Young people will not let the music of the Blue Ridge die.
Friends of the Blue Ridge will present its Blue Ridge Jamboree, called On the Rise, at Roanoke’s Jefferson Center on Thursday. This talent showcase will feature young musicians performing a variety of music from across the Blue Ridge.
They don’t see their art as preserving a tradition — they see it as performing in a style they have come to love.
Thirteen individuals and groups will perform gospel, bluegrass and jazz. The Roanoke Valley Children’s Choir will sing some toe-tapping crowd favorites, too. All of the performers are 25 or younger, and all hail from the mountains of the Blue Ridge.
“There’s such a uniqueness to this region that it’s really neat to see so many kids in love with that and wanting to claim it and move it forward,” said Julie Whalen, executive director of Friends of the Blue Ridge.
The event is a fundraiser for the organization, which works to protect and promote the ecological and cultural uniqueness of the region. This year, it chose to highlight the rising musical talent of the area.
Blue Ridge Jamboree: On the Rise
Friends of the Blue Ridge will present Blue Ridge Jamboree: On the Rise at the Jefferson Center’s Shaftman Performance Hall at 7 p.m. Thursday.
The lineup includes A Mighty Friendly Mountain, Addie Levy trio, Appalachian Roots, Bayla Davis, The Brothers Young, Meg Corbett, Shamyila Dungee, Eric + Addie, Newfound Gap, Old Time Rowdies, Riley Parks, Roanoke Valley Children’s Choir and 610 Jazz.
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Most, but not all, of the performers are from the Roanoke region. Newfound Gap is traveling from the Asheville, North Carolina, area, and Addie Levy has been living in Nashville most recently, for example.
The idea for the showcase came out of previous work that Friends of the Blue Ridge has done with Junior Appalachian Musicians, a nonprofit based in Grayson County. JAM is an after-school program that introduces Appalachian music culture to children in grades four through eight. It provides instruction on instruments such as banjo, fiddle and guitar, and it operates in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
“We’ve partnered with JAM in a couple different ways and just wanted to put the spotlight on kids from our Blue Ridge communities and how they are embracing the heritage,” Whalen said.
While the evening will showcase a diversity of talent, it will feature several bluegrass performances. Some of these musicians are playing a traditional style of bluegrass, while others play traditional music with a twist.
Newfound Gap encompasses both styles, according to 15-year-old banjo player Bayla Davis. She and two of her seven siblings formed the band during the pandemic, she said.
“Judah’s definitely more bluegrass. He doesn’t hate old-time music, but he loves taking solos and he loves going fast and that’s what bluegrass is all about,” Bayla said of her 12-year-old guitar-playing brother.
Sister Sylvia, 14, plays fiddle.
“Sylvia is definitely more old-timey, kind of wants to keep the beat as great as possible and she wants to make it clean and not as all over the place as bluegrass might be,” Bayla said.
“I’m always in the middle, just grabbing stuff from different genres. Like, I want to put some swing in there. I want to put some country in there. I want to add a really weird lick to the end of the song,” she said.
Bayla described their interest in music as being somewhat incidental. Her family happened to move into a community that revolves around music, she said.
“Where we live, it kind of just fit,” she said.
“Asheville has so many different types of music. We just happened to move to the side of Asheville that was really into bluegrass and old-time mountain music,” she said.
Then-6-year-old Bayla took it upon herself to try every hobby that began with the letter B.
“My name started with a letter B and I didn’t know any instruments and started with the B when I was 6 years old. My mom, the only instrument she knew [that started with B] was banjo. I got an idea — hey, I want to play banjo,” Bayla said.
Her mother did an internet search for banjo lessons and happened to find the local JAM music program, which met only 30 minutes from their home.
Now, all but Bayla’s youngest sibling play an instrument. That makes it easy to find time to play together, she said.
“We don’t know a whole lot of youth bands that are all siblings. So when we do meet them, the youth bands agree with us that music is an entire thing that they can do 24/7, whenever they want to,” she said.
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Brothers Ayden and Blane Young of The Brothers Young and 610 Jazz will also play during the showcase. They were raised in Roanoke and are now 17 and 13.
As a fan of traditional bluegrass music, Ayden said he feels most at home at the Floyd Country Store. His first banjo teacher invited him to play there when he was just 12, he said.
“It’s like my second home now. All the bluegrass and Appalachian music heritage there … I love it so much,” he said.
Ayden has had music poured into him from a very young age, mother Melissa Young said. She would play music for him as an infant — all genres, she said.
“Ever since I got out of the womb, I enjoyed listening to all sorts of music, and bluegrass was definitely one of my favorites,” Ayden said.
Melissa Young’s father, Allen Worrell, would play old records for Ayden when he was small. They were the same records he played for her when she was a child, she said. He had collected a lot of albums by the Osborne Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs and The Stanley Brothers.
“[My parents] could be a part of the journey of what they loved. Early on in their lives, it was passed on to me, and now to [the boys] and it’s just cool to see how the classics can continue to touch each generation,” she said.
“I was country-bluegrass growing up and to see my kids love it, too, is … awww … and I’ll hopefully see their kids love it too one day,” she said.
Ayden and Blane Young are homeschooled, so they have a lot of time to devote to pursuing their interests, their mother said. They play a lot of shows in retirement homes.
Ayden is a senior in high school. When he isn’t studying or playing music, he teaches music lessons.
“I feel everyone deep down has a talent to play some sort of musical instrument. Whatever it might be, I don’t know. But I feel like every young person needs to try to play something musical, whether it is a piano and guitar, banjo, fiddle, violin, whatever,” he said.
Melissa Young thinks that it is important that everyone listen to bluegrass music at least once. She says that sometimes people think they don’t like bluegrass music without really giving it a fair try. Her sons want everyone to just give it a try.
“I think a lot of the newer generation has not really heard it,” she said.
Bayla Davis agreed.
“Our goal is now to just make [music] as popular as ever. And just for people to know exactly what mountain music and bluegrass is. Because it’s not just all you know, hillbilly music and it’s not just all the same thing. It’s a super wide genre of music and it’s all super different,” she said.
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Like Bayla Davis, Addy Levy likes to play traditional bluegrass with a twist.
“I lean towards bluegrass, so it’s bluegrass music with a new flair to it. So I do a lot more jam-style music, which is just kind of heavily instrumental bass. And we do a lot of just like a modern take on bluegrass,” Levy said.
Levy, 21, grew up in Radford. As a young child, she sang in church. Her father played guitar, so she grew up singing alongside him. Then, at age 10, someone noticed her talent.
That year, her family visited Dolly Parton’s Stampede in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and she met the band leader, renowned banjo player Gary Davis.
“He got to listen to me sing a little bit,” she said. He was impressed. He told Levy that she sounded good, but that she should learn to play an instrument if she really wanted to be successful, she said.
She went home and started taking guitar lessons.
“I ended up finding a mandolin in my closet,” Levy said.
After that, she started playing with a group of other kids in Floyd. They started their first bluegrass band within six months of learning to play music, she said. She owes her start to the Floyd Country Store, she said.
In bluegrass, Levy said she found community and belonging.
“Not many people realize how strong the youth bluegrass community is,” she said.
Bluegrass has shaped Levy’s life, she said. She wants to see the same for the youth coming up behind her. She recognizes that many kids struggle to feel like they belong — she struggled with those feelings herself, she said.
But the bluegrass community is open and welcoming, she said. Older generations want to see younger generations come in and learn the music. They want to pass on the skills.
“It’s a beautiful sight to see that the music has been handed down and handed down and handed down,” Levy said.
Levy works with JAM to inspire other youth to pursue traditional Appalachian music, she said. She was envious of her friends who participated in JAM programs in North Carolina when they were younger. Now, she’s grateful that her home county has a JAM program of its own.
Bayla Davis said that her family’s goal is to make bluegrass music as popular as ever. They tell their friends about their performances whenever they can. She dreams of one day opening a mountain music school similar to Floyd’s Handmade School.
“I would love to teach my type of old-time, because the more the merrier,” she said.
Bibiana Bell, 15, also dreams of becoming a music educator. She will be performing in the showcase with the Roanoke Valley Children’s Choir.
A teacher convinced her to audition for the choir when she was in the fifth grade. She has been singing with the group ever since.
Bibiana has grown in confidence since joining the choir, she said. More importantly, she’s found community and belonging.
“Having that community helps kids develop as singers and as people. Music is such an important thing for child development,” she said.
“Music is something that can connect us on a deeper level,” she said.