Bluegrass Star

Block Number: 31

By Nora Worthen, April 28, 2010

Last Friday evening in Old Fort, The old Rockett Building rocked with the sounds of bluegrass emanating from within, as musicians simultaneously gathered outside in the parking lot, toe tapping to their own bluegrass sounds. This event has been happening every Friday evening from seven to eleven since 1986. On this Friday evening, a special tribute was paid to Old Fort Mountain Music for its longstanding tradition in the community, and to one of Old Fort’s longtime residents, Dr. George Ellis, who is loved and respected for his medical skills, as well as his musical talent. The tribute came in the form of a quilt block named “Bluegrass Star,” which was sponsored by the Town of Old Fort to commemorate the tradition of mountain music.

Earlier in the afternoon, Mike Lucas and volunteer assistant Richard Turner, set up scaffolding and installed the quilt block, while other members of the McDowell Quilt Trail committee, Mayor Pro Tem Carroll Miller, and others extended encouragement, took photographs, and watched as the block was mounted on the building.

McDowell Quilt Trail, under the umbrella of McDowell Arts Council Association (MACA), constructs and installs on buildings brightly colored wooden panels that resemble a quilt block taken from traditional mountain quilt patterns. As with quilts, each block tells a story. “Bluegrass Star” has two stories to tell. The first began many years ago with a group of men, after a long week’s work, would gather on Friday evenings on the porch of Max Woody’s Chair shop to play bluegrass music. When the group outgrew Max’s shop, they moved to the front porch of Mountain Gateway Museum, which started the tradition known as Mountain Gateway Music. In 1987, the town of Old Fort agreed to these Friday night sessions being held at the Rockett Building, so the community could gather and enjoy the music.

The second story is about Dr. George Ellis, who grew up in the rural area of Kentucky called Goldbug, earned his undergraduate degree at Berea College, his medical degree at the University of Louisville, completed his internship in Asheville, served in the U.S. Air Force as Chief of the Advance Medicine Section doing most of the teaching; and in 1965 found his way to Old Fort to set up his medical practice of 38 years. On his way into retirement, he spent the last two years of his medical career in Marion at Health Plus.

As much as Ellis loves music, he says medicine was his calling, knowing from the time he was a preteen that “I did not ever want to be anything but a doctor. I loved the patients beyond description. I always tried my best to do for them what I would have wanted someone to do for me.”

However, at some point during his medical career, Dr. Ellis, who always liked music, purchased a guitar and began trying to learn to play by accompanying himself while singing old country songs. One day his patient, Jim Duckworth, invited Ellis to come along to Max Woody’s Chair Shop to play some bluegrass music, saying, “You can stand in the corner until you learn how,” which is exactly what Ellis did. As a young man, he sang in a quartet in church, but had no formal musical instruction.

Dr. Ellis and his band, Clear Creek, practice every Thursday night at his house, and have done so intermittently since its inception. “We will go to other places to play when somebody wants us to play for them. It’s the only time I can put my mind in neutral and not have to think about anything.”

Friday evening, on stage at Mountain Music just prior to Clear Creek performing, Jill Lucas, Chairperson of McDowell Quilt Trail committee, presented the Certificate of Authenticity for “Bluegrass Star” to Dr. Ellis, Old Fort Mayor Garland Norton, and Jean Baxter, current president of Mountain Music. Jill expressed thanks to the Town of Old Fort for its continued support of the McDowell Quilt Trail, and gave a brief history of how the tradition of Old Fort Mountain Music began, and reminded the audience that by doing so, a piece of mountain culture has continued for over two decades. Upon receipt of the certificate Dr. Ellis said, “I really am humbled by the fact that the McDowell Quilt Trail, the Town of Old Fort, and Old Fort Mountain Music picked me as a recipient of this award.”

Just as the musicians have maintained their cultural heritage by continuing to perform mountain music, so is McDowell Quilt Trail, by placing quilt blocks on barns and other buildings throughout the county, memorializing the traditional quilt patterns in the form of outdoor folk art.

“Bluegrass Star” is the 30th block on the Trail. Carroll Miller, Mayor Pro Tem and personnel director of the Town of Old Fort commented on the quilt project saying, “Old Fort is steeped in rich history, from pre Revolutionary War days and early settlers, all the way through to the railroad and industry. We would like to see them all over the town.”

Jean Buchanan and Linda Smith, members of McDowell Quilt Trail and residents of Old Fort, approached the Board of Aldermen in the summer of 2009 about hosting a quilt block for Old Fort. Jean says, “We wanted to maintain the integrity of the original quilt patterns that had some history and integrity of the era.” The town contracted not only to host one, but three blocks: one for the Depot called “Railroad Star, ” one for the Rockett Building, and the third one is in the design phase.

The McDowell Quilt Trail committee was formed in June of 2009, by a group of dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers, whose purpose is to bring beauty, tourism and economic development to McDowell County, while showcasing traditional quilt blocks on hand-painted exterior wooden panels. A trail map, and other related items can be purchased at the Old Fort Depot, the MACA gift shop, as well as the Visitor Center in Marion, where one can follow the trail, much like on a scavenger hunt, to see the 30 quilt blocks throughout the county.

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