Saturday, October 20, 2007

Minton’s Music and Pawn and Hometown Opry

Music and pawn shops seem to go together in some way. Musicians travel and sometimes they get down on their luck. It’s a natural for them to seek out a pawn shop and to trade their beloved instrument for much needed cash. Most pawn shops have a collection of guitars and other instruments hanging on the walls. Years ago an uncle of mine picked up a now rare and much sought after White Laydie banjo for $50.00 at a pawn shop in California. It was a prized possession of his until someone broke into his studio in New York and stole it. In our visits to Wilkesboro for Merlefest over the past five years, we had heard much about Minton’s and the Friday morning Hometown Opry, broadcast over WKBC 800 AM from 7:00 AM until 9:00 weekly. We arrived in Wilkesboro on Sunday and dropped into Minton’s on Monday morning. Even though we got there early in the week, there hasn’t been enough time to dig into all the opportunities for learning and enjoyment we’ve been introduced to there.

Minton Music and Loan has been around for a while, owned and operated by Jerry Minton, but it has taken on a different tone and direction since Mike Palmer became a partner about seven years ago. After a career in business, Mike was looking for a change and saw the musical opportunities such a venture might offer. Every instrument has a story, and if wall could talk, there’d be some kind of noise coming from the instruments hung at Minton’s. But as long as neither the walls nor the instruments can talk, Mike Palmer has enough stories to fill the bill. Mike picks guitar himself and was one of the organizers of the first Merlefest through his friendship with Bill Young. He’s known any number of musicians through his earlier business and music contacts and met many more since joining Jerry Minton. It’s never a surprise to walk into Minton’s and find one or more people chatting about or making music. Mike’s wife Kathy says that sometimes Mike and Jerry have kept an instrument much longer than the 90 days required by the pawn agreement in order to make it possible for a musician to get his treasured piece back. Mike is exceptionally gregarious and the store has grown and changed focus over the years he’s been there. The addition of a performance area/studio/stage seating perhaps a hundred and spaces for teaching lessons along with the dozens of quality instruments on the walls provide the visible evidence.

We arrived at Minton’s just after 6:30 AM to get a good seat and watch the proceedings. The even faintly similar experience we’ve had was going to Fred’s Lounge (here’s a link, but Google Fred’s for more info) in Mamou, LA for the Saturday morning Cajun radio show and dance there. The crowd, an interesting combination of family, tourists, and local folks on their way to work, assembled. The band, Back Porch Bluegrass, Mike Palmer and the radio station engineer were setting up the sound and video systems as the audience straggled in, obviously a little short of enough coffee for this hour of the morning. Just before 7:00, the radio guy Steve Hamby, a smiling, energetic man dressed in black, bounded in, put on his headgear, made sure there was a battery in his microphone and kicked off the show.

BackPorch Bluegrass is today’s featured band and they will also kick off Carolina in the Fall, the Kruger’s Brothers’ festival, in the evening. In bluegrass country, it’s a mistake to characterize a band too narrowly as “local” guys. These are seasoned musicians who are used to performing in public and who work at their craft. What often distinguishes a touring band from a local or regional one can be found in some pretty large choices musicians must make before taking the big step of giving up a day job and going on the road. To do so, a person must give up a steady paycheck, health and retirement benefits, and take the hits to family solidarity that frequent and sometimes prolonged absence creates. This is an especially large issue in bluegrass, where even the top people don’t approach a rock band or an opera singer in income. Bluegrass is a labor of love and everywhere in bluegrass country there are bands that are worth listening to. Back Porch Bluegrass is one of these bands. We had seen Billy Ray Summerlin pick his banjo at the Wilkes Acoustic Folk Society tents at Merlefest. He’s fast and good. Bassist Randall Couch provides a solid beat and takes interesting and intricate bass breaks. Josh Winters sings a classic high tenor and contributes well on mandolin. Lead singer David Culler was fighting a cold, but the trio still worked well. Rodney Reavis contributes well on fiddle, playing fiddles he built himself.

In the end, however, the show is the enjoyment of being involved in a live, remote radio program, an historic artifact that has pretty much disappeared from the scene. There’s a birthday drawing, Steve raffling off CDs and other folderol he’s accumulated in his mail. We won a fund raiser flyer from Easter Seals. He involves a first-time visitor in an experience best not spoiled by further discussion, but funny and enjoyable for everyone, including the new person. Co-station owner Ed Racey appears as Edgar Allen Racey to read a short humorous poem and as Edgar Holmes Racey to reveal the mistakes of a dumb crook. Everyone had a good time and went on to the rest of the day as soon as the show ended at 9:00.

After the show, we adjourned to Harold’s Restaurant up route 115. Harold’s is one of those “don’t let appearances fool you” local restaurants that serves up drop dead delicious country food in an informal and friendly manner.

Minton’s Music and Loan is located at 302 E.Main St in N. Wilkesboro, NC. You can find it here. It’s one of those unique American institutions that needs to be seen to be truly experienced. Stop by and meet Jerry Minton, Mike Palmer, and their sons, sit down and jaw a while, come in and pick, or come for the Hometown Opry. You won’t be disappointed.