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Grizzle Grazzle

Oly Old Time Festival is fingerpickin’ good

Emily Teachout. Courtesy photo

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Political sloganeering aside, this is not an especially patriotic time in the good ol' U.S. of A. Last Fourth of July, an annual Gallup poll found only 47 percent of Americans to be proud of their nationality. In the 18 years this poll has been conducted, it's the first time fewer than half of respondents expressed intense patriotism. (A few years after 9/11, that figure hit 70 percent.) There's still, however, much for which we should all extol the red, white and blue. We're a nation powered by science but respectful of religious pluralism. We make the world's finest superhero movies. Then there's the music. This fertile land gave birth to Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, Bruce Springsteen and a pantheon of living artists informed by rich, musical history. Each year in early February, an old-time festival in Olympia does its fair share of the fun work of keeping our fingerpickin', toe-tappin' heritage alive.

"Old-time music" is traditional, Appalachian and American-Southern music played on acoustic instruments, notably the banjo and fiddle. It's written in the blood of American history: Slaves, indigenous Americans and immigrants folded their musical forms into Appalachian country and gospel music. The popularity of old-time music resurged into mainstream appreciation with the 2000 release of the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? and its octuple-platinum soundtrack.

Oly Old Time Festival began in 2008, when private homes hosted string-band jams under the collective name "Grizzle Grazzle." More recently, it's been a program of Arbutus Folk School, run by a team of volunteers. Featured performers for 2019 include Allison de Groot, Nic Gareiss, Hey George, The Horsenecks, Indivisibillies, Les Coeurs Criminels, Sassafras Sisters, The Tallboys and Caleb Klauder & Reeb Willms. Winnipeg, Canada-born de Groot is a virtuoso of clawhammer banjo, a picking style characterized by downward strokes of a stiff forearm pivoted at the elbow. Gareiss may be from Michigan, but he's an acknowledged master of percussive, Irish-style step dancing. He earned his master's in ethnochoreology at the University of Limerick and has even been endorsed by The Irish Times and Irish Arts Council. The Horsenecks are an American-British combo led by fiddler Gabriel Macrae and Liverpudlian banjoist Barry Southern. The Tallboys hail from Seattle and were tapped to grace the festival's opening-night dance party. Sassafras Sisters are hometown favorites, a trio of teen artists who grew up around the festival but recently earned first-place honors at Sparta, North Carolina's Allegheny Fiddlers Convention. Fiddler and mandolinist Klauder and guitarist Willms have been playing together since 2008, but Klauder's musical resumé stretches back to the 1990s heyday of Portland, Oregon, folk-rockers Calobo. Kelsey Nelson of Lopez Island and Stephanie Noll of Portland serve as callers for festival dance events.

One of Oly Old Time's most-popular, recurring attractions is a visual art form, the crankie, presenters of which are called crankists. In the mid-19th century, before "Video Killed the Radio Star" on MTV, performers illustrated songs by painting scenes on fabric scrolls, backlighting and unrolling them in sync with the music. The crankie workshop will be taught by Shanty Slater and Emily Teachout. "In these times of scrolling through screens," says Teachout, "it is wonderful to get together out of the cold and interact face to face -- whether it's in a knee-to-knee jam, swinging a partner on the dance floor or joining voices in harmony."

OLY OLD TIME FESTIVAL, 7 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 14 through 3 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 17, First Christian Church, 701 Franklin St. SE and South Bay Grange, 3918 Sleater Kinney Rd. NE, Olympia, free-$20,

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