Emma John recalls a life-changing trip to North Carolina


Emma John highlights the memorable moments from her recent travels in North Carolina

It wasn’t a town so much as a crossroads. A hardware store squatted on the corner, the sole building in sight, pick-up trucks collected outside at careless angles, sun a half-hour gone. From its timber boards escaped the sound of jaunty string music. Sometimes a voice, too, seeped through the cracks: a simple melody with a keening edge and a lyric about an unfaithful woman. The song pooled onto the pavement, colouring it with nostalgia.

Inside, the musicians sat on folding metal chairs pulled into a rough circle. Tin signs on the walls advertised products from fishing rods to Cherry Coke; at the back, near a bathroom, hung the head of an eight-point buck. There was a nip of engine oil in the air.

I was used to being the only female in the room. I had taken my violin to jams all over this part of the Appalachians, where the Blue Ridge mountains sloped down towards the Great Smokies. I had played at sessions in threshing barns and barber’s shops, dive bars and strangers’ basements. When I arrived, at the start of the summer season, I knew as much about playing bluegrass fiddle as I did about bass fishing, which is to say, very little. But it had taken me only a couple of weeks to fall in love with the music, and the mountains, and to decide I didn’t want to leave.

And so I spent the next six months living in western North Carolina. The small-town of Boone was a quirky community that mixed old-time mountain folk, who prayed and farmed and claimed ancestry back to the 18th century pioneers, with liberal university-types who read and studied in the trendy coffee shops. Often, they belonged to the same families – and they came together, socially, in the vibrant music scene. In the mountains, where entertainment was traditionally scarce, everyone could play or sing something.

Over the course of the summer, I threw myself into my bluegrass quest. I was already a good violinist, classically trained, but understanding American folk music didn’t just require me to learn a new style – it demanded that I discover a whole new way to be. Southern life was like nothing I had ever encountered, and it was impossible to recreate its sounds until you felt its soul.

It changed my life in more ways than one. In finding my second home, I discovered a whole new identity. And when I decided to write about the experience, the result was a book that was named one of Newsweek’s Travel Books of the Decade. For a state that I had barely heard of before I travelled there, I owe North Carolina a heck of a lot, including some of my best friends today.


Emma John won the award for her piece Sweet Carolina in The Observer. If you’d like to know more about Emma’s adventure, Wayfaring Stranger: A Musical Journey through the American South is now out in paperback and e-book, and youcan get a copy HERE

Posted on: 18/08/2020

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