Hoppin  John square dance regulars The Five Points Rounders in 2011
  • Allison Springer
  • Hoppin’ John square dance regulars The Five Points Rounders in 2011

On Thursday morning, things are hectic in the Shakori Hills office. The sprawling farmstead and festival site, just north of Pittsboro in rural Silk Hope, is preparing for the 8th Hoppin’ John Old Time and Bluegrass Fiddler’s Convention, which starts this evening. There’s a new online check-in system debuting at Hoppin’ John, but the Internet’s out, explains convention coordinator Julie Amani when she answers the phone.

“It has to be something,” she says with a laugh. She’s confident it’ll be fixed soon. Besides, the tents are up and the forecast calls for highs in the upper 70s and low 80s—perfect Chatham County camping weather.

INDY Week spoke with Amani about Hoppin’ John and how it fits in with the region and the larger fiddlers’ convention scene.

INDY Week: For people who have only been to the Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival, how is the fiddlers’ convention distinct?

Julie Amani: A fiddlers’ convention is very different in that it’s less of a spectator event. It’s full participation. The musical entertainment is provided mainly by contestants. We have the dance tent going, but it’s for dancing. We have a cook-off for people to take part in and a cake walk. It’s a place where musicians come out, really, to play with one another.

IW: There are a lot of pickin’ sessions and open bluegrass jams around the Triangle now. Is this a larger version of that?

JA: Pretty much, but with a festival component, for people who want to come out and enjoy the music, too. We have vendors. Fiddlers’ conventions are part of our whole region in North Carolina and Virginia. They’re really part of the history there, like Galax.

IW:How many are there around, even in North Carolina?

JA: There’s Mount Airy, that’s been going on 43 years. There’s Happy Valley and Charlie Poole, but the great thing about Hoppin’ John is that it’s the only one that’s in our area. Everybody knows about Round Peak style music and people know about Madison County style music out in the west, but every region has its own style of playing old-time music, because there was just no communication back in the day. So even the Piedmont has its own playing style.

IW: Where are the players coming from?

JA: There’s a wide range of everyone. There are a lot of children—there are so many children competing that we expanded the children’s contests. The children, especially, are local, but then people also come from all over the state, from Virginia. We have people coming from Michigan. There’s a guy who just showed up a few days ago, from Belgium. And he’s just been touring all the fiddlers’ conventions all summer long.

IW:So why the focus on hoppin’ john, the food?

JA: It was incidental. The name itself came from our friend Timmy Brown, who is just a great musician and a wonderful artist and the caretaker here at Shakori Hills. We were having a meeting and deciding what were we going to name it. You can’t call it Shakori Hills, because people identify the grassroots festival with that. It was like, “Let’s call it something unique. We should name it after some great fiddler.” And [Brown] was so animated: “Remember that guy, John, and he used to hop around when he played the fiddle? Yeah, Hoppin’ John!” And everybody was like, “OK, let’s call it Hoppin’ John. Wait, isn’t that a food?” So we decided to have a cook-off and tie it all together.

IW:Over eight years, how has this grown and what have you learned?
JA: It’s grown quite a bit. The first one was really small and really sweet and we were really grateful to all the people that came out. There were a few hundred people at that one. And you know what? We’re expecting about 15, 1600 people Saturday.