Olympia Old-Time Music Festival is back, keeping tradition alive

Old-time music isn’t just a genre. It’s a way of life.

“When I play this music, it really transports me to a different place and time,” said Erynn Marshall, a fiddler, teacher and ethnomusicologist who’ll be featured at the Olympia Old-Time Music Festival this weekend. “I don’t really feel like I’m playing the fiddle; I feel like it’s playing me. And every tune or song that I play or sing takes me back to how I learned it. That’s what I really love about this music.”

Marshall and her husband, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Carl Jones, will be guest artists at the sixth annual festival, which offers a weekend of concerts, square dances and workshops for adults and children.

Marshall, who grew up in Canada, has loved the music of Appalachia since she first heard it. She and Jones live in Galax, Va., where old-time music is still very much alive and well.

“Galax is like Mecca for old-time musicians,” Marshall said. “More old-time and bluegrass music has come out of this area than pretty much any other.”

While she studies, teaches and writes about old-time music, Marshall doesn’t like the idea of preservation. “It’s such a strong living tradition,” she said. “Sometimes people are focused on trying to preserve something that’s very much alive.

“I would like to see fiddlers today digging deeper than the versions you hear at jams,” she added. “There’s a beauty and complexity to lots of the fiddle tunes that gets missed when people just pick up a tune at a jam. By being a really good listener to good players young and old and listening to those source recordings, we can help keep the music going.”

And that’s what’s happened in Galax. She believes it’s thanks in part to the many old-time music conventions and competitions that happen in the region.

“One of the things that is remarkable about this area is just how many young people still play, how many family string bands have been going for generations,” she said.

That’s the kind of vibrant old-time scene that festival organizers are seeking to build in South Sound through the annual festival, which includes an abundance of musical workshops taught by local musicians as well as by visiting masters Jones and Marshall, activities and free admission for children, plus traditional craft workshops aimed to attract musicians and nonmusicians alike.

“This style of music and dance is about community, and it is about participation,” Emily Teachout, one of the festival’s founders said. “It’s less about performance and more about getting everyone involved and having everyone participate in some way.”

Among the craft workshops this year is one on basket making, one on creating scrappy folk dolls, and one on making crankies, illustrated scrolls used to tell a story visually as it’s being played and sung. Artists Nikki McClure and Shanty Slater are co-teaching that one along with Teachout.

The weekend also includes too many musical workshops and jams for any one person to attend — and everyone is welcome, whether experienced or not. (This year’s offerings include a “super-slow jam,” which will teach a simple fiddle tune to novices.)

“I like to encourage people if they are curious about it to come and check it out,” Teachout said. “If they are starting to dabble with one of the instruments we play, I encourage them to bring it along, take it out of the case.

“It’s really a pretty accessible form of music. That’s what we love about it.”

Olympia Old-Time Music Festival

What: The sixth-annual weekend of concerts, square dances, jams and workshops celebrates and spreads the word about the joys of old-time music.

When: Through Sunday

Where: Olympia Ballroom, 116 Legion Way, Olympia; First Christian Church, 701 Franklin St. SE, Olympia; and Arbutus Folk School, 600 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia

Tickets: $15 each for the Friday night concert and Saturday night dance, free for ages 12 and younger, free for workshops (except the basketry workshop, which has a $20 materials fee). A weekend pass is available for $30.

More information:

Get involved: The festival needs volunteers (they will qualify for a free weekend pass). Email volunteer@