The Critters Tour England

by Amy Hauslohner, Galax Gazette

When the Konnarock Critters took the stage at the Whitetop Mountain Ramp Festival this Sunday, the "hometown" band was 3,500 miles west and five time zones beyond its most recent major engagement - at the Footloose Festival in Derbyshire, England.

It was the Critters' first performance abroad, but definitely won't be the last, says fiddler and group co-founder Brian Grim of Elk Creek. "The same festival wants us back in the year 2000, and they're working on finding a festival for us in 1999."

Brian, 28, and his sister Debbie Grim of Konnarock, who plays clawhammer banjo, formed the old-time music group 11 years ago. Jim Lloyd of Rural Retreat plays guitar and Al Firth of Charlottesville plays bass. TheCritters have won numerous awards at festivals and competitions and are spending an increasing amount of time performing for pay. They released their first CD last year on Marimac Records and are working on a second CD.

During their years on the festival and fiddlers' convention circuit, the Critters met several musicians from the British Isles, forming trans-Atlantic friendships that led to the all-expense-paid invitation to perform at Footloose April 3-5.

Dave and Dot Wheeler of Matlock, England, began Footloose about five years ago. Some of the British old-time musicians who knew of the Critters recommended the group as a hot dance band, "and Dave Wheeler pulled some of the information off of the Internet about us," Brian says.

Video and audio clips from a live "online front porch" performance by the Critters at Virginia Tech two years ago are still available over the Internet.

"He just called the house and wanted to know if we'd be interested in going to do it - and we jumped at the chance." Well, "jumped" may be too strong a word. Neither Debbie nor Brian was too comfortable with the idea of air travel. ("Debbie had a tough time at first but she got used to it... I looked at it as a roller coaster ride.") "They wired us the money for the plane tickets and said we wouldn't have to worry about money at all."

Because it was a dance festival, "they wanted us to bring somebody with us that could demonstrate the mountain flatfoot style - not the clogging that's popular around here - as well as call square dances. "The Critters signed up Michelle Belanger of Chapel Hill, N.C., as their designated dancer and were ready to go to the festival, where they joined two other U.S.-based acts, the Tracy Schwartz Trio, a cajun band from Louisiana, and Tim O'Brien, a bluegrass star formerly of Hot Rize. Planning was a little tricky.

"Even though the festival was certain, some of the other jobs we had planned in London and in York seemed always to be up in the air, but once we got there, everything was set up. Just show up and play. "Musician buddies Dave Wright, Mark Wallace and Frank Pallister met the group at the airport in London and took them to Wallace's house to stay. Between the festival and friends, the group never paid for a night's lodging. "We were taken care of by all the musicians over there."

On their second night, the Critters played a gig at Clancy's. "Clancy's is one of the hot spots in London to play old-time music. "Then it was north to Derbyshire for the three-day festival that attracted 2,000 to 3,000 traditional music and dance fans. "The festival put us up just down the road in an old inn. Old stone and log work. Couple hundred years old. Big old fireplace in the center, and above the pub was where they had the rooms. "The people at the inn were wonderful, going out of their way to fix us special English dishes like haggis and blood pudding. I loved it. Course, nobody else did. And the traditional English breakfast: bacon and baked beans on toast. Tomatoes. More than you could eat. "Every night when we stayed at the inn after we got done playing music, we had to go into the pub and the owner bought us a last round and we had to say goodnight to everyone in the pub. They all knew each other and they made us feel like we'd been there all our lives."

At the festival, the band played a couple of concerts and each member taught instrument workshops. What festival-goers appreciated the most was "the old-time dance music. People wanted to freestyle dance more than square dance or any other kind of dance. "Everyone wanted to jam with us constantly. All the time - and we did, until the wee hours of the morning."

Guitar player Jim Lloyd managed to conquer the culture enough to pull a fast one on Brian. "Jim asked somebody before we did our show what was the English equivalent of the Pillsbury doughboy. Something that everyone would laugh at. "We got up on stage and Jim was introducing the band, and he introduced Debbie and Michelle and Al and then he said about me, 'All the way from some part of England - Mr. Blumpie!' "The audience breaks out laughing and I had no idea what he was talking about. I'd heard British humor was a little different. "He told me later what it was about and I was ready to carry him out in the mud. "(Mr. Blumpie is "this really big fat dinosaur.")

The biggest difference between the English and an American festival is the spirits - and not those of the festival goers. "They have a full bar. All the English beers on tap, right there in the center of everything." Festival organizers teased the Critters for their reluctance to drink while performing, accustomed to a more discreet American approach." Everyone wanted to buy us a beer." Halfway through their last stage show, "one of the stage hands brought us four beers right up there on the stage and they all laughed because we finally had beers on the stage."

At his fiddle workshop, Brian taught "Grayson County tunes" like Ducks on the Millpond and Sally Ann.

"Derbyshire really reminded me a lot of Grayson County, with the green, rolling hills." He got to tour an English sheep farm, but didn't put his shearing skills to work. From the festival, the Critters (with Brian at the wheel of Mark Wallace's borrowed car) drove straight to a pub in York for another engagement. Driving was - interesting. "We had a helluva time getting adjusted to that. But where I carry the mail over here, I was used to being on that side of the car. It was getting used to being on that side of the road!" In York, they stayed with Frank Pallister and had some free time to tour the old city walls and York Minster. "The further north we got, the thicker the accent got and it was harder to understand them... When we got up to York, we had to say, 'Huh?' a lot." We didn't have much time at all to do souvenir shopping. They worked us over there. They got their money's worth. "And Grayson County could reap some benefit from the group's experience." I think Grayson County is going to be one of the hot spots for old-time musicians to come and see," Brian says. "I really talked up GraysonCounty."

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