That Round Peak Sound

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On Saturday evening, a program saluting the Round Peak sound will be presented at the Blue Ridge Music Center.

Paul Brown, a Washington-based newscaster and reporter for National Public Radio, will host the 7 p.m. program.

Brown is heard most mornings coast-to-coast on NPR’s Morning Edition.

During his youth Brown came to the Galax area to learn Round Peak music, and he remains an enthusiastic supporter of the sound.

“Round Peak” is a term for a place, as well as a string band sound, a banjo style and a musical movement that has encircled the globe. There’s a Round Peak band in Iceland, and several in New Zealand. There are many hundreds across the U.S. and Western Europe, but the locale with most bands performing in Round Peak style seems to be greater Tokyo.

It is instructive to Google “Round Peak” and see the several pages of Internet ads by persons selling their services in teaching Round Peak-style music, all from places far distant from where the sound originated in the tiny Round Peak community in northwestern Surry County.

Bands performing in Round Peak style are considered “old-time” at the Old Fiddlers' Convention in Galax, but not all old-time is Round Peak.

The festival with most Round Peak bands in attendance is Clifftop, held annually in West Virginia. Round Peakers tend to be proud of their sound, and while they may use the same instruments, they do not care to have their music called bluegrass.

No bluegrass is allowed at the Clifftop festival.

The Round Peak community where this sound originated in Surry County is closer to Galax than Mount Airy, and still small and relatively isolated. The sound originated in a handful of families in the 1920s, drawing on and blending traditional house dance tunes and parlor music sounds from the post-Civil War period.

The highly distinctive sound came to national attention in the 1960s due to the fieldwork and recording of such musicologists as Richard Nevins, Dave Freeman, Ray Alden and Bobby Patterson.

The most beloved of Round Peak bands among those who follow this sound is the Camp Creek Boys, composed of Fred Cockerham, Ernest East, Kyle Creed, Verlin Clifton, and Paul Sutphin. They were in their senior years when recorded in the 1960s and 1970s, and only Clifton remains alive.

The best-known Round Peaker was Tommy Jarrell, who traveled to many large festivals in the north and west, and inspired a generation of hippy youngsters who flocked to the Galax area to hear and learn from the originals. Jarrell, Cockerham, and Charlie Lowe are beloved icons in the style. Kyle Creed (who lived in Galax) and Dix Freeman were also greatly respected for their contributions.

Most of these musicians were equally adept with violin or drop-thumb banjo, and their music was a passionate note-for-note combining of those instruments, and created for dancers.

Another Surry County musician and bandleader much beloved and still playing in this style is Benton Flippen. Among the members of his band for a dozen years was Paul Brown. Like the Round Peakers who taught him, Brown is skilled with both fiddle and banjo.

Brown worked in a furniture factory and became a newsman and announcer at WPAQ in Mount Airy. He has since risen far in the news business, and is now a senior producer and on-air newsman of what has been called the nation’s most influential radio news program, National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.

Brown is heard coast-to-coast and on NPR outlets in Roanoke and Winston-Salem. From 2001 to 2003 Brown was NPR's executive producer for weekend programming. He also served as acting executive producer and acting senior producer of NPR's Talk of the Nation, and as acting senior producer at NPR's Morning Edition.

A musician on banjo, piano, guitar and fiddle since childhood, Brown spent years collecting and documenting traditional music in southwest Virginia and northwest North Carolina. He studied banjo with the late Tommy Jarrell under an National Endowment for the Arts Folk Arts Apprenticeship Grant.

He has produced and performed on numerous CDs and LPs for the County, Smithsonian Folkways, Heritage and Rounder labels. He won a National Federation of Community Broadcasters Silver Reel Award for his NPR music documentary "Breaking Up Christmas: A Blue Ridge Mountain Holiday."

While at the top of his profession, Brown retains a fascination with the sound that brought him south a generation ago to learn from the Round Peakers. His band, the Toast String Stretchers, will headline the program.

Another band performing in the concert is Backstep — a younger band that differs from scores of other Round Peak-style bands in that it has roots in the actual Round Peak community.

Kirk Sutphin will join Brown in part of the presentation. Like Brown, Sutphin learned from the Round Peakers, and his family was from the community.

• The Blue Ridge Music Center is located south of Galax on the Blue Ridge Parkway, off Virginia 89 South. Concert admission is $3. For more information on the show, visit www.blueridgemusiccenter.org