Above: Jeremy Aggers, foreground, plays old tunes on the banjo while, left to right at rear, Libby Lintel, Hal Rabinowitz and Vicki Page play along. Photo by Joe Earle.
Libby Lintel played piano, but she decided it was too solitary an instrument. She wanted to tackle music that would allow her more chances to play with other people. So, a little more than six years ago, she took up the banjo.
Learning to play her new open-backed banjo led her to “old-time” music, the slice of American folk music associated with songs and string bands of the Appalachians. “The old tunes are pretty,” the 57-year-old Cobb County resident said. “They’re simple melodies. They’re historic. It kind of links you with the past.”
It links her with like-minded musicians, too, which is why one recent Saturday afternoon she joined nine other instrumentalists in the back room at Slope’s BBQ in Sandy Springs to play old tunes. “The reason I picked up banjo was so I could get good enough to come play with a group like this,” Lintel said.
Old-time players gather at Slope’s most Saturday afternoons and many Tuesday nights to perform old tunes that sometimes may sound familiar, but often bear strange names. At any time, they may start up “Shove That Pig’s Foot a Little Further in the Fire” or “Camp Meeting on the Fourth of July” or “Floppy-Eared Mule.”
The number of players at Slope’s varies from jam to jam, as does the instrumentation. On this Saturday, the group featured five fiddlers, a mandolin player, a guitarist, a hammered-dulcimer player and two banjo players.
Mandolin-player Don Sinisi said that when he was young, he played what he called “hippie mountain music,” meaning acoustic music by performers such as the Grateful Dead or John Prine. He moved on to bluegrass and old-time music, then stuck with old-time because he enjoyed it more.
Bluegrass jams turn into individual players performing solo after solo, he said; old-time musicians play together as a group.
The instrumentalists gathered in a room decorated with wooden and ceramic pigs, a country quilt, lots of Georgia license plates and a serving tray printed with the photo and signature of Elvis Presley. They set their chairs into a circle and sat facing one another as they strummed or hammered or plucked their instruments and took turns calling out songs to play.
The informal old-time jam has been meeting in Sandy Springs for about two years, but it’s been going for decades. Decades ago, the players gathered in Decatur. Then they moved to Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta for a while, until renovation of the tavern forced them to move to Sandy Springs, said Dan Byrd, an 80-year-old fiddler and Buckhead cardiologist who now pulls together the gatherings.
Byrd, known to everyone as “Doc,” said he started fiddling about 40 years ago. Before that, he played banjo. “I’ve been playing music all my life,” he said in a telephone interview a couple of days before the jam. “It’s relaxing. There’s no pressure on you and people are learning new songs all the time.”
Now Byrd keeps a mailing list of 86 musicians who show up for the jam at one time or another. On any given Saturday, anywhere from four to 15 may join, Byrd said. “The jam session is open to anybody,” he said. “If you want to show up with your instrument, we welcome you.”
And once they start playing, the group draws notice. As they worked their way through tunes such as “Snake River Reel” and “Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine,” diners applauded or wandered over to snap photos with their phones of the musicians. Mary Jacobsen of Marietta said she and her husband, Quen, drop by Slope’s for lunch just about every Saturday in order to hear the music. “They call us their groupies,” she joked.
Tyler Ellis was pleasantly surprised to find the group jam when he stopped by for a barbecue sandwich for lunch. The 29-year-old Sandy Springs resident, who grew up in Simpsonville, S.C., said the music reminded him of home. “It’s awesome,” he said, before snapping a souvenir photo.
On this Saturday afternoon, fiddler Vicki Page of Roswell filled in for Doc as the group’s leader. The 64-year-old said she began playing fiddle after college. She started off playing Celtic music but felt a kinship with the old mountain tunes. “My family is from eastern Kentucky,” she said. “That’s where old-time comes from.”
She and the others started discussing what tunes to play next. Before long, it would be time tackle “Nail that Catfish to a Tree.”