Furnace Mountain - gold in them, thar hills


The Watermelon Park Fest in Berryville will have to get by without one of its organisers and one of its regular attractions this year. And it’s all our fault.


One of a network of bluegrass and old-time music festivals in the music rich state of Virginia, Watermelon Park Fest takes place in the home town of Furnace Mountain, a seriously hot pickin’ and singin’ quartet whose fiddle and banjo player, David Van Deventer has been part of the festival’s programming and administration team for many years.


This year, however, he and the band are having to give the festival a miss due to a UK tour, the run up to which has already produced a first for Furnace Mountain. Their latest album, Fields of Fescue was so well received when radio presenters, including Radio 2’s Bob Harris and Radio Scotland’s Iain Anderson, started playing tracks from it and reviewers raved about its authentic Appalachian goodness that it sold out its first pressing on orders almost entirely from the UK alone.


“We’re very much a cottage industry and we do everything ourselves,” says Morgan Morrison, singer, guitarist and bouzouki player with the band, “and we never expect to pay off a CD and have it repressed after just six months. But that’s what’s happened this time. It’s amazing and really gratifying to know that thousands of miles away, people who have never heard of us before can appreciate our music in this way, especially since some of the songs we sing were brought over here from Scotland and Ireland.”


There’s an assumption in these parts that American traditional music owes its healthy state solely to the O Brother, Where Are Thou? phenomenon which admittedly brought in a massive wave of a new listeners and inspired more musicians to investigate their roots.


Furnace Mountain, however, and many, many other groups and musicians go way back before O Brother. In fact, the core of the band has been playing together since they were at school.


“We grew up in an area where there are three towns that share the same high school,” says Morrison. “It’s still pretty rural where we are but back when we were growing up, music was just part of family life. It sounds like a cliché but we really did make our own entertainment then. David was winning local fiddle competitions from his early teens and he and Aimee [Curl, singer-double-bassist] and I used to meet up at another family’s house, the Larssons, who had a lovely place out by the creek.”


Here, mostly on the back porch, the trio honed their playing, swapped tunes and learned songs, sometimes from old field recordings by the folklorist Alan Lomax, sometimes from more contemporary sources, such as Emmylou Harris.


At a festival an hour and a half’s drive away in Harrisonburg, Morrison and Van Deventer encountered Danny Knicely, a fiddler of considerable talent but a mandolinist whose inventiveness and blinding picking ability even then, at age nineteen, immediately marked him out as special.


“Danny’s family have been playing this music for generations and it was obviously in his blood,” says Morrison. “He’s also a great clog dancer, which can add something different to our shows. Anyway, Dave and I invited him back to our tent for a tune and we ended up playing all through the night and into the next morning. After that Danny kind of gravitated towards the Larssons’ porch too and eighteen years or more later, we’re still playing tunes together.”


The four members of the group all play in extra-curricular enterprises. Aimee Curl, who actually took off for ten years as a touring bass guitarist then studied double bass in New York before returning to Virginia, works in jazz, folk and country bands. Knicely keeps busy with projects including the Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble with bluegrass bassist Mark Schatz. Van Deventer is a fiddle and mandolin teacher as well as an in-demand session player and Morrison works with gypsy jazz band the Woodshedders, amongst others.


“It gets complicated sometimes,” says Morrison. “We have to keep a big schedule on our kitchen wall so that everyone can set out what they’re doing and we can see when we’re all available for Furnace Mountain work. Occasionally we have to miss out on things, like Watermelon Park Fest this time, but that’s a happy problem and people understand that we’re not going to be there because of this amazing reception we’ve had in the UK.”


They won’t be entirely absent from Watermelon Park Fest, as it turns out. By the wonders of modern technology – in this case Skype – they’re going to be relaying part of their performance to a screen on the festival’s main stage from one of their UK gigs, an instance of sending something home from home.


“We’re really excited about playing in Scotland especially,” says Morrison. “Because my family’s originally from there and someone said that we sing some of those old songs like we’ve been singing them for centuries. Well, someone’s always been singing them over the centuries and it’ll be good to sing them in the place they come from. We’ve never been to Scotland before but Aimee and I were in Ireland a few years ago and we really got a sense of that thing about settlers choosing certain places in America because they felt familiar. I hear that Scotland has a similar landscape to Ireland’s but maybe more mountainous. Well, we’re used to being among mountains, so we should feel right at home there.”


From The Herald, September 9, 2010.


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