It's 6:45 on Thursday night at the Schley Grange Hall, and from my perch just outside the room at the far right of the foyer I watch the numbers grow on both sides of the microphones.
There are close to 10 guitarists lined up behind the mics, with bass, fiddle, banjo and mandolin players also in the ranks. In addition to the regulars, a fellow from up near Virgilina—or is that South Boston—has brought his whole combo. And as those who've come to listen claim a folding chair or set up a lawn chair in front of the musicians, exclamations of "Good to see you back!" and "Where have you been?" saturate the air. Soon enough, though, it will be soaked with hymns.
This is the tenth year for the Picking & Grinning sessions but the first that they've been held at the hall, which sits on your right just as Schley Road crosses Highway 57, several miles north of Hillsborough. Phillip Dabbs and Betty Compton started the get-together for reasons you might guess—they felt it'd be nice to offer folks in the community an opportunity to come together and make some music while they're at it.
"You picked a good night to come," a 12-year-old named Michaela Woodward tells me. She's a regular here, enjoying the weekly nights out with her grandparents.
"Yes," I reply, "It looks like a big crowd." "Oh yeah," she says. "And it's cake night!"
The Picking & Grinning participants initially gathered at the Cedar Grove United Methodist Church in the fall of 2000, but after only a couple of sessions, fire destroyed the church. For the next nine years, Dabbs, Compton and the faithful congregated at the Cedar Grove Ruritan Club. Crowds of 200-plus were not unusual, the majority of folks from Hillsborough and its neighboring towns but a handful traveling from Raleigh and beyond, including Virginia. Those numbers and that geographical range are especially remarkable when you consider this musical community is sustained mostly by word of mouth or, in my case, happenstance. Last spring, they moved to this new home, with a room only about half the size of the spacious Ruritan Club, as a cost-cutting measure. I discovered Picking & Grinning on a May night last year when, drawn by the siren pull of a vintage salvation number, I peeked in a window as my son practiced baseball on the field behind the hall. I had to know more.
"The first hour is gospel, old-time gospel," says Dabbs, explaining the format. "Most of us are old-timers," he adds with a warm grin. The second half is given over to country and bluegrass, or what some of those aforementioned old-timers refer to as "western music." At 7 p.m. sharp, Dabbs claims one microphone. Compton, her smile as bright as her orange shirt, stands behind the other. Dabbs—who, with sleeves rolled up and pen in pocket, could pass for a friendly middle school principal in his victory-lap year—reminds the assembled to not talk during the singing or, acknowledging the inherent social component of these sessions, to keep it to a minimum, at least
"'Blessed Redeemer' in D," he announces, and they're off. Any of the dozen-plus musicians behind Dabbs and Compton who know the tune fall in together as the pair begins the hymn. The ensemble stretches across the width of the room. At the center is bandleader Billy Sheppard and his red Fender. Sheppard lives in nearby Caldwell, and he fronts a long-standing group named the Country Flames out of Roxboro when not providing the lead twang for this humble orchestra.
At 16, banjoist Tucker Galloway is the youngest musician in the line tonight. Mainstay Bob Thomas, 88, has the honors at the other end of the range, which I discover when Thomas' wife, Rachel, introduces herself. "My husband is the older man playing guitar. He's 88, almost 89," she says. Indeed, the backing band is a senior-dominated outfit, with 55 to 70 the dominant age bracket. Galloway and guitarist Bruce Aycock, who looks to be in his late 20s, are notable exceptions.
When Dabbs and Compton finish, they leave center stage quickly. Hugh Stewart, his gray porkpie hat both a shade lighter and a shade darker than competing sections of his salt-and-pepper beard, steps up from the musician line to sing. Stewart's a burly man—imagine Brian Dennehy playing Waylon Jennings in a biopic—with an equally burly but engaging voice, showcased tonight with "I'm Using My Bible for a Roadmap." And so it continues: Vocalists come and go, one song per each hour, some emerging from the band and others from the crowd. The whole affair hums along with a clockwork efficiency that makes you want to rise up and smite the next self-absorbed rocker you see taking five minutes between songs. A shorter member of the band has to stretch a bit when he comes up to sing "I'm Going Home." There's no time to adjust the microphone when you need to keep the trains running on time.
Half an hour into the singing, it strikes me that volume is not necessarily related to skill level. Some of the more talented singers project the least, whereas some of the least choir-ready vocalists belt it out. And why not? This is the sound of fellowship and faith and old friends coming through a small PA and two Yamaha speakers. The results are refreshing and oftentimes joyous. You're clearly among the kindhearted.
Compton, for instance, finds me in my stranger's spot just outside the door that leads to the music room. "It's amazing how this has sustained since 2000," she says. "People cycle in and out, but there's a core group of musicians." She surveys the room. "It's really heartwarming how much it means to people. You can't see it from back here, but when you're onstage you can see everybody singing. This is their kind of music."
Whether it's the music or the warmed hearts or just a natural openness, folks are quick to converse—even with, or maybe especially with, a first-timer. Joan Terry, sitting to my right and the owner of a room-illuminating smile, plays tour guide. "That lady, she's an opera singer," Terry offers at one point as a woman trades her seat in the audience for a turn at the microphone. Sure enough, her vocals take dramatic flight. A little later, Terry says that she has Parkinson's disease. "The music's good for it," Terry says. She rarely misses a Thursday.
Aycock and his wife, Sara, stand out because they're a generation or two younger than the other couples in attendance. They live and work nearby, at New Hope Camp on Highway 86. I've noticed that Sara has been on the receiving end of concerned—or perhaps just nurturing—stares over the course of the evening. "Her due date was last week," someone whispers to me. And when she starts to clog during some fiery picking, it looks like some of the ladies are fearful that this week's installment might turn into Picking & Grinning & Delivering. (Baby Aycock has since arrived, and the new family is doing just fine.)
As 8 p.m. approaches, a half-dozen women stand suddenly and adjourn to a kitchen room. It's the last Thursday of the month, so as Michaela Woodward promised, it's cake night. The resulting display is impressive, with generous pieces cut from angel food and black forest cakes, among others. The music room empties, and everyone moves through the cake line and to a room at the other end of the foyer for sanctioned socializing.
The clock ticks toward 8:15, and it's back to the music area. With everyone sufficiently sugar-rushed, the tempo picks up considerably for the country music portion of the night. Young Tucker Galloway gets the nod to kick-start the second half with "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." There's much clapping and clogging, with star turns on the dance floor by a septuagenarian whose name I never get, and Bruce Aycock. Folks seem more comfortable with the Bruce half of the Aycock team doing the shaking.
Stewart contributes a sturdy "Long Black Veil" and Sheppard a nifty version of the Conway Twitty-owned "(Lying Here With) Linda on My Mind." Before launching into "Truck Drivin' Man," Bob Joyner points out that the song is a little outdated: "You don't put no nickel in no jukebox no more."
The songs are familiar, the performances direct from the heart. The fellowship wraps around you like a handcrafted shawl. Shaking hands with Dabbs at the end of the night, getting a slap on the shoulder from Stewart, seeing Woodward waltz with her grandpa, and witnessing Terry do some spirited, therapeutic clogging during "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms"—it's been a good Thursday night, my delicious piece of chocolate cake included.