The sky was prematurely darkening just before the Carter Brother’s 8 p.m. set at Market Square Courtyard in High Point over the weekend.
Monica Hodges Peters, the principal organizer of Eb Fest Bluegrass Music & Makers Festival, and Brian Clarey, Triad City Beat editor and chief and master of ceremonies for the festival, weighed the options of outlining a contingency plan for inclement weather during the introduction or just waiting it out. The Carter Brothers, who have been performing professionally for more than two decades, typically pause their shows to let the audience take shelter during rainfall and then resume once the storm passes over. Notifying the audience of the plan in advance could prevent a stampede to the gates, but on the other hand it could also spook the herd.
“Just don’t tell people not to take the brown acid,” I joked to Brian. Considering the amount of gray hair in the crowd, the Woodstock reference would have been age-appropriate, but somehow I don’t think many people would be laughing.
Opening with “Fatback,” a rousing swamp rock-inflected number that features Tim Carter’s hard-driving banjo playing and Southern-fried vocals, the band’s spirited performance seemed likely to hold off the rain.
Distantly related to the Carter Family, who are widely regarded as the founders of country music, brothers Tim and Danny grew up in Jamestown and now make a living as musicians, songwriters and recording artists in Nashville.
They’ve only recently started to own up to their illustrious pedigree because the brothers are far more interested in creative exploration than nostalgia. Their music is located at the forward-leaning end of the bluegrass spectrum — think of the virtuosity of Bela Fleck and the stylistic restlessness of Sam Bush. They maintain a keen interest in the Irish roots of Appalachian folk music, while also nurturing a love of African-American folk and blues traditions, with unique interpretations of Elizabeth Cotten and, via the Byrds, Leadbelly.
It was exciting to experience a homecoming concert by two musicians with such exceeding talent, and the brothers seemed to be happy to be back, with Danny noting that any time they have 24 hours to spend in High Point they have to plan in advance to make sure they visit their favorite restaurants.
As the brothers and their bandmates energetically churned through a varied set list, it seemed as if the rain might yet hold off. But what had been the occasional drip turned into fat dollops that fell with increasing frequency. When I turned around and surveyed the crowd I noted people grabbing their lawn chairs and heading towards the gates. I’d taken the optimistic view of this gamble, and I decided my job at that moment was to do whatever I could to instill confidence. Engaging in a bit of crowd psychology, I started dancing with loose and joyous exuberance in front of the stage. Pretty soon, seven or eight people had joined me, and a woman who was getting along in her drink gave me the thumbs up and high-fived me.
By the end of the song we were drenched, and the steady drumbeat of precipitation had turned into a downpour. As I fled to a tent, I heard Monica’s voice come over the PA system. She said something to the effect of, “Don’t let the rain drive you away. Come inside, and we’ll keep the party going. Let the rain come down and water the flowers.”
After taking temporary shelter under a tent along the side of the courtyard, I made a beeline through the rain for the stage.
When I got there, I heard Tim say, “There’s a puddle of water right where I was standing. We’re not coming back out to play.”
He suggested that the band play an acoustic set inside the Market Square furniture showroom. I helped the bass player carry his amp to the door, and then doubled back to the stage, and found Danny still seated and surveying the chaotic scene with a bemused smile. I asked him if I could carry anything for him.
“I suppose you could carry my guitar,” he said. “Just look for my brother and set it down wherever he is.”
I couldn’t believe the profound honor and solemn responsibility that had been placed on me as he handed the instrument to me. Inside, in front of the reception desk, I found Tim setting up. For a while, I just stood awkwardly with the guitar, petrified that it would fall over and go out of tune if I tried to lean it against a wall. Eventually, I laid it on a popcorn machine.
They ran through bluegrass standards, a Leadbelly song and closed out with a John Hiatt tune that showcased Tim’s mandolin playing.
“Cry love, love,” they sang. “The tears of any angel/ The tears of a dove/ Spilling all over/ Your heart from above/ Cry love, cry love.”