his family, working with the local fire department, young pickers, Houston’s bluegrass friends, and many others, founded a springtime music festival in his name: HoustonFest. It was there we first encountered JAM, Junior Appalachian Musicians.
While wandering around the grounds at HoustonFest, my wife and I saw dozens of young musicians jamming, and the festival had two stages devoted to young bands showcasing their talents. We stumbled onto the JAM tent, where there were instruments available for kids to touch, experiment with, and play. We also met Helen White, who founded JAM in 2000 as a way to encourage kids to keep in touch with the traditional music of their region and learn to play by ear rather than from notation or tablature. As the program has developed, it has often worked with public schools. Here’s a video describing the process and effects of the JAM program to the region, and beyond:
In the nearly two decades since its founding, JAM has spread up and down Appalachia, resulting in many kids learning to play traditional music as well as to merge their newfound talents into the developing contemporary music growing out of bluegrass and old-time music. Bands have formed and many young musicians have taken their interests to places like East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Appalachian State in Boone, North Carolina, or Morehead State in Kentucky to study their music in a deeper and more formal fashion. The culminating event of HoustonFest was an awards ceremony recognizing young musicians associated with JAM.
At the last Galax we attended, we saw young Trajan Wellington receive the annual scholarship awarded by HoustonFest. Tray, as he is known, was also awarded a scholarship to Pete Wernick’s Jam Camp at MerleFest and won the Brian Friesen Award, a Deering banjo awarded to a nominee who would “not otherwise be able to afford a professional banjo.” Tray now plays banjo for the rising young band Cane Mill Road, a showcase band at IBMA 2017 and nominee for 2018’s Momentum Award.
Cane Mill Road, based less than six miles from Deep Gap, North Carolina, the home of Doc Watson, draws its inspiration from the late singer/guitarist whose musical imagination gathered inspiration from the deepest Appalachian roots while courageously finding connections to almost all elements of American music. Composed of four young musicians ranging in age from 16 to 22, the band has quickly ignited a spark that has led to a recording contract with Patuxent Music and early recognition from the International Bluegrass Music Association. Here they are singing guitarist Casey Lewis’ song “Gap to Gap” celebrating their roots.
We first became aware of Cane Mill Road when we saw them at the Pemi Valley Bluegrass Festival in New Hampshire this summer. They’ve played many major festivals this year, including MerleFest, Grey Fox, and the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival, where we saw them again. Their 2019 festival season is already beginning to shape up with high-profile performances, including an opening spot for the Molly Tuttle Band in Bluefield, West Virginia, in January, and North Carolina State Bluegrass Festival in Marion during the summer. The coming year looks to be another busy and productive one for this young band. Here’s 15-year-old mandolinist/singer Liam Purcell, also a JAM alumnus, singing harmony on the classic bluegrass tune “Sittin’ on Top of the World” at Delaware Valley.
It’s truly a delight to see young, self-motivated bands out on the festival trail bringing their youthful spirit to bear on traditional music as well as writing and performing their own, more contemporary music. With their roots deep in the fertile traditional ground of deepest Appalachia, this young, energetic, personable group of musicians has attracted early positive attention. One can only hope they stay together and thrive as they push their music further while continuing to celebrate their origins.