WILSON — Banjo, guitar and fiddle meld in a tinny twang. Their players pluck out bluegrass standards and country anthems, old tunes echoing through an older space.
A wheat sickle and yard rake, rusted with age, adorn the walls, joining a desiccated tobacco leaf framed in burlap. From novices to practiced pickers, local musicians share the stage where bluegrass legends Kenny Baker and Josh Graves once dropped in.
For decades, the old dairy barn on Hornes Church Road west of Wilson sat idle. When a group of friends needed a new home for their weekly jam sessions, the County Line Bluegrass Barn was born.
“When we started playing here, it was just an open dirt floor downstairs,” Canithe Wood recalled. “They poured concrete several years ago. We built the stage, the musicians, just all of us together.”
What began as a borrowed space for band practice evolved into a concert venue. Hundreds of people poured in to hear Nashville greats, up-and-coming artists and local musicians.
The bearded pickers who maintain the bluegrass barn offer free concerts at 7:30 p.m. each Tuesday. Aspiring singers young and old are invited to take the microphone. Guitar students learning their first few chords accompany musicians who’ve honed their craft for half a century.
“We enjoy bluegrass music, old country music, mountain music,” said Edward Wooten, the barn’s manager. “We get together and play. I always make sure everyone gets their chance to play or sing if they want to. I don’t want anyone to come out and not get the opportunity.”
The bluegrass barn isn’t like other concert halls. No alcohol is served and no food is sold -- though performers’ friends often bring cakes and pies to share with the crowd. There are no tickets, no age limits and no cover charge.
“We just ask for a donation if they’ve got it,” Wooten said. “If they don’t got it, we love them anyway and we tell them to keep coming back.”
The jam sessions started in the late 1980s when Wood invited several friends to his woodworking shop on Pridgen Road outside Elm City.
“It started at my woodworking shop,” Wood said. “I had an uncle who was a fiddle player and I invited maybe 20 to 30 people. We did it again a couple weeks later and had three or four times that many.”
Folks toted guitars and fiddles and lugged basses to the shop, where they’d play country and bluegrass tunes for their friends and relatives. The musicians held cookouts and barbecues there.
“We used to serve Brunswick stew in a washpot,” Wood recalled. “It was a throwdown, sure enough.”
Performances moved to a convenience store on Hornes Church Road, but the pickers had to leave when the store closed. Dubbing themselves the County Line Bluegrass Band, the group of friends started meeting at the Edna Boykin Cultural Center in downtown Wilson.
“We started playing uptown at the arts center,” Wooten said. “It was just an open jam session for guys who wanted to come and play. We had to be out so early that we had to find somewhere else to go.”
In the early 1990s, the band approached Vick Family Farms manager Jerome Vick about using the barn as a place to play. Vick gave the thumbs-up, and over the years, musicians worked to transform the old barn in Wilson County near the Nash County line into what it is today -- equal parts concert hall, family den and agriculture museum.
Behind center stage, a wooden church pew rests against the plywood wall. Auographed portraits hearken back to some of the barn’s biggest guest appearances. Kenny Baker, a Kentucky native and fiddler for The Bluegrass Boys, ranks among the venue’s most memorable performers.
“He’s undoubtedly the best fiddle player who’s ever lived,” Wood said.
Other stars to play the bluegrass barn include Josh Graves, who joined with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, and Little Roy Lewis, who toured with his parents and siblings, “the first family of bluegrass gospel.”
Don’t tell 13-year-old Shannon Baker that the bluegrass barn -- and the classic country music played there -- is exclusively for the older crowd.
Baker belted out Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” and Emmylou Harris favorite “Blue Kentucky Girl” to approving nods from an audience that ranged in age from teens to 90s on a recent Tuesday night.
“It’s just in my roots, I guess,” she said of country and bluegrass music. “We always listened to it. My mom loved country music and I kind of grew up with it in the car. We would always have it on the radio.”
Baker has been singing at the barn for several months since singing with members of the County Line Bluegrass Band at a family birthday.
“I met them last year at a birthday party for my uncle,” she said.
“They were performing and my aunt just pushed me up there with them. I got up and sang a couple songs and they asked me to come up here. I just started singing with them on Tuesday nights.”
Baker said her favorite artists range from Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn to current country stars like Martina McBride and Carrie Underwood. She’s scrawled her own song lyrics but has yet to put them to music.
“I was probably 5 when I first performed in front of an audience,”
Baker said. “I just love performing. I always have. It’s just the adrenaline and being able to be on stage or be in front of people.”
The same Nashville classics that Baker likes to sing are music to Wood’s ears. He said acoustic country and bluegrass have a timeless rhythm that appeals to listeners of every generation.
“It’s music that you can pat your foot to,” Wood said. “It’s the old-style music. It doesn’t have any electric instruments.”
Folks feel comfortable at the bluegrass barn whether they have attended for decades or are first-time visitors, said Joan Cummings of Black Creek.
“It’s a very safe and secure place,” she said. “You don’t have to worry about cussing and fighting. It’s a Christian atmosphere. You feel like you could bring your mama here and you’re not going to get in trouble.”
Kay Pridgen lives in Nash County and has been attending the weekly bluegrass jam sessions for about two years. She also baked the pineapple upside-down cake that musicians and listeners enjoyed last Tuesday.
“I usually make one for all the guys’ birthdays to show appreciation for them coming to pick,” she said. “I’ve been doing it for a long time.”
Food is served potluck-style, with dishes placed on the counter in the barn’s small kitchenette. Folks serve themselves slices of cake on paper plates.
Pridgen said bringing baked goods is her way of saying thank you for the music.
“They donate their time out here,” she said. “The guys donate their time picking, and they always have.”
Pridgen said she’d encourage friends and neighbors to visit the barn.
“It gives everyone a place to come on Tuesday nights to get away from home,” she said. “We have everyone from small children to older people. It’s just clean fun. We have a good time out here.”