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Thanks for a Great Gathering

Salutations!

To all those who enjoyed the 27th Annual Mountain Laurel Autoharp Gathering as well as those who couldn’t be with us this year but wish they had been – You may be sure we welcomed the regulars and newcomers and reflected fondly upon the missing. It’s always a social highlight to reestablish long-standing relationships between friends, near and far, who may see their surrogate family members more regularly than some actual kin. Friends, community, family… look on it as you will, it’s a time of togetherness we all treasure.

Gregg and the Peacock Princess at the Peacock Installation Ceremony

From the perspective of 17 years on the board of directors, I must say it all seemed to come together more smoothly than I can remember. For this I must extend my deep appreciation to my fellow board members, whose untiring and selfless contributions allow me stand back and think, “That wasn’t so hard.” It was and always is, and it is they who insulate me from much of the effort and drudgery that are so essential to making the carousel go round. As well, some key spouses have indispensably contributed as unofficial volunteers. Tom Fladmark, Kathie Hollandsworth, Niels Jonker (and Holly Towne!), Jim Adams, Neal Walters, Coleen Walters, Warren Fisher (and Ann!), Frank Baker (and Marion!), George Orthey (Emeritus), Greg Schreiber (and Deb!), Rick Fitzgerald (and Erina!), Maggie Dodd, (and my own, Shirley Averett!) – you can look up the board areas of individual responsibility on the Mountain Laurel website. Ann Fisher, supportive all year, was taken down early in the Gathering by a serious medical emergency from which she is recovering nicely. Thanks, everyone, for your unflagging efforts!



The park was ready with many improvements on every hand. Chores got done early. Contractors and equipment were pre-positioned and ready when the signal sounded. Volunteers flooded in and set to with a minimum of direction, accustomed to the order and nature of the set-up routine and tackling particular tasks with the confidence of experience. Before you knew it, the empty, echoing Rec Hall had assumed its distinctive character as the Mountain Laurel home, but with a new array of nostalgic wall posters and extra tables and chairs, and the campground had settled into its comfortable clustering of familiar jam haunts. We’ve definitely gotten better at working smarter.

Our pre-Gathering instructors were Charles Whitmer, Drew Smith, and Jo Ann Smith. I dropped in on all three classes and the students appeared to be fully engaged, determined, and appreciative of an assertive, guiding hand from the instructors. Classes lasted a day and a half and offered a wealth of specialized instruction. Cindy Mask was later the winner of the Patsy Tressler Award for Pre-Gathering attendees, founded in her loving memory by sister Ruby Morgan, who was on hand to present. Cindy generously donated the scholarship money back to the Mountain Laurel general fund, for which we are most grateful.



Vicki Lehman graciously took beginners under her welcoming wing Wednesday afternoon for several hours of autoharp Boot Camp to get them comfortable and playing. This was followed up by a daily morning session of Beyond Boot Camp by the indispensable and indefatigable Karen Daniels, and slow jams every evening when the stage closed, led by Neal Walters and Niels Jonker, John and Heidi Cerrigione, Margaret Crowl, and Robert Grappel and Linda Cohen. I am extremely proud of our program to shepherd, encourage, and involve beginners in the activities of the Gathering. They are never relegated to the sidelines but, rather, fully engaged from start to finish. Many thanks to our volunteer leaders for giving of their time and talents to make it possible.

Wednesday evening after supper, the proceedings were led off with installation of the peacock to some ad hoc calling, Kathie and John Hollandsworth leading Judy Pagter’s festival anthem, Where the Mountain Laurel Blooms, and brief introductions of board members, featured performers, and workshop leaders.




The board members’ Wednesday night concert kicked off the stage acts and, if I may say so, I thought it went particularly well.  Presenting their allotted two numbers were Frank Baker, Warren Fisher, myself, Greg Schreiber, Niels Jonker, Tom Fladmark, Rick Fitzgerald, Kathie Hollandsworth, and Neal and Coleen Walters. Missing was Maggie Dodd, who had been called away for a family emergency. Keep her in your thoughts.

Then the Gathering began in earnest Thursday morning, with the first of many workshops in the Rec Hall and in the large tent, conveniently behind. These workshops are led by invited performers and by some of our most experienced community members. Thanks to all of our workshop leaders – Vicki Lehman, Karen Daniels, Cathy Britell, Drew Smith, Wanda Degen, Greg Schreiber, Neal Walters, and Harvey Wagner & Doc Brose.

This organized and published program is supplemented by Soapbox Workshops. Shoehorned in at the lodge and in the campground, they cover a myriad of tempting topics dreamed up by their leader. Ann Fisher led several mountain dulcimer classes. Many thanks to the equally capable class member, Sarah Keller, who stepped in unbidden when Ann was suddenly called away on Saturday. Other workshops were contributed by Lawana Beard, Cindy Harris and Ken Ellis; apologies if I missed someone.

Meals, which began with a Pre-Gathering Tuesday luncheon and continued, lunch and dinner, Wednesday through Sunday, were provided by Laurie Berard’s Townside Garden Café (and Catering). Staffers Denise Litchard, Della Leisenringer, Taylor Keirster, and Jenny Ross worked silently, swiftly, and tirelessly to serve out yummy meal after meal which, thanks to Laurie’s generous bounty, was invariably all-you-care-to-eat. Laurie also contributed a number of pies to the snack bar, which were devoured eagerly to the last crumb, usually a la mode.

Concerts were held Thursday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon. Featured performers were Joel Mabus, Wayne Long and Arthetta Faye, Charles Whitmer, Jo Ann Smith, and the Red Mountain Band. Joel is principally known for his inspired songwriting, guitar playing, and engaging stage presence, but lap-style autoharp shared the stage as well, in an interesting left-over-right hand technique I’ve not seen before. A bubbling Arthetta handled autoharp, most vocals, and just about all of the banter, while laconic Wayne backed with skillful guitar and an occasional head nod. Charles impressed with his beloved Taylor autoharp and warm baritone vocals while Jo Ann danced on the strings with her incomparable finesse.  The Red Mountain Band – Jim Cauthen (fiddle), Joyce Cauthen (guitar), Phil Foster (mandolin), Bill Martin (autoharp) and Nancy Jackson (bass) – coalesced from their Alabama and Georgia mountains to rock the house with their fiddle tunes and Bill’s left-handed, not-quite-lapstyle, autoharp playing. Additionally, there was an afternoon round-robin Workshop Leaders Concert, allowing these talented individuals to strut their stuff. I’ll just conclude all of this by saying I went home with 10 CDs!

Ivan Stiles was his usual disarming, witty, and occasionally sarcastic self, sometimes winning, sometimes losing to the backstage hecklers. It is his particular delight and our good fortune to be treated to his unfailingly amazing sartorial splendor—one moment a vision in blinding white, the next in distaff dress, make-up and wig as “Granny,” the gruff and irritable autoharper, peppering us with her endless complaints as “she” was interviewed by Stew Schneider. Ivan’s a true treasure, he is, and great to see you back, Stew!

We had two new inductees into the Autoharp Hall of Fame. Tom Schroeder was the contemporary winner and the news sneaked out in an intriguing way. Just before the formal ceremony during the Thursday night intermission, Tom unexpectedly joined Charles Whitmer on stage for a fiddle tune duet to end his set. There was only one explanation for Tom’s “unveiled” presence – the subsequent and well-deserved AHOF honorific. The audience was ready and primed with applause. Tom dedicated his new honor in song to his wife, Liz, who was there to see him receive it. The posthumous inductee was Dora Miller, a much-beloved player and autoharp activist-enthusiast from Iowa. Her son and daughter delivered a touchingly tearful acceptance.

The 2016 Cohen/Grappel Recording Endowment winner, George Haig, was on hand to discuss progress on his forthcoming CD as well as to demonstrate some of what we could expect. Endowment Committee Chair Tom Fladmark conducted a very interesting interview and exchange from the stage with the normally taciturn Scot, who was on his comedic game. Due to crippling production setbacks, a finished CD was not immediately to hand, but dozens of names filled a pre-order sheet for later delivery. George’s autoharp play and droll humor could be heard elsewhere about the Gathering, as well. Thanks for traveling all this way to see us, George!

At the conclusion of the interview, the Endowment winner for this year was announced and presented to Jody Kruskal. Congratulations on a very significant grant award, Jody! If any of you think you may have what it takes to put out your own CD, have a look at the recording grant process on our web site.

There were 17 contestants in the Mt. Laurel Autoharp Contest this year, with the level of competition as keen as ever. Audience and judges’ ears pricked forward, notes were scribbled, and whispered handicapping was exchanged among listeners. When the dust of the first round had settled, the finalists were numbers 1, 4, 6, 11, … oh!  I mean Cindy Harris, Ricky Levitan, Christine Olson, Ray Choi, and Drew Smith.

There was respectful silence, punctuated by applause, as the finalists each took their turn at the microphone. Ray came out on top and is now only the third person in the world who can play Maleguena on the autoharp like Segovia! He was presented with his first-place prize harp by Greg Schreiber, with John Hollandsworth awarding one of his instruments to Cindy Harris for second, and Pete Daigle one of his beauties to Drew in third place. Ricky and Christine each received a Finalist plaque and a check for $50. Congratulations to the award winners and all who competed.

A special thanks goes to our luthier donors over the years, who have singularly contributed to making and keeping the Mountain Laurel Autoharp Championship the absolute pinnacle of competitive success. We are truly indebted to them for their generosity. As well, a Thursday afternoon, in-depth, contest workshop gave attendees an appreciation for the difficult job of judging. We tip our hats to the judges, this and every year, for their commitment to excellence and objectivity under very exacting and stressful circumstances.

Our video streaming capability was unexpectedly down this year, so I highly recommend purchasing the Contest CD for some performances your ears simply won’t believe. I signed up, for sure, making my festival count 12 CDs (I signed up for George’s, too!).

The vending area was chock-a-block with luthiers and covetous shoppers. Luthiers included George Orthey, Pete Daigle, Tom Fladmark, John Hollandsworth, Greg Schreiber, Warren Fisher, Ken Ellis, and Chuck Daniels. Filling out the offerings were Drew Smith’s All-American Autoharp Emporium and Maureen Maxwell’s reflexology station. We are especially grateful to Maureen for her well-received, relaxing ministrations and for donating the entire proceeds to the Gathering.


The Autoharp Toss was conducted under the all-seeing scrutiny and authority of the Grand Poobah, who took his customary place atop the septic tank to supervise the proceedings. The competitive field was liberally salted with former champions who nevertheless struggled to keep pace. When the dust and autoharps settled, winners were:  men’s distance-(1) Doug White, (2) Doc Brose, (3) Tom David; women’s distance-(1) Jean Evers, (2) Wendy Meredith, (3) Heidi Cerrigione; combined accuracy-(1) Wendy Meredith, (2) Jean Evers, (3) Trish Ballard. His Eminence, the Grand Poobah, awed and amazed with an exhibition-only toss for distance that bested the field by over 8 feet. He does not stand atop the septic tank alone for nothing.


Open Stage slots filled up and the performances were well received. The popular choice for the Leonard Reid Finest Open Stage Performance this year was the duo of Anne Martin and Ken Ellis.

Bill Belz did his usual fine job on sound. We couldn’t do it without you, Bill. Longtime volunteer sound assistant John Dettra has had to step down and his place was taken, initially, by Tom David and, more permanently, by a very knowledgeable Frank Baker. Al Lumpkin did his usual great job donating both his time and his equipment to provide sound support to the workshop tent

We had a number of vitally needed volunteer slots throughout the week and I want to express the board’s deep appreciation to all those who stepped up. Some names come particularly to mind – Les Brooker, who did truly yeoman service handling way more than his share of trash and turns in the ice cream kiosk; Josh Daniels, a help everywhere but certainly to Holly Towne, putting up and taking down posters; and some who spent literally days behind tables – Erina  Fitzgerald at Performer Sales, Deb Schreiber in the Snack Bar, Shirley Averett at the MLAG Cruise desk (cruise details here), and Marti Hudak, who was in her 26th year as a constant presence at Hospitality.

Additionally, a great measure of thanks to the Capitol Harpers, who contributed the proceeds from the sale of Michael King’s bequeathed Orthey harp to the Gathering and, especially, to Ron and Mary Leonard, who donated her Fisher harp and two Evoharps for sale in the silent auction, constituting a very beneficial bonus. Thanks, also, to all those others who left the auction tables groaning with all manner of contributed goods and to the determined bidders hawking the lists. Thank you to Cindy Harris and her coterie of Silent Auction helpers, who organize, run, and promote a very important donation stream for us.

Thanks to Holly Towne and Niels Jonker for the dozens of colorful, larger-than-life posters of scenes and celebrities from last year’s Gathering. Much care is taken in the selection, printing, arranging, and hanging. The look in the Rec Hall is the better for it, and proceeds from photo sales go to the Gathering.

Though the Gathering ran smoothly, that is not to say it was not sprinkled with moments of crisis. A few attendees were taken down very early but accommodated in fairly routine manner. Not so on one occasion, when a serious medical crisis struck in the dead of night. It is no exaggeration to say that Ed Rech, Mike Herr and, especially, Deb Schreiber, may have saved a life. Theirs was far above the call of duty and many among us owe them a measure of gratitude beyond ability to express. Others, especially Cathy Beyer, were instrumental in providing subsequent support, emotionally and logistically, that was invaluable. Our strong sense of community was never better illustrated than in this episode.

Suffice it to say that in all cases during the week, the stricken were cared for, the needy assisted, and problems resolved to our best ability. Most importantly, all health issues have a positive prognosis and the complete autoharp family can look forward to being reunited next year.

A last nod must go to the Little Buffalo State Park rangers and staffers, headed by Park Director Jason Baker. They work hard to create a safe, comfortable facility for our use and allow us use it in the way we see best without interference or intrusion and with the support we need. In turn, we try our best to honor their trust and reflect upon them in the most favorable light. Thank you, Ranger Jason!

If you did not leave a feedback form but have comments you would like to relay, feel free to email them to me at this link.  I’ll be happy to add them for our consideration at the next board meeting. Please make the subject "MLAG Feedback." If you have photos to share, contact Neal Walters at this link.


Next year's Gathering will take place June 20-24, 2018, and the lineup will include: Carey Dubbert, Cathy Barton and Dave Para, Doug Pratt, Adam Miller, Doofus, and contest winner Ray Choi. We know it will be a great lineup and you should all plan to join us for our 28th annual Mountain Laurel Autoharp Gathering. If circumstances prevent your attendance, there will be, restored to operation, live streaming of the significant performances and we strongly encourage you to tune in and be with us in spirit, leave your comments, and contribute if you wish.



In appreciation,

Gregg Averett
Festival Director, Mountain Laurel Autoharp Gathering
1973 Westwood RD SE
Smyrna, GA 30080

 


 

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