Wayne Erbsen followed his love of folk music into a lifelong career. He pursued the muse across the country and landed at Warren Wilson College, where he’s been teaching traditional Appalachian music for 35 years. He’s also written more than 30 books about acoustic music, hosts the “Country Roots” show on WCQS — the radio station’s longest-running program — and mentors up-and-coming players in the Warren Wilson Bluegrass Band.
Erbsen grew up in Los Angeles, and as the folk revival hit full steam in the early 1960s, he and his family became regulars at the West Hollywood club The Ash Grove. Maybelle Carter, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Merle Travis, Bill Monroe, Son House, Doc Watson — one big name after another played that stage. “I was totally immersed in this giant sea of traditional music, and it was the whole spectrum of old-time bluegrass and jazz and swing and country,” Erbsen recalls. “I got to see the best of the best.”
He moved north to attend UC Berkeley, and lived in the Bay area from 1964 to ’72. “There’s an incredible amount of music there, but I wasn’t so tuned into the Grateful Dead and all of those bands,” Erbsen explains. “I was into bluegrass, so I missed out on some of the great rock and roll. That’s just the way it was. I was playing two or three nights a week in Berkeley after I graduated, and I was teaching.”
Trying to get closer to the roots of the music he loved, Erbsen hit the road and ended up taking a job teaching history at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte. He also designed the school’s first course on traditional Appalachian music. “I was kind of a fish out of water in California,” he remarks. “But when I got into the South, here were Southerners, Southern-mountain people who spoke the same language, so to speak. They pronounced their words the same way that Lester Flatt pronounced them on the bluegrass records I was listening to.”
In 1982, Erbsen became part of the Warren Wilson faculty. With former students like Molly Rose Reed and Eleanor Underhill (of the group Underhill Rose) having gone on to regional, even international acclaim, Erbsen now views music as part of the school’s image.
The professor mentions some of the earliest known country sessions, put to wax in Asheville in 1927. Jimmie Rodgers, memorialized with a marker on Haywood Street, was among the singers who recorded in the city. “Legends were discovered here,” Erbsen says. “Students learn the background of the songs, the musicians, the history, and relate it to Western North Carolina. They’re immersed in the culture, learning the roots of the music and how it sprang up right around us.”
Erbsen credits the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, released in 2000, for the latest-wave acoustic-music revival. “It made a huge impact on the younger generation,” he says. “I especially noticed it at Warren Wilson, where my classes were suddenly overflowing with young people who wanted to get back to more rootsy music.”
That enthusiasm led Erbsen to form the Warren Wilson Bluegrass Band — the professor leads it, but students make up the rest of the band. “We have a really talented group of students right now,” he says, numbering Brady Lux on fiddle, Mason Via on guitar, AnnRamey Schwab on vocals, Sam Atwood on bass, and Kyle Gnadinger on banjo. Erbsen plays mandolin. “The singing is really great,” he says. “I’m just lucky that all of these people happen to be at Warren Wilson right now.”
Students in the band receive college credit, but obviously get more from the course beyond classroom instruction — two summers ago, a somewhat different configuration of the group played Billingham International Folk Festival in England, along with the Bailey Mountain Cloggers of Mars Hill University.
And what they learn carries a residual timbre. “There’s a lot of cultural information that’s passed on,” Erbsen explains. “I teach an old-time singing class on everything from ballads and folk songs, to hymns and spirituals and gospel songs, to sentimental songs of the 19th century. And not only do we learn the songs, but we learn the history, stories, and anecdotes. You know, wild-and-woolly interesting stories about many of the musicians who went on to become legends. We’re sitting in Western North Carolina, in the hotbed of traditional music. There’s few places that can boast such a long list of phenomenal legendary musicians as produced here.
“I think it helps identify who we are,” he goes on. “Four years ago, I was invited to teach in the Czech Republic, [where they] have a deep tradition of singing folk songs. People can gather around and sing common songs that they all know for hours, with complete strangers. It made me realize that America is such a young country. There are a few songs that everybody knows, but it doesn’t run as deeply. And what one generation may have known, like some songs by Stephen Foster, now the next generation has never heard. It’s important that the cultural identity of Americans, and especially Southerners, kind of thrives on having a shared body of songs that they know, and they love. That just helps define who we are.”
The Warren Wilson Bluegrass Band, led by Wayne Erbsen, performs at The Feed & Seed (3715 Hendersonville Road in Fletcher) on Saturday, April 22, at 7:30pm. Free. 828-216-3492. www.feedandseednc.com or www.nativeground.com.