Musical Merry-Go- Round Still Spins from Mt. Airy
Posted November 24, 1998
MOUNT AIRY — Songs about home, about God. Banjos and fiddles, acoustic guitar and mandolins.
Serious dancing shoes. Serious harmonizing. Serious picking. But the dancing is all in fun.
Nearly every Saturday for the past 51 years, the "Merry-Go-Round" radio program in Mount Airy has been home to live, homegrown talent. It is a platform for preserving old-time mountain music.
The music is mixed with warm hospitality. "And we'd like to mention our friends from WRAL in Raleigh, Channel 5-TV. They're with us now at the theater," announces Clyde Johnson.
"And now back to more good pickin' and our special guest, Riverside and John Hoffman. Tear it up, boys, tear it up," Johnson exhorts his guests.
You will heal songs about home, about God, and love and heartache. Titles like "Walking in Jerusalem, Just Like John,""Tennessee Blues,""The Sunny Side of the Mountain"...and lots more. Banjos, acoustic and bass guitars, even a mandolin, and fiddles.
"I would rather play the fiddle than anything I know," says John Hoffman, fiddler for the band Riverside.
John Hoffman of Riverside gets the live audience tapping their toes during a recent appearance on Merry-Go-Round. "I enjoy the honesty of the performers," says Ron Jones, a mountain music lover who came to hear Riverside at the Downtown Cinema. "Sometimes they're really great on certain songs. Sometimes they're terrible. But they're giving it the best they can give. And primarily they are doing it for nothing."
The Merry-Go-Round is booked solid for the next four months, with good reason -- band members get a double-bang for their work.
Their music also goes out live over the airwaves at WPAQ-AM.
"And you can go up in their studio, and it's like walking back in time," Hoffman says.
"And here they are," says Johnson, calling the group back on stage, "with a number entitled 'Mother's Torn and Faded Bible.'"
If WPAQ is the museum of mountain music, then Ralph Epperson is its curator.
At 78, he still pulls a shift on the air, every Saturday afternoon.
"Last cut on side two," he tells the announcer. "I Grab My Saddle Horn and Blow,?" she asks. "Right," he says, confirming the title.
Epperson is the guardian of mountain music's past in the form of tapes of records cut at WPAQ of live Merry-Go-Round shows, some going back to the 1940s.
"One old fella from up here on the side of the mountain came up to me and said, 'I'm just telling the old lady that I reckon you have some good music as I ever heard. Some of the best. And some of the sorriest!'"
Old microphones picked up the ghosts of the original mountain musicians.
Songs of redemption, of Jesus and Heaven, of hope and good feelings.
Epperson has lent his recordings to the Smithsonian, and Rounder Records plans to release a CD of WPAQ's recordings from the early years.
He's committed to preserving mountain music's past and dedicated to its future by continuing the Merry-Go-Round program on Saturdays.
"Turn your radio on. Please do," Epperson encourages everyone. "This really goes back to a different time when live radio was done all the time on a regular basis."
But here's what's so encouraging for mountain music's future. Young people on the dance floor, kicking up a storm. Young musicians on stage alongside the founders, pickin' like the dickens.
All brought to you live, every Saturday, on WPAQ from a town like Andy Griffith's fictional Mayberry.
"Join us again next Saturday, folks. Until then, Clyde Johnson, speaking for all the folks here at the Merry-Go-Round, saying 'Good-bye, good luck and God bless you. Don't worry too often much about nothing, 'cause everything gonna be all right no how." Editors's note:Big names such as Charlie Monroe, Grandpa Jones, Lester Flatt, Del Reeves and Earl Scruggs have taken turns on the Merry-Go-Round. The live show happens every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the theatre right across from Floyd's Barbershop in downtown Mount Airy. And it's all free.