Scrape, snap, scrape. The steel taps of clogging shoes hit the floor. It sounds like the cocking and firing of a rifle. “Yeah, get it now,” somebody says. Feet pound the floorboards – in sandals and boots and dress shoes, too. But shoulders and hips are eerily still. They sway only slightly, side to side and up and down.
You can smell the sweat of hard dancing. It mixes with the aroma of popcorn and hotdogs. The 16-year-old girl on the stage belts out a Bluegrass tune and saws on her fiddle. Later she’ll slide down to the dance floor. Every once in a while, she’ll kick her bare foot high in the air. Flat footin’. Mountain dancing to mountain music.
Several people ask Dolly Smith, a volunteer worker, who that band is. “Do they have a CD?” is the next question. “I don’t know,” Smith says, throwing up her hands and shaking her head.
Rachel Blankenship does have a CD in the works. Susan, her mother, bass player and publicist, collects names and addresses after the band finishes its set. “[The CD’s] $10; $12 for me to mail it to you,” she says.
Susan can’t explain how the Bluegrass band got its name, Ten Brooks. “That’s just what it’s called,” she says. But she does explain her daughter’s talent, “She’s been playing since she was 5. I say I had a little to do with it. I played [the bass] when I was pregnant with her,” she says.
Outside the store, the scene is much the same. Most of the parking lots, even the alleys, are full of dancers, onlookers, and best of all, old time and bluegrass musicians.
For many, bluegrass music conjures images of Depression-era Appalachia, more like something out of the “Grapes of Wrath” than anything found in the 21st century. But the Friday Nite Jamboree at the Floyd Country Store is one of the hottest things going, locally, nationally, and even internationally.
“We had a group here from Tasmania not long ago,” says Mike Brough, co-owner of the store. The store’s guest book logs people from White Lake, Mich. and Leesburg, Fla., from Tennessee, Utah, Colorado and Louisiana. And that’s just tonight.
After the “O Brother Where Art Thou” phenomenon, the Friday Nite Jamboree, an already fast-moving train, has picked up speed. Friday nights in January and February used to be slow for the weekly, year-round event, but these days, there are plenty of people dancing during the off season. Brough says this past Thanksgiving weekend was the most packed he’s ever seen the place.
But not long ago the Jamboree’s future was looking dim.
It was 1998 and the store, along with its already-famous weekly music festival, was up for sale for the second time in less than a decade. Hubert Roberson, one of the original founders of the Jamboree, was tired. He’d been playing, organizing, managing and trying to make a profit since he bought the place from Freeman
Cockram in 1992.
Cockram had been running the place – named Cockram’s General Store in those days — since 1984. He and Roberson were friends and, after closing time on Fridays, they would meet at the store to practice their music.
Roberson had a band, The Bluegrass Travelers, and says he used to be able to play three instruments at one time. Pretty soon, locals starting “beating on the door, wanting to be let in,” Roberson says. Then other musicians started coming by to jam. Pretty soon, people starting dancing and hollering, and an institution was born.
But as popular as it is, the Jamboree has never made a profit and never paid a musician to play. The store, along with other bad investments, left Cockram $800,000 in debt. In 1992, Cockram sold out to Roberson but stayed on to manage the newly-christened Floyd Country Store and its Jamboree.
Sadly, the financial situation hadn’t changed by 1998, and Roberson fired Cockram. A short time later, Cockram would be indicted for defrauding an elderly Jamboree fan of $30,000. Managing the place alone, Roberson was able to pay the light bill, but he was in his 70s and wanted a rest. He put the place on the market.
Two fans – two lawyers – from Chapel Hill, N.C., saw the for sale sign and lost their minds, they say.
William Morgan grew up on mountain music in Rutherford County, N.C. He married his love of music and his aptitude for law and made a career. Now he’s half owner of a world-famous mountain music venue on weekends and represents musicians like Charlie Waller and The Country Gentlemen during the week.
Mike Brough’s family passed on to him a cabin in Franklin County, next door to Floyd. He’d been coming to the Jamboree for years and says he was afraid the music would stop if he didn’t find a way to buy the store. “We love the music and the people,” Brough says. “That’s why [we bought it].
Roberson has stayed on. “I help out,” he says. “I’m a local face people can see when they come in and feel more at home.”
There have been rumors that locals boycott the Jamboree and that attendance is down, but the regulars say it’s not true. “This is my second home,” says Shirley Ferris, a professional clogger and regular at the Jamboree. “You can find me and my wife here almost every Friday night.”
There is a big out-of-town crowd, but according to Brough a loyal out-of-state following developed long before he and Morgan bought the place. “People have been driving up every weekend from Greensboro, Chapel Hill, and all over, just to come to the Jamboree, including William and me, then they all drive back home the same night,” he says.
Aside from a $3 admission fee, not much has changed. You can still get a hotdog and maybe win the weekly door prize – a country ham. You still can’t drink or smoke in the store, and no dancing is allowed during the 6:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. music slot. That’s the gospel music hour.
Brough and Morgan have experimented with selling local arts and crafts and even tried to add a Saturday night concert series. But those things haven’t worked out “for a lot of reasons,” Brough says. The biggest change has been the death of Jim DeHart, emcee and regular player at the Jamboree. He collapsed in front of the store on an August night in 2000. “He took us under his wing,” Brough says. “We miss him.” Still, the Jamboree rolls on.
“Some hippie-style people come in here. They want to get into it [the music scene]. We don’t pay much attention to them,” Roberson says.
Up the street, you can stop in at Oddfella’s Cantina for fried plantains and Jamaican jerked chicken accompanied by a local jazz trio. Across town at the Pine Tavern, you can hear some Celtic fusion and have a filet mignon. Mama Lazardo’s – directly across the street from the store – offers lasagna and an open mic for any musician who wants to play.
But according to David Brown, owner of Mama Lazardo’s, there doesn’t seem to be any competition among the music venues. “Each one seems to have its own niche,” he says.
The Jamboree brings in a mix of people, from die-hard local old time and bluegrass fans to Russian exchange students who’ve never seen a banjo before. The Cantina tends to pull in those hippie-style, transplanted Floydians and professors from the many nearby colleges and universities. The Pine Tavern “pulls in the dinner music crowd,” Brown says.
But many people seem to graze on Floyd’s myriad musical offerings, moving from one venue to another without missing a beat.
And those hippie-style people have moved into the Floyd music scene. Kris Hodges and Erika Johnson, the husband and wife team that owns Oddfella’s Cantina, have organized the first Floyd World Music Festival (www. floydfest.com).
The festival is planned for Sept. 27-29 and promises to feature Doc Watson, the Neville Brothers, Tony Rice, and Solazo, a South American band with ties to Floyd and Blacksburg. The festival will also feature Reggae, African drumming, Swedish clogging and country music.
In fact, music and art are breaking out all over tiny Floyd. Restoration is underway at a nearby barn which will soon be transformed into a small business incubator to nurture cultural, musical and artistic entrepreneurs. This week, a new art gallery, Indigo Sky, opened its doors. One of the co-owners, Alina Ever, waits tables at Oddfella’s and practices massage therapy on the side.
The Jacksonville Center is another of Floyd’s cultural petri dishes. The center has a black box theatre, a dance studio and holds music and holistic healing classes. Winter Sky, a new-age clothing store, has installed a stage and a dance floor.
But, for now, the Jamboree is still the main draw. “We’ll always have the followers of the music,” Roberson says.