December 11, 2023

Tommy Jarrell Festival has full slate of music, dance

The annual Tommy Jarrell celebration — to commemorate the life and music of the influential local musician, is set for Feb. 24-Feb. 26 at the Historic Earle Theatre in Mount Airy.

The celebration includes concerts, a youth competition, workshops, and a film screening. The popular festival has something for every old-time music lover. The yearly event celebrates the music and teachings of Surry County native and old-time music pioneer and icon, Tommy Jarrell, who lived from March 1, 1901 to Jan. 28, 1985.

Many of the activities are scheduled at the Old-Time Music Heritage Hall at the Historic Earle Theatre at 142 North Main Street.

On Thursday, Feb. 24 there are free youth lessons. Flatfoot dance is at 4:30 p.m., fiddle lessons are at 5:30 p.m., followed by guitar, banjo, and mandolin lessons at 6:15 p.m. The music lessons are taught by Jim Vipperman, Brown-Hudson Folklore Award recipient as a traditional musician and teacher. These lessons are sponsored in part by a TAPS grant from the Folklife Division of the North Carolina Arts Council, a division of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

The Southeast Sirens Tour will hit the stage at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday. The tour is presented by The Surry Arts Council and Pine State Marketing and features Caitlin Krisko & The Broadcast and Abby Bryant & The Echoes. Tickets are $15.

Friday at 7 p.m. is the free screening of “You Gave Me A Song,” a film about Alice Gerrard. The film offers an intimate portrait of old-time music pioneer Alice Gerrard and her remarkable, unpredictable journey creating and preserving traditional music. A question and answer session with Director Kenny Dalsheimer and Gerrard will follow the film.

A short performance by Gerrard accompanied by Tatiana Hargreaves and Reed Stutz will follow the Q&A. This film and event are made possible in part through vital support from Presenting Sponsor The North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources as part of their “She Changed the World: NC Women Breaking Barriers” and “Come Hear NC” programs.

In a career spanning more than 50 years, Gerrard has made an indelible mark on the history of traditional music. Her groundbreaking collaboration with Appalachian singer Hazel Dickens during the 1960s and ’70s produced four classic LPs (recently reissued by Rounder) and influenced scores of young women singers. Her subsequent four solo albums including Bittersweet, produced by Laurie Lewis, and Follow the Music, produced by Mike Taylor of His Golden Messenger — further showcased Gerrard’s many talents: her compelling, eclectic songwriting; her powerful, hard-edged vocals, and her instrumental mastery on rhythm guitar, banjo, and old-time fiddle. Gerrard’s 2015 album, Follow the Music was nominated for a Grammy. Her most recent release, Sing Me Back Home: The DC Tapes 1965-1969 on Free Dirt Records, has found critical acclaim for its intimate peek into previously unheard Hazel and Alice practice tapes.

Gerrard has appeared on more than 20 recordings, including projects with many traditional musicians such as Tommy Jarrell, Enoch Rutherford, Otis Burris, Luther Davis, and Matokie Slaughter; with Tom Sauber and Brad Leftwich as Tom, Brad & Alice, with the Harmony Sisters, the Herald Angels, Beverly Smith, and with Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle.

Old-Time workshops are on Saturday from 1:30-5:00 p.m. at the Earle. The workshops are $25 per person and participants may register online or [email protected] or call 336-786-7998. Through classes, presentations, workshops, and performances participants will learn from some of the most esteemed and respected musicians in the field: Chester McMillian, Martha Spencer, and Emily Spencer.

The workshops will take place in the Historic Earle Theatre and will include fiddle, banjo, guitar, bass, singing, and dancing – whatever participants want to learn. Martha Spencer is a singer-songwriter, mountain musician, and dancer from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. She grew up in the musical Spencer family and learned to play several instruments (guitar, fiddle, banjo, bass, dulcimer, mandolin) and flatfoot/clog at a young age. She has played shows, festivals, and led workshops across the US, Australia, UK, and Europe. She just released a solo album and has been included in articles such as Rolling Stone Country, No Depression, Wide Open Country, Cowboys & Indians Magazine, Americana Highways, and PopMatters.

Emily Spencer is a certified PK-12 teacher and has taught fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, dulcimer, and bass in the schools and at Wilkes Community College and Wytheville Community College. Since childhood, she has played music and started playing with the Whitetop Mountain Band in the 1970s with Thornton Spencer and continues with the band today.

Chester McMillian was born in Carroll County, Virginia, into a musical family and community. He has played traditional Old-time Round Peak style music since childhood. By the time he was 11 or 12 years old, he was living in Surry County and taking an active part in the Round Peak music community. In 1962, Chester married into Dix Freeman’s family, and the two began playing a lot of music together. Chester played guitar with Tommy Jarrell for fifteen years, and he developed his guitar style specifically to play with Tommy. He has also played and recorded with Dix Freeman, Kirk Sutphin, and Greg Hooven, with whom he founded the group Backstep.

On Saturday the WPAQ Merry-Go-Round starts at 11 a.m. with workshop instructors and participants followed by bands including Grace ‘N Grass.

Lew Bode and Jim Vipperman will preside over the Tommy Jarrell Festival Youth Competition on Saturday at 3 p.m. in the Andy Griffith Museum Theatre below the Andy Griffith Museum. Categories include fiddle, clawhammer banjo, guitar, vocal, dance, and other (which includes all other instruments and bands), in two age levels: 5-12 and 13-18. Contestants will have three minutes to perform and can have one accompanist, though no recorded backup is permitted. Contestants may register at the event, there is no fee for competing, and trophies are awarded following the competition.

Whitetop Mountain Band will take the stage on Saturday at 7 p.m. for the Tommy Jarrell Birthday Concert and Dance, hosted by Lew Bode. The Whitetop Mountain Band is a family-based band from the highest mountains of Virginia. Known for their high energy and charisma on stage, Whitetop Mountain Band is one of the most popular dance bands of the Appalachian Mountains. They have performed at all sorts of venues throughout the United States and abroad including the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, National Folklife Festival, World Music Institute, Carter Family Festival, Dock Boggs Festival, World Fair, Virginia Arts Festival, Floyd Fest, Ola Belle Reed Festival, and Merlefest. Tickets are $10.

For additional information or to purchase tickets, visit or call the Surry Arts Council at 336-786-7998. Tickets can also be purchased at the door before each show if they are available. Select Tommy Jarrell Festival events are supported in part by the North Carolina Arts Council, a division of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.


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