Amps get the boot at Galax 2010

We reported last year about a fracas at the venerable Old Fiddlers Convention, which has been held in Galax, VA since 1935. The issue arose regarding the use of an electric bass with a small amplifier in the campground jams, where most of the interesting music is played during the week-long event.

Our piece from August 4, 2009 (and a follow-up on August 5) described how officials with the Galax Moose Lodge, who has managed this event from the beginning, passed through the campground enforcing a ban on the use of these bass amps at jam sessions.

Galax has long been a bastion of “the old ways” of traditional mountain music, in both its bluegrass and old time variants. No electric instruments are allowed on stage during the competitions, and every band is required to have a fiddle. But according to Tracy Burcham, who was among the affected musicians, this was the first time such a ban had been applied to campgrounds as well.

From our post on 8/4/09:

“About 11:30 p.m., I began a jam session with three friends, each of whom is a current member of a headlining bluegrass band. I was playing my electric bass, which means, of course, that I was using an amplifier. About 8 or 9 songs into the jam, we were approached by two members of the Galax Moose Lodge #733 who advised that the rules stated that amplifiers were not allowed in the park, and that if I didn’t cut mine off, they would not only escort me out of the park, but would cut off the electricity to our entire campsite (several friends had gone in together purchase 18 consecutive sites, as we have done every year).

I have been playing this same electric bass and also my acoustic bass, both through an amplifier for each of the 21 years I have attended. I’ve never encountered a problem or received a complaint from anyone. I honestly thought one of my ‘devious’ friends was pulling a prank on me, and continued on with the jam session. The Moose members left the area only to come back later with two police officers. He repeated the same demand to cut off the amp and advised me that there would be no refund if I refused to cooperate and was booted our of the park.”

We received a lot of feedback from that piece, both from traditionalists who saluted the Moose Club for keeping out electric bass, and from jammers who felt it was a too-harsh interpretation of the rules. The Old Fiddlers Convention is as much a social as a musical event, and while the police keep a vigilant eye out for drunkenness and rude behavior near the stage area and along the “avenues,” what goes on in individual campsites is generally left alone unless it creates a particular disturbance.

And disturbance is a very relative term. Raucous jams continue until dawn, often involving dozens of pickers, and anyone who travels to this festival with sleeping on their minds is apt to be sorely disappointed.

We understand that the convention organizers were not happy with the publicity this ban generated, but they have decided to change the rules for 2010 to make the amp ban official. Note Rule #15 of the Rules Of Competition from the Galax web site, and it has been subtly modified from last year.

2009 Rule #15: No boom boxes or loud amplified music to be played at any time during the conventions.  Anyone violating this rule will be subject to being removed from park and charged with disturbing the peace.

2010 Rule #15: No boom boxes and no amplified music to be played at any time during the conventions.  Anyone violating this rule will be subject to being removed from park and charged with disturbing the peace.

Burcham contacted us earlier this week with what was a frustrating admission for someone who has supported the Galax festival for more than 20 years.

“I’m curious to know how active the Moose will be in policing this rule, especially if they do not receive any complaints. Unfortunately, I, and many others will not be attending to find out. It is simply too risky to chance, both losing the $120 admission, and the fine for disturbing the peace.”

Not sure if this debate is over, but it seems to be settled for this year.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.