In a small practice room in the back of Ashe County High School, a handful of music students spend their mornings picking banjos and mandolins and learning about Appalachian culture and history while singing songs about moonshine and manslaughter.
Appalachian music teacher Steve Lewis sits facing his pupils, a three-ring binder of sheet music open on the floor, showing chord fingerings and highlighting lyrical points. The atmosphere is casual, but engaging, and Lewis likes it that way: “I try to let everybody be who they are in here,” he said.
There are no beginner, intermediate or advanced levels in Lewis’ classes. “It’s a free-for-all and everybody learns at their own pace,” he said.
A two-time National Bluegrass Banjo Champion, Lewis was approached by county commissioners and school board officials about teaching the class eight years ago, and has had a waiting list for enrollment ever since. “There’s always 65-70 people who want in that don’t get in,” he said.
Lewis focuses on building students’ “jamming skills,” he said, teaching a basic songbook of Appalachian standards, as well how to identify song structure and follow chord changes so they can sit in with other musicians.
“There are a lot of songs about alcohol abuse, illegal whiskey and murder,” he said — material that might make a guidance counselor cringe.
But this is the nature of much Appalachian music, he explained. “In a Bluegrass song, somebody has to die.”
In a classroom context, however, the songs are presented as cautionary tales. Lewis introduces a ballad in which a moonshiner is killed under mysterious circumstances as “a song about bad choices.”
But students also learn spirituals, dance tunes and instrumental pieces, and the stories behind them. “We start out with some of the history and some of the local names,” Lewis said.
Many of the tunes were popularized by High Country artists in the early days of recorded music, some of whom are likely distant relatives of the students themselves, he said. A textbook used in class catalogs the careers of local performers from the ’20s and ’30s, like Frank Blevins and his Tarheel Rattlers.
His students — about a dozen each in first and second period — speak highly of the class, finding it a welcome break from pre-calculus and chemistry.
“This class is great, if you really apply yourself,” said Dylan Wilczewski, a drummer who transferred to ACHS mid-year. “Within a couple months I learned to play the guitar.”
Laken Brooks, also a guitar student, said, “It’s made me appreciate the culture of Appalachia a lot more.”
Lewis’ students will perform at the ACHS Arts Fair 5-7 p.m. Tuesday in the school’s common area.