Richie Stearns



Richie Stearns: From the time I was ten, as a child growing up in the early 1970s here in Ithaca, New York, I went to an alternative elementary school. I became friends there with a bunch of kids whose families had roots in Tennessee, and a lot of old-time music in their heritage. I was eleven when they took me to my first old-time festival in 1971 in Union Grove, North Carolina. I just happened to go along with them. I had no intention of doing anything with music beyond that. Once there I saw people who had come to the Fiddlers’ Convention from my own town; Ithaca had an old-time scene going on even then. Some people from my school were there as well and they had even put together a band for one of the competitions. Back home after the festival I started to think I might want to do something in a bigger way with music. I had already built a banjo in fifth grade with my wood shop teacher. Another teacher at my school had been part of the band that had formed for the Fiddlers’ Convention competition, so I asked him to be my music teacher in 1974.

I started to follow and spend time with the local bands. There were two old-time bands in Ithaca: the Correctone String Band and the Highwoods String Band. They began hosting social events. I would go to hang out. There was a lot of music going on. The place was kind of a hippie alternative community even then. We were all kids but there was something about those bands that drew us to them. They were open to showing us how to get started, and they took us under their wings. The Highwoods had these big parties that would go on for a week. We would go camp out and listen and try to play along. We ended up going to Mount Airy [NC] and Galax [VA] for the old-time festivals there every year. Besides listening to the local groups and other old-time musicians we would listen to the Rolling Stones; Lou Reid; Bob Marley, when he came along; the Talking Heads, when they came along. All this music helped inform how we were developing our own music.

At the beginning we had a band called Bubba George, which has played for years in various incarnations at the Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival. Then around 1979 came the Tompkins County Horse Flies, as we called the band then. Some of these bands I played with were very open to playing things in a different way—including rock and other influences. We didn’t have any feeling that we had to keep the old-time music pure, although I think we were able to do that when we wanted to. When we would do, say, the conventions at Galax or Mount Airy and play with older fiddlers, I would try to play just what they were doing and not be disrespectful. What they did was so interesting to me. But when we were making up our own stuff and goofing around the other influences crept in very naturally. So I was able to experiment when I was very young without feeling like I was doing something wrong to the music.


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