Tuesday, June 17, 2014 —
Benjamin Franklin once wrote: “ … in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” If Franklin was alive today in western Stanly County, he would need to amend his statement to include “and Friday night jam sessions at Junior Harris’.”
Every Friday around 7 p.m., musicians and spectators begin to file into the rustic wooden building which Harris erected for the purpose of making music and showcasing some of his wife’s antique collection. The walls are decorated with memorabilia from her years in law enforcement, Junior’s fishing items and pictures of various musical icons. Items from yard sales and auctions are masterfully placed in the story and a half structure. The eclectic décor mirrors the diversity of Harris’ patrons.
“If I ain’t sick, I’m here,” said Bob Burgess, a jam session regular, who enjoys listening to the traditional American music.
“You won’t find a better fiddler than Junior Harris. It’s good clean entertainment. I’ve only missed two or three times since he’s been open.”
Harris does not permit alcohol or smoking, although he is quite the jokester. When someone calls for Junior to fiddle the tune, “Whiskey Before Breakfast,” he smiles slyly and jesters with his fiddle bow, “There’s some back there in a jug.” The crowd laughs, Harris flies into the tune and toes begin to tap in time.
He keeps his gathering strictly family oriented. The audience is comprised primarily of senior citizens who listen intently, applaud appreciatively and dance occasionally. It is a place for friends and neighbors to gather and a venue for musicians to share their talents.
Brady Readling travels from Concord to enjoy the music.
“There’s no foul language,” Readling said.
“Coming down here is like sitting in someone’s living room.”
The music features different pickers each Friday night. There is a wide variety of musicians that can range in age from 8 to 80.
“I have seen 15 or 20 players here,” Betty Morton of Oakboro said.
“You don’t know who will be here until they come in the door,” Burgess said.
“I have seen as much as six banjos at one time.”
The music starts to wind down around 10 p.m., but Harris admits that on occasion the music has continued late into the night.
A donation basket sits by the door. Some nights attendees are generous, some nights they are not. No admission is charged.
“If I was running a business, I’d be closed by now.” Harris said.
Harris, 72, has played bluegrass music for 57 years. He first started with the guitar.
“I heard Earl Scruggs and it liked to have killed me ‘cause I didn’t have a banjo,” he said.
His mother promised him a bale of cotton so he could buy a banjo if he was dedicated to work hard in the field.
“I worked myself to death that year,” he said.
He earned the cotton bale and purchased a banjo. Since then, he has mastered numerous other string instruments including the bass, mandolin and is best known in recent years for his fiddling.
Married to the former Joy Hathcock for 48 years, Junior came to play music with her father, Vance Hathcock, a well-known fiddler in the area.
“It put my foot in the door when I played with Pa,” Harris said.
His wife added, “He walked to see me and walked home. He didn’t have a car. He played all these instruments, but Daddy started showing him stuff on the fiddle.”
The multi-talented musician started performing with local bands in the 1960s. His first band was the Rocky River Boys, followed by groups named Metrolina Bluegrass Boys and Grass Strings. Most recently, he has fiddled in a band called Bluegrass Special with his nephew, Montgomery County DARE officer Jeff Branch, backing him up on bass.
Harris owned Best Tire Care, formerly E and H with Edsel Edwards, his brother-in-law, on Main Street in Oakboro for 42 years. During the last dozen years of its operation, Harris hosted Tuesday afternoon jam sessions. Various musicians would stroll past the stacks of tires, carrying instrument cases and spend the afternoon making music. In the 1990s, WBTV’s “Carolina Camera” did a feature on the impromptu jams.
In 2006, Harris retired from the tire business and closed his store.
“My wife wanted a building,” Harris said.
“She wanted it to look like ‘Little House on the Prairie.’ I designed it so we could do some pickin’. It picks pretty good.”
Started the month after he retired, Junior’s Pickin’ Parlor took seven months to complete. Harris did most of the work himself with the assistance of brothers Donnie and Charles Hyatt.
“We had a grand opening in 2007 — invited everybody within 20 miles that could pick. The porch was full. The inside was full.”
Harris explained that the pickers play on an honor system. Everyone, young or old, novice or master, gets a chance to pick. Some evenings there are 25 to 30 musicians that take turns performing before the audience, other times it may just be six or seven in front of the row of mikes the fiddler provides.
Harris is proud to be a mentor to budding musicians.
“I’ve shown many of a one,” he said.
“The more you pick, the better you get.”
Branch is indebted to his neighbor and relative who he fondly refers to as the mayor of Big Lick.
“Junior Harris has been my biggest influence in bluegrass music,” Branch said.
“Not only being my uncle, but also as a true friend. We have played music for the last 25 to 30 years together and he is an amazing musician. He has graced the stage with legends such as Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt. Growing up, I learned to play music at his jams. He would help me learn how to play the bass.”
Gary Hatley of Stanfield’s Hatley Family Band considers Junior as a friend and musical mentor.
“Our daddy played banjo with a two finger roll (on his right hand),” Hatley said.
“Junior was the first person to teach my brother how to play three finger style. He would always encourage us. After shows when we were teenagers, he would come up and shake our hand. He would smile at me and say, ‘Good job, Lester.’ ”
Harris, who owns dozens of fiddles, proclaims that his favorite fiddle tune is “Sally Goodin’.” However, many tunes, vocal and instrumental, can be heard on any given night. Joy sings lead and harmony on some of the songs.
Fast numbers such as “Lonesome Road Blues” and “Orange Blossom Special” are intertwined with slower tunes such as “Amazing Grace” and “Angeline the Baker.” Junior often sings lead on “Martha White,” a real crowd pleaser, or belts out the bass line on the hymn, “Beautiful Life.” Both secular and sacred numbers are performed.
Harris plays fiddle each Sunday morning in his church, Mineral Springs Baptist, as he has for the past 25 or 30 years, and the music continues to flow each Friday evening in the building that Junior built. The nights bring happiness, building strong relationships and generating good memories.
”You might have something on your mind, but it’s long gone by the time you go home,” Readling said.
“It’s just as good as the Grand Ole Opry,” Treva Chrisco, 89, of Stanfield, contributed.
Harris concluded with a nod to the past and the future.
“There’s been a bunch of strings broken in here and they’ll be some more.”
Sandy Hatley is a freelance contributor for The Stanly News & Press.