Heritage Festival showcases pickers, family fun

By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal

NEW ALBANY – There was plenty of old fashioned pickin’-n-grinin’ Saturday as dozens of musicians competed at the Down From the Hills Heritage Musical Festival in New Albany.
The festival, sponsored by the Union County Development Association, the Union County Fair Association and the Union County Heritage Museum, drew more than 300 to the Union County fairgrounds. According to Jill Smith, who helped organize the festival, its purpose was to carry on a style of music that she described as deeply characteristic of Northeast Mississippi and its people.
This year the festival hosted statewide competitions for mandolin, dobro, banjo, guitar, band and – the main event – fiddle. As musicians began arriving Saturday morning, Sarah Gunnells, along with Leah Beth Potts and Bryan Letson, circled up and started picking.
Gunnells, a fiddler, led the trio into a rendition of “Power in the Blood.” Letson said the music he and the girls play – mostly bluegrass, interspersed with a pinch of gospel – brings people together in a special way.
“We’re just people who love music and family, and want to do this for the glory of God,” said Letson.
Kaye Warren of Pontotoc, who came out to listen, spoke of her love of bluegrass music’s “haunting” quality. “It makes me think of nature, being out in the fields,” she said.

Barbecue and jamming
As a sweet fog of barbecue smoke floated over the crowd, Wayne Jerrolds of Savannah, Tenn., found a shady spot and jammed with Clyde Erwin and Emmett Garner.
“I’ve built my life around this music,” said Jerrolds, who has played with such bluegrass legends as Bill Monroe.
“Look around here,” said Jerrolds. “Nobody’s drunk or acting up. Kids, families – this music has kept country people sane for generations.”
As the day wore on and the competition and temperature heated up, the judges made their decisions.
Doug Anderson from Water Valley took first on the mandolin, along with Neil English of Corinth on the dobro, Michael Brose of Golden on the guitar, Weston Stewart of Anderson, Ala., on the banjo, and a group called “The Sharecroppers” took best band.
Tyler White, 14, of Booneville, brought home the title of state junior fiddle champion. Then, polite yet confident as a surgeon, White took a run at the adult competition. That prize, however, went to Jerrolds. Earlier, the veteran picker performed “How Far is Heaven?” with his 7-year-old granddaughter, Lourdes.
“This is just real, American music,” Jerrolds said after the performance, with Lourdes playing at his feet. “It started in people’s houses, and we’re trying to carry it on today.”

Contact Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or galen.holley@djournal.com.