Wineka column: There’s nothing fancy but the music, fellowship and food at Pop’s Picking Place

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 30, 2014

ALISBURY — Pop’s Picking Place isn’t exactly a palace.
It’s a two-car, cinder-block garage, which is never used as such.
Inside, the garage has frilly curtains on the windows, a tile floor, hooks and racks on which to hang your coats, a church pew, three oscillating fans, a couple of recliners and about 40 skinnier chairs lined up in five rows.
On Saturday nights, musicians and the people coming to hear them squeeze their cars into a gravel lot in front of the garage, or they find spots across the road.
Everybody enters the building through a side door, writes his or her name on a notebook page that says “Pop’s Picking Place” at the top and gets down to business.
That business might include dropping off a homemade dish in the kitchen for everyone to share, or making rounds around the room to say hello.
For the musicians, it also means tuning up their guitars, mandolins, banjos, fiddles and upright basses and finding a place to stow away the empty instrument cases.
The unofficial starting time for the bluegrass, country and gospel music — you’ll hear it all — is 6:30 p.m. The night winds up at 9. There’s no charge, never has been.
Polly Webb, the quiet and friendly queen of the establishment, sits at a back corner table near the kitchen. The house rules are posted on a piece of paper above her head:
1) Family-type entertainment only.
2) No smoking (chewing permitted).
3) No alcoholic beverages.
4) All musicians play together.
5) Each musician can select songs.
6) Tune up and join group as quickly as possible.
7) Enjoy the evening.
8) No electric instruments.
9) Not responsible for accidents.
Signed: The Management.
For permission to write about and take photographs of Pop’s Picking Place, the Post agreed not to disclose where all this happens.
Be content with its being in rural Rowan County not terribly far from Salisbury. “The Management” is happy with the way things have been since 1991 when these nights started, and it doesn’t want any bigger crowds for the little garage.
Webb also asked for restraint in the use of some last names, for fear it might give away the location. Pop’s Picking Place was started by her late sister, Louise, and Louise’s husband, Bill.
A great lover of music, Bill went by the nickname of “Pop.”
Polly and her husband, Charles, sort of inherited the Saturday night event after Pop and Louise died. Polly lost Charles not too long ago.
But Polly remains proud of Pop’s Picking Place and the friends it brings to her Saturday nights.
One of the most democratic setups you’ll ever see provides at least two straight hours of music.
If you bring an instrument you stand up front and play with everyone else. The performers take turns in singing and selecting the songs.
Mike Williams, the emcee of sorts, writes down the names of each musician in vertical order on a dry-erase board. He props it up high, so they know who’s up next.
When the list is finished, they start over again from the top.
It’s a random list — whatever strikes Williams’ fancy, and it changes every Saturday.
On this particular night, 17 musicians are standing and playing together up front. When their turns arrive, they come to the middle, call out the song and key to the others and start playing.
Williams leads things off with “Walk Softly” in key of G, and the music doesn’t stop until closing time.
The male and female musicians range in age from John Lee, a 12-year-old banjo player, to Robert “Rube” Upright, an 83-year-old guitarist who played regularly on a Concord radio station years ago.
Rube’s brother, Junior Upright, plays the fiddle, as does James Shoe. Both men are tall and thin as rails.
“When you have two fiddle players who are that good,” Williams says, “it’s interesting sometimes.”
Shoe is an 81-year-old retired welder who has been playing fiddle since he was a young man. He has never had a lesson.
“If you learn it, you don’t forget it,” he says.
Through the night, the crowd — like the musicians — has little room to maneuver. But members of the audience are content with tapping their toes, clapping in rhythm and singing along at times.
“It’s a good crowd,” says mandolin player Garland Griggs. “I’ve never seen a better bunch of people.”
The spectators might get up to retrieve food from the kitchen or a soft drink from the counter in back. On occasion, Williams prepares gallons of chicken and dumplings for everyone to eat. Desserts as varied as the music also are popular.
Carolyn Upright usually finds enough room to dance to a couple of her favorite songs.
Frances Shoe, James’ wife, says she enjoys hearing him play and all the fellowship going on around her every Saturday night.
“It’s just a family atmosphere,” guitarist Jerry Baxter says. “No profanity, no drinking, and no one’s ever been turned away.”
Daniel Thrailkill, 16, has been playing his guitar at Pop’s Picking Place for about four months. Earlier in the day, Thrailkill had competed at RenoFest in Hartsville, S.C., but he made sure to leave himself enough travel time to join his new friends at Pop’s that evening.
“I needed to be here,” he says.
The on-top-of-you closeness of the Saturday night crowds has helped him get used to playing in front of people, Thrailkill says. His 19-year-old brother, Will, also is a regular.
“I just love picking and grinning with everybody,” says Bob Brown, who filled Shirley Ingram’s request to play “God on the Mountain.”
The crowd sings with him.
The gospel song about mountains and valleys, days and nights — the highs and lows of life — means a lot to Brown, a retired electrician from Hoechst Celanese. The Vietnam War veteran has undergone two heart transplants, besides the heartache of losing loved ones.
Every time he has been out of action, Brown says, the people at Pop’s Picking Place have sent him a card signed by all his friends.
“We kind of lift people up when they lose somebody,” says Shirley Ingram, who serves as Polly Webb’s ambassador, making sure everything runs smoothly during the night.
When his musical turn comes around the second time, Williams usually pauses for a moment to recognize any birthdays or anniversaries in the crowd.
“Anyone wanting to get married?” he asks, getting a few chuckles. “If I get married again, shoot me.”
Then it’s back to the music.
“OK, boys, let’s do a little ‘Kentucky’ in G,” Williams announces.
Judy Reid is known for her singing. Playing her guitar, Mary Lambert also has the voice of angel and often joins several of the guys in duets.
Gretchen Tracy is an accomplished banjo picker, who wears a T-shirt saying “Girl Scruggs,” a tip of the hat to the late Earl Scruggs.
Greg Sales often brings the crowd a Johnny Cash song.
A night seldom goes by without a rendition of “Orange Blossom Special.” You’re as likely to hear “Danny Boy,” as you are “Take Me Back to Tulsa” or the “Tennessee Waltz.”
“It’s a variety of music, is what I like about it,” Griggs says.
Plenty of good-natured ribbing, joking and laughing go on.
“Why did I have to wake up?” Junior Upright protests when it’s his turn to select a song.
Before singing “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” Reid relays the story of why her father always liked to fish with crickets. “It takes the jump out of them,” she says.
As Tracy winds up a good turn with “Reuben’s Train,” Williams tells her, “That was all right. I remember when you couldn’t play a lick.”
Earlier in an aside, Williams warns, “You play any Elvis number, these women go crazy.”
Baxter obliges later by playing Elvis Presley’s “Treat Me Like a Fool.” On cue, women in the audience start waving white napkins, hankies or toilet paper — whatever they have in hand.
“See what I mean about playing Elvis,” Williams complains.
Each chair has a cushion because you do a lot of sitting and listening at Pop’s Picking Place. The garage also has a couple of refrigerators and a tiny bathroom off to the side.
On the first Saturday of a month, the crowd will pass a hat around and put some money in to pay for the light bill and any other expenses.
For 20 years, from 1993 to 2013, Chris Christy served as ramrod for each session at Pop’s. He is now “retired” and enjoying his Saturday nights at home on High Rock Lake.
Williams, who’s not above telling a bad joke or two, has filled in nicely.
Pop’s Picking Place goes weekly until the end of May. The summers are just too hot, Polly Webb says. The music picks up again in October and extends through the winter and spring.
The garage has an oil stove for the colder nights.
The regulars build a strong attachment to Pop’s. Larry Reid Morgan wrote a four-verse song about the venue back in 2009 — a tune that’s played every now and then. Here’s the opening stanza:
I love to come to Pop’s Picking Place,
Where there’s always folks with a smiling face.
Pickers come from far and near
To play the music we love to hear.
Webb can’t help but be nostalgic. She keeps a list of all the musicians (36) and all the supportive friends (38) who have passed away since 1991.
Polly also has scrapbooks filled with photographs of performances through the years. It includes, of course, pictures of Pop, Louise and Charles and so many lost friends.
Before they leave early for home, many people, such as Bob and Iris Caudill of Concord, walk up to Webb to say their goodbyes with a kiss and a hug.
At the end of the evening, Polly asks Williams to end things with one of her favorites by Hank Williams: “I Saw the Light.”
The evening ends with, “Now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight. Praise the Lord, I saw the light.”
The words are fit for a palace.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or