Banjo Master Baugus Looks to Old Times

Riley Baugus (vertical)

Riley Baugus made playing the banjo his full-time profession after 18 years as a welder. Noah Adams, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Noah Adams, NPR

Riley Baugus is a 41-year-old banjo player from North Carolina, and for him, music could have stopped a century ago. He plays old-time music — the tunes from the Scots-Irish who settled and farmed in the southern Appalachians — and made playing the banjo his full-time profession after 18 years as a welder.

Baugus, whose singing voice can be heard in the movie Cold Mountain, recently taught a weeklong advanced banjo class at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, W. Va. While there, he spoke about old-time music's place in society and culture: It's not bluegrass, which is sharper and more driving, but rather softer, usually, with easier rhythms.

"Most old-time musicians were not doing it to make a living," Baugus says. "Most of this music was played because people needed entertainment. It was a hard life: Quite often, you know, you'd go out and work in the fields all day, and when nightfall comes, you're tired and you want something different."

For his class, Baugus attracted students ranging from a physics professor in Texas to a high-school student from Ohio. Donna Xander of McLean, Va., says she's played blues guitar, but has been seduced by the dark side, entranced by old-time music.

"I mean, I love all kinds of music," Xander says. I love Irish music and Cajun music, and I dance Cajun and I love Gregorian chant, and Riley seems to not be one of these purists who say, 'This is the way and this is the only way.'"

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