It’s 3:15pm, Wednesday at West Henderson High School in Mrs. King’s classroom.
Buses are taking students home and athletic teams have suited up for another afternoon practice. However, about a dozen teenagers are staying after school. Some know each other. Some don’t. Some are freshmen, while others are finishing what may be their last year of public education. These young men and women are not in trouble—no one is making them stay after classes dismissed for the day.
For the next 45 minutes, each will set aside the differences that sometimes divide even the most mature teenagers and work together to create something that both brings them together and showcases their individuality. This is where West Henderson High School’s Bluegrass Club meets once a week and members of the generation who will be the future of Western North Carolina perform the music of their ancestors.
The weekly gathering is presided over by Ben Seneker, a 32-year-old history and civics teacher who grew up in Asheville and is in his third year teaching at West Henderson. “When I was hired, people knew I played banjo and said I needed to meet Mr. Searcy because he’s in a professional bluegrass band,” Seneker explains. “I literally went up to him and said, ‘Do you want to start a club? I love this style of music and want to pass it onto another generation.'”
When not in the classroom English teacher Cliff Searcy plays guitar with regional bluegrass favorites Appalachian Fire, but each Wednesday he is one of three teachers in the classroom contributing to these students’ supplemental musical education. “It’s fun to be able to share my love of this music with those who are eager to learn more about it,” Searcy says. “Plus, each week we all get just a little better at it.”
Another faculty member taking part is Tiffany King, director of the school’s orchestra and chorus. Not every classical music aficionado extends sonic admiration to bluegrass, but King plays beside the students whom she taught earlier in the day to play more refined musical fare on their string instruments in that same classroom.
“I think my students get more out of it than they realize,” King says. “For someone who can read and play classical music you’d think it would be easy to play other music by ear, but it’s still a skill you have to work hard to develop and master. I’m very impressed with what I’ve heard coming from their instruments.”
West Henderson High Principal Dean Jones says he welcomed giving time and space to explore this musical alternative. “We have a large number of extra curricular activities including sports, the arts, service clubs and clubs of student interest,” Jones says. “Offering clubs of this nature encourages all students to be involved and feel that they belong.”
Seneker says that even though it may be called the Bluegrass Club, the music played is something more. “I don’t really play bluegrass,” he explains. “I play a different style that is called old-time music that is traditional Appalachian string music which predated bluegrass by about 200 years or so. Our club began in 2009 as an Appalachian strings club, but when you say that people really don’t know what you’re talking about. If you call it bluegrass, that seems to resonate more.”
When Searcy and Seneker started the club last year, only about five teens showed up for the first meeting. One of those was Riley Holcombe of Horse Shoe. “We love where we live and this music has a huge influence over us,” the 18-year-old violin player says. “This is our chance to dabble in our background and our roots. Now, it has grown to more than a dozen and after I graduate I hope that will only continue.”
Eighteen-year old Hunter Hill from Flat Rock agrees. “I grew up listening to bluegrass music and it’s not that often you get a chance to play it,” Hill says cradling his guitar. “People our age have a lot of things they can choose to do after school, but for me to play a few songs together and maybe learn some new ones is exciting.”
Hill led his fellow musicians through the song “Rocky Top” then 17-year-old violinist Sarah Hinson of Mills River took the reins for “Liza Jane.” “We started playing that song a lot and learned that many things in bluegrass are similar in structure,” Hinson said. “It was a building block of bluegrass for us and a great place to start. We usually play it each week.”
Katie O’Shea of Mills River doesn’t play an instrument, but she is in Mrs. King’s classroom every Wednesday after school. “I always had a really high level of appreciation for people who can play instruments,” says the 17-year-old who sings along with most of the songs. “I’m here because I like the music and love listening to it.”
That particular Wednesday, a new student joined the jam session.
“I’m from New Jersey but have always loved country music and considered myself Southern at heart,” 15-year-old Alex Hardison of Horse Shoe says attending his first meeting that afternoon with a guitar in tow. “I’ve lived here for 13 years and after hearing about the club, I decided I’d try playing bluegrass.”
The experience has been as rewarding for the teachers as it has for the students. “The majority of the songs we play are Irish, English and German fiddle tunes that came to this country through immigrants,” Seneker says. “Henderson County and Western North Carolina has such a rich history of this type of music and lot of students, sadly, didn’t know much about the rich musical history that they live right in the middle of.”
In addition to sharing historical songs, the adult and teen club members also share some laughs along the way. “What is the difference between a violin and a fiddle?” Searcy asks. “About $1,000.” His fellow teacher was quick to run with that punchline. “The bluegrass answer is that a violin has strings, but a fiddle has strangs,” Searcy jokes.
Seneker says one day, these weekly meetings might turn into something more. “This is only our second year and even with this small a group you can get a sound that’s pretty powerful,” he says. “We have talked about maybe playing somewhere in town on the weekends, but for right now it’s just a cool way to interact with kids outside the classroom. I get the satisfaction of passing this local culture onto young kids, which is awesome.”
Two hundred high school students gathered in the auditorium of West Henderson High School Wednesday to hear words of encouragement and inspiration offered by Dr. Tom Bibey.
The 59-year-old semi-retired family doctor from Shelby was not there to give medical advice. Instead, the mandolin player and author of the recently released fictional medical malpractice novel The Mandolin Case told the teenagers about following their dreams even when obstacles get in the way.
Dr. Bibey was invited to speak by English teacher Cliff Searcy, a local musician who struck up an online friendship with Bibey and learned of the doctor’s literary aspirations after their two bands played together.
“He began to talk about his writing and I told him when he got his book published I wanted him to talk to my students,” Searcy said. “Now that it’s been out three or four months, he made good on that promise.”
Searcy said The Mandolin Case skillfully incorporates bluegrass music into an intricate tale of a country doctor facing malpractice allegations and a younger physician who wants to assist his mentor without taking any credit.
“I haven’t read the book, but I am inspired by all art and it plays a huge role in my life,” said 18-year-old Riley Holcombe of Horse Shoe, who later joined Bibey in an after-school jam session with members of the West Henderson High Bluegrass Club. “I think it was really good to hear him talk about putting his personal experiences into the story.”
Dr. Bibey was likewise impressed with the students.
“These kids are pretty astute,” he explained. “A lot of people want to know if music is really that important to my work and my life, and it is. I wouldn’t get on stage with anything other than a mandolin, but I play guitar and banjo. But if I play the fiddle, my wife will run me out of the house because I’m terrible at it.”