Revived Union Grove Fiddlers’ Convention keeps its focus on the music.
UNION GROVE — Casey VanHoy and Vivian P. Hopkins huddle next to computers in the corner of VanHoy’s living room, trying to put some finishing touches on this year’s edition of the Union Grove Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention.
When: Friday and Saturday, March 29-30. Performances start around 4 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m. Saturday.Where: VanHoy Farms Family Campground, 742 Jericho Road, Exit 65 off Interstate 77, about 16 miles north of Statesville.Tickets: $10 Friday; $15 Saturday; advanced two-day special, $20.Featuring: Old-time and bluegrass music, bands and individuals; workshops on playing various instruments, clogging and buck dancing competitions, youth and adult awards, band eliminations, food vendors, camping, three stages, raffles.
Union Grove Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention
Bo, VanHoy’s husky Labrador retriever, periodically noses his way in for attention. VanHoy also pops up now and then to retrieve a coffee or cookie from the kitchen.
That’s the great thing about working from home, and you could say Casey VanHoy grew up here with the Fiddlers’ Convention.
But it has changed drastically from the years it was known as a country-music Woodstock and attracted Easter weekend crowds of more than 100,000 people.
This Friday and Saturday, VanHoy might see spectators in the low thousands, and they’ll be here to enjoy the music of scores of old-time and bluegrass bands and maybe 100 individuals in all.
Free workshops in virtually all the bluegrass instruments also will be offered.
“It’s all about the music — a place to come and learn about this unique language,” VanHoy says.
The musicians will be playing for almost $11,000 in prize money. Meanwhile, music lovers can camp on site at the VanHoy Family Farm or just buy a ticket and hang out, listening to performances at three different stages.
VanHoy revived the event last year, after a 33-year break — and there was “a little bit of a learning curve,” he says.
He and Hopkins, who VanHoy has brought in to help with promotion and organization, think this year’s event will be double what people saw in 2012.
They heard enough positive feedback from the musicians and audiences last year that they’ve added a day of competition, more prizes and more categories to be judged.
They have been on their telephones and online constantly, lining up bands, workshop instructors, emcees, sound crews, vendors and staff.
VanHoy says he has added 35 campsites and promises convention-goers will find plenty of food, flush and portable toilets, shuttles and showers, if needed.
The newest stage will be for thumb-pickers jamming behind the registration barn and will serve as an extension of some of the workshops.
“We thought that would be kind of cool,” VanHoy says.
VanHoy grew up listening to many of the musicians who are coming back for the workshops.
“Some of the best pickers in the world are around here,” says VanHoy, accomplished on the piano and a guitar picker himself. “These folks need to be showcased.”
One of the biggest venues around, the H.P. VanHoy Arena, covers about 60,000 square feet and has bleacher-type seating for up to 10,000 people. It was built in 1977.
There also will be a covered stage by a grove of persimmon trees.
What are VanHoy’s hopes for the event five or 10 years down the road?
“I hope it’s a Fiddlers’ Convention that draws the best and brightest in the nation,” he says.
Hopkins adds, “We want to make this event one of the biggest in North Carolina — and nationally.”
VanHoy hopes they are laying a good foundation by always keeping the focus on music.
“The star of this event is the music itself — the genre,” he says. “We want to handle this thing with care right now.”
The former “Woodstock” version of the Fiddlers Convention ended in 1979. A Superior Court judge, acting on a civil complaint, shut down the convention before the 1980 edition could take place.
Back in the 1970s, people from everywhere in the country overwhelmed the VanHoy farmland where the convention was held. With the crowds came complaints — and arrests — connected with drugs, liquor, guns and open sex.
The modern-day convention is promoted as a family event with no drugs and alcohol allowed.
Casey’s grandfather, H.P. VanHoy, was one of the original organizers behind the old-time and bluegrass music event in 1924, when it was founded for the purpose of raising money for Union Grove School.
As the years and decades went on, so did the convention’s popularity, thanks also to the promotional skills of Casey’s father, Pierce VanHoy.
While it was at the school, acts performed on three different stages — the auditorium, gymnasium and in a big circus tent outside. There were judges at each venue.
The acts practiced in any available classroom or held jam sessions in the parking lots next to their cars. The VanHoys promoted the Fiddlers’ Convention as the greatest country music show going.
By 1969, the Fiddlers’ Convention moved to the VanHoys’ farmland off Jericho Road. The family campground today takes in 107 acres with full hookups, some water-electric sites and primitive camping available.
As the Fiddlers’ Convention exploded, so did the problems. A different branch of the VanHoy family set up its own Ole Time Fiddlers & Bluegrass Festival in Union Grove and eventually it became a well-known event held every Memorial Day weekend.
Casey VanHoy strongly supports this Fiddler’s Grove Festival, which won a Local Legacy Award in 2000 from the Library of Congress, for its capture of the spirit of grass-roots community life.
“Live events are good for all of us,” Casey VanHoy says. “We want to help each other.”
After the Fiddlers’ Convention was shut down in 1979, the site became an official family campground and was host through the years to Arabian horse shows, archery tournaments, classic rock concerts, rodeos and July 4 gospel shows.
A 2001 “Smilefest” included the N.C. State Chili Championship. For 11 consecutive years through 2000, the VanHoy Farm also was home to the “Country Homecoming,” always held on the weekend after Labor Day.
It attracted some of the bigger country music acts of the day.
But Casey VanHoy couldn’t help but think of the Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention and, if you removed all the problems, how good the music was. That has always been what he wants to get back.
Vivian Hopkins’ father, the late Ralph Pennington, played here often as part of bluegrass bands.
Casey and Vivian first collaborated on an event — a bluegrass festival — in 1997, the same year Casey’s father died. In one of his visits to see Pierce VanHoy, former Union Grove School and Granite Quarry Elementary Principal Jim Mathis said he ought to meet Hopkins.
“She’s a real go-getter,” Mathis told Pierce VanHoy.
Casey VanHoy would never forget Mathis’ recommendation. In Hopkins, he saw someone with a kindred spirit and a passion for all types of music.
“We had such a good time,” VanHoy recalls of the event in 1997. “It just seemed like a perfect fit for us to work together.”
For the past six years, Hopkins has been the directing force behind the Granite Quarry Civitan Fiddlers’ Convention.
She and VanHoy together have been promoting the Union Grove Old Time Fiddlers Convention in magazines, on radio, through social networks and by handing out flyers and postcards at live bluegrass events in North Carolina and Virginia.
The N.C. Humanities Council recently chose Hopkins, who is vice president of the Historic Gold Hill and Mines Foundation, as one of its “Road Scholars.”
She is available for presentations across the state on the history of gold mining in North Carolina and the social and economic impact of the first discovery of gold in Cabarrus County in 1799.
Her presentation discusses Gold Hill’s history and its 19th century gold mining district.
A bluegrass musician herself, Hopkins thinks she can put together another “Road Scholar” program on old-time and bluegrass music.
“A lot of it would be based on the culture of Union Grove,” she says.
It’s definitely part of the DNA around here. Just ask VanHoy.
“If you’re raised on something,” he says, “it’s going to come out.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or firstname.lastname@example.org.