By Jack Betts
When you step off West Beverly Street in downtown Staunton, Virginia, and through the doors of No. 17, you enter one of the great institutions of American culture. No, not a museum, or a college classroom, or a majestic courtroom with all the trappings of a justice system built upon the best principles of the ages.
Nope. You’re walking into a music store with a reverence for tradition and a respect for honest, well-built instruments that people can make a living playing. Here you’ll find a luthier with the skills to put back together stringed instruments that have had the daylights beaten out of them over the years. And the friendliness to make you feel good about dropping in. And the inclination to drop everything, pick up a bass or a guitar or a banjo, and start jamming with a stranger or an old friend.
I’m talking about Jerry and Mary Jane Fretwell’s business, Fretwell Bass & Acoustic Instruments. Every good music town has a shop sort of like this. Barr’s Fiddle Shop in downtown Galax comes immediately to mind, and I’ve walked through the doors of a dozen more across the South in my 70 years. The best of them buy, sell, trade, repair, and encourage jamming.
But Farewell's is special to me for several reasons. They fixed me up with a wonderful old 1959 Kay bass fiddle a few years ago after my 1946 Kay burned to a cinder in a house fire. And with Jerry semi-retiring (he still comes in and works, but Mary Jane says if you’re looking for him, head to the nearest golf course), the Fretwells and their staff, Travis Weaver and Sissy Hutching, agreed to a request from the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation for a serviceable bass for use in the Blue Ridge Music Center’s Midday Mountain Music program. That bass will be available for use in any of the free daily music performances from noon to 4 p.m. at the Music Center, located a few miles south of Galax near milepost 213.
The Fretwells decided to donate a 1982 Engelhardt C-1 with new strings, new adjustable bridge and other work to make the bass look good again, as a way of paying back the folks around Galax for their loyal business over the years. It’s a good four hours from Staunton to Galax down I-81 and I-77 to the Old Fiddlers’ Convention at Felts Park, and for years the Fretwells hauled a trailer full of 20 or so ready-to-go basses, plus boxes full of new strings, sound posts, bridges, clamps, glues, and tools to restring and repair basses right on the spot. Many are the nights they stayed up late revitalizing old basses and jamming with the thousands who have attended America's oldest fiddle competition, as it’s often described, and the Fretwells got a lot of business out of Galax. So when the Foundation, whose board I chair this year, recently requested a bass donation, the owners and their staff thought about it, did a little research, and decided it was a way for them to give back to a community that Jerry Fretwell says “was always good to us.” And it leaves players in years to come a reminder of the Fretwell’s place in the region’s tradition of old-time, bluegrass, folk, mountain, and other sorts of traditional roots music.
The Fretwell’s generosity in donating the reconditioned bass is important. When you’re jamming, you need someone playing the bass, not just for the deep tone of the notes, but especially for the percussive time-keeping a good bass player provides. If the bass can provide a consistent beat, everyone can play on time and sound good. If there’s no bass available, sometimes there’s a musical train wreck. I’ve been playing my old ’59 Kay in the Friday Open Jam at the Blue Ridge Music Center for several years, but I can’t be there every week. We often have someone who can play a bass fiddle, but we don't always have a bass available. Now, thanks to the Fretwell’s donation, we’ll have a bass at all times for someone to play. It’s a huge thing to have access to such an instrument, and we’re grateful.
Last week, Richard Emmett, the Foundation staffer who runs the music programming for the National Park Service at the Blue Ridge Music Center, Broaddus Fitzpatrick of Roanoke, a former board chairman who now chairs our advisory committee for the Music Center, and I drove up to Staunton to see the Fretwells and pick up their donation. We heard funny stories about the bass business, about music makers and the stars who have dropped in to jam with Jerry, about how the shop’s craftsmen have put back together old basses with some life still left in them, and we heard them jam.
Our Connection to the Blue Ridge Music Center
Since 2013, the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation has funded the concert programming at the Blue Ridge Music Center in keeping with the nonprofit’s mission to ensure cultural and historical preservation, along with natural resource protection, educational outreach, and visitor enjoyment now and for future generations.