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Ford's Bluegrass Mill: Man's dream comes alive, spreads tradition

By Mary Katharine Ham/Richmond County Daily Journal

You can hear it in the air outside the high walls of Ford's Bluegrass Mill. The wooden door squeaks open and the sound gets louder - a high explosion of notes from the fiddle, the twang of hard-plucked banjo strings and the metallic clack, rasp, clack, rasp of clogging shoes on cement.

That's more than the sound of a good, old-fashioned country time. It's the sound of tradition being passed down.

Up on stage at Ford's Bluegrass Mill, 12-year-old Little Joe Grooms plays his banjo in the same band with his father, Big Joe Grooms, on upright bass.

In the back of the large building, James Ford watches from afar as his daughter and granddaughter clog together on the dance floor. The air carries the scent of popcorn popped by his wife, Phyllis, for the mill's guests. Above him is a dropped ceiling he put in, twenty feet below the rafters of the feed mill that used to house the Ford family business.

Now it houses Ford's dream. A long-time bluegrass fan and musician, Ford finally filled the old feed mill with music in December 2002. At its year anniversary, the mill is bringing in a couple bands every Friday night and about 125 guests from all over the state, he said.

Admission is by donation only right now, he said, and he designed the place for families, he said. There's no smoking allowed inside and he doesn't sell alcohol, so that everyone can come enjoy the music he loves.

"It tells about real life, when times are hard, when times are good," Ford said. "There's quite a few young people who want to learn and we just want to pass it on."


Some come to play

Ford's idea for building the bluegrass mill was simple - give people a safe place to listen to live music.

It worked. Now they come every Friday to listen, to play and to dance.

Little Joe Grooms is one of those who comes to play. He's been playing the banjo for about five years. At 7 years old, he heard a "Smoky Mountain Christmas" tape of his mom's and got hooked on the sound of bluegrass and the instrument.

"I just liked the sound. It's just different," Grooms said.

He liked it enough that his parents got him a banjo for Christmas and he started taking lessons. His bandmates and most of his audience have been listening to bluegrass longer than Grooms has been alive, but it doesn't seem to faze him when he's on stage.

He stands in one spot, a baseball cap pulled down on his eyes, his face serious, and plays solos for the hall like it's nothing. The little banjo player is a crowd favorite, but he doesn't let the cheering get in the way of his plucking. Even when Dueling Banjos sounds like it is speeding out of his hands, Grooms is calm.

Once Little Joe caught the bluegrass bug, his whole family went with him. Big Joe picked up a bass about a year ago so he could pick with his son and Luke, 8, is already playing the mandolin.

"He picks the mandolin," Big Joe said. "I can't get him up on stage yet."

Bob Dotson, who plays the other part to Little Joe's dueling banjo, has been playing guitar since he was 10, he said, and listening to bluegrass since he was 20. He sings lead and plays guitar in the same band with the Groomses, Appalachian Sound.

"I'm glad this place opened up ..." he said. "It's a family deal out here. Anybody who wants to come out can."

Dotson brings his 12-year-old daughter Kortni with him. She's tried the guitar and fiddle, but neither has worked for her, she said. Instead, she sticks to dancing.

  Outback is usually on the stage every Friday night. Visit their website.


Some come to dance

At the Ford Bluegrass Mill, there is only one dance - clogging. Some people dance in lines, some in couples, but it's all a variation on the traditional Appalachian dance, which originated in North Carolina.

Michelle Ford, James' daughter, used to travel with her father to bluegrass gigs all over the state. She used to ride in the back seat of the car up under his huge upright bass, she said.

She taught herself to clog as a kid, naturally learning the old dance, kicking her feet to the driving rhythm of fast bluegrass songs. Since the bluegrass mill opened, she's taught her daughter Hannah, 7, to clog too.

"It took me about two weeks to teach her how and she was rollin' after that," Michelle said.

Hannah proves it on the floor, her blond hair bouncing up and down as she and her mom show off the family talent side-by-side. Kortni Dotson, who has grown up around bluegrass because of her dad, is just learning to clog. She gets tips from Michelle as her dad's band plays Rocky Top on stage.

Michelle and Hannah wear shoes with metal taps on the bottoms. As they bounce to the rhythm, their shoes add the noise of a band of spoon-players to Appalachian Sound.

But Hannah has other aspirations. She plans to become quite the mandolin player, she said.

"I'm going to be the next Rhonda Vincent," she announced on a break from dancing, referring to the three-time bluegrass female vocalist of the year.

Paul "Doc" Little, 63, has missed only three Fridays the whole year since the mill's been open, he said. He comes dressed to the nines, with a black and white Western-style shirt and a matching belt-buckle and clean, white clogging shoes.

When he clogs, he does it with the precision of a tap dancer, letting the metal taps on his shoes accent the music on stage. He's never taken a lesson, though his performance draws applause from the crowd. He just does what he feels, he said.

"I love fast bluegrass music," Little said. "I grew up with it and it grew into me and I still got it ... Sometimes it brings tears to me."

It takes him back to his young days in Rockingham, when live music was just part of the family. Almost all of his dad's side of the family played an instrument, he said.

"I tell you what it reminds me - an old barn dance. It has that atmosphere," he said. "I've been waiting quite a few years for something like this to open."

So have James Ford and his bandmate Gene Sizemore, who have been playing together for about four years.

"It's the only kind of music there is," Sizemore said. "I was listening to bluegrass when the other kids were listening to rock n' roll."

The same is true of Little Joe Grooms, but bluegrass is important to him because it's part of where he came from.

"That's what country families listen to, I reckon," he said as he hefted his banjo case into the back of the Grooms' van.

His dad shuts the trunk on another gig for the young musician just as the wide wooden door of Ford's Bluegrass Mill swings open again, spilling the sound of tradition out into the night air.

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