Tiffany Vargas and Isabel Engel Alleghany Junior Appalachian Musicians

Some would say that traditional, old-time mountain music is more caught than taught.  The songs are circular in nature, rotating from “A” to “B” parts and back again.  In jams, the more accomplished musicians sit in the center of a circle and those learning surround them.  Creating something of a vortex, the tunes pull those learning into the song.

Alleghany Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) follows a similar process.  In 2000, Sparta (NC) Elementary School guidance counselor, Helen White, founded the first JAM program at Sparta Elementary.  Aided by local musicians, the program set out to expose elementary aged students to traditional mountain music.  As JAM grew in popularity, it received funding from a variety of sources and has spun into 29 programs in four states.  But for all its success and expansion, at the center of the JAM circle are the students.

Tiffany Vargas

Tiffany Vargas

Tiffany Vargas has been a fiddle student in Alleghany JAM for five years.  While she enjoys old-time tunes, she also plays semi-classical music in a string quartet and the flute in the school band.  Her grandfather, Charlie Earp, is an accomplished classical and jazz musician, and Tiffany has taken fiddle lessons from Erika Godfrey in neighboring Surry County.

Isabel Engel

Isabel Engel

Isabel Engel has also been in the program for five years.  Like Tiffany, she’s from a musical family.  Isabel’s dad plays the guitar and her step-dad plays the guitar, mandolin and bass.  Isabel finds music relaxing.  She enjoys the challenge of working through the complexities of the songs.  One of her favorite tunes is the Peacock Rag.

Musician and educator, Lucas Pasley, is the current program director Alleghany JAM.  He describes the Alleghany County program as focusing on kids, heritage and community.  With the help of local musicians, they seek to provide a positive place for kids to belong, regardless of their skill level.

In an exciting bit of news, this year, for the first time, Alleghany JAM will be offered to high school students.  In addition to their instruction, the high school students will assist with the elementary classes.  This will help the high school students develop leadership skills and enhance a pathway for them to college.

Across the country, public schools have suffered a loss of programs during the economic crisis.  North Carolina and Alleghany County are no exception.  As school funding decreases, the arts are often the first programs cut.  This makes community based initiatives such as JAM even more valuable and vital.  The students’ tuition only covers about 20% of the costs of the program.  Alleghany JAM is funded primarily through grants and fundraising activities such as their annual golf tournament.  Grassroots, local support keeps these students in class.

A popular song throughout the mountains asks Will the Circle Be Unbroken?  With a focus on heritage and community, the Alleghany Junior Appalachian Musicians will assure that the circle remains intact as they continue to embrace and celebrate our mountain culture.


Alleghany JAM musicians will begin their recruitment tour on August 21, 2015.  They will visit all four Alleghany public elementary schools and the Blue Ridge Christian School.  The registration deadline is August 24, 2015.

For more information on how you can register a student or support JAM, contact Lucas Pasley at or 336-572-5266.  For a great overview of the program, watch the UNC TV video below.

Appalachian Images – The Alleghany Historical Museum

courtesy of Imagining Specialists

courtesy of Imaging Specialists

The Alleghany Historical-Genealogical Society will host an exhibit of vintage photographs of scenes from Alleghany County from September through December, 2015.  The exhibit will be displayed in the Alleghany Historical Museum located across from the courthouse at 7 North Main Street in Sparta.

courtesy of Imaging Specialists

courtesy of Imagining Specialists

This exhibit coincides with the Looking at Appalachia exhibition being held at the Blue Ridge Business Development Center from September 19 through October 31, 2015.

courtesy of Imaging Specialists

courtesy of Imagining Specialists

As we look at these images from the past and examine those from the present, we hope to generate conversation of what Alleghany County will look like in the future.


Gretchen Peters – Mountain Soul

Grammy nominated singer songwriter Gretchen Peters will perform this Saturday, August 15, 2015 at Christ Church on Highway 21 south of Sparta.  The performance is free and will begin at 6:30 pm.

Peters is an established Nashville songwriter whose songs have been recorded by Pam Tillis, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Neil Diamond, George Strait, and Etta James.  She received a Country Music Association “Song of the Year” award in 1995 for “Independence Day” recorded by Martina McBride.

All are invited to Beccas Backwoods Bean on Main Street in Sparta after the performance for food, refreshments and fellowship.


Devin Ulery – Carolina Farm Table

It’s a common refrain spoken by teenagers across generations. “When I turn 18 I’m outta here.”  Maybe this is a natural expression of some genetically programmed wanderlust.  In many cultures “walkabouts” and “vision quests” are an integral part of a young man’s physical, mental and spiritual development.  Or maybe this yearning is part of some evolutionary dispersal of the species.  Whatever the reason, as he came to the end of his high school years, Devin Ulery put those very words into action and left Alleghany County.

Devin grew up in a woodworking shop.  His father and mother, John and Penny, founded Designs in Wood in 1972 while living in San Diego, California.  They specialized in decorative, scrollwork mirrors.  As they traveled the art show circuit, they found themselves increasingly on the east coast.  Relocating to be nearer their customers made sense, so the family moved to Asheville, NC where Devin was born.

After working a show in Union Grove, NC, John drove through Alleghany County with eyes peeled for an affordable farm and shop.  He found a place to rent (which they later bought), and moved the family and Designs in Wood to Sparta.

Always with a keen appreciation for the customer, Designs in Wood added birdhouses and split wood houses to their product line.  In the late 1990s, John noticed a growing interest in antique reproduction furniture.  Designs in Wood once again adapted their products to take advantage of this growing market, specializing in custom farm tables.

Devin Ulery

Devin Ulery

Throughout all these changes, a young Devin helped out in the shop and traveled across the country with his family to art shows.  Then came high school graduation.  As promised, Devin left Alleghany County.

An interest in photography, specifically photojournalism, led him to Randolph Community College’s (RCC) near Asheboro, NC.  From RCC, Devin went on to intern at newspapers in Boston, Massachusetts and Asheville, NC.  He landed a job with the Asheville Citizen-Times in prepress where he prepared Associated Press photographs for publication.  But a restlessness persisted.  Leaving Asheville, he found his way to Colorado where became a self-proclaimed “ski bum.”  When he ran out of money he came back home and helped out in the shop.

Once his coffers were refilled Devin struck out again.  This time he landed in Berkeley, California.  He worked there with renowned portrait photographer Christian Peacock and moonlighted as a handyman.  When not working, he skied the slopes of Lake Tahoe.

As the restlessness subsided and the wanderlust waned, Devin found himself thinking of Alleghany County.  He left California with just enough cash for the trip home.  But, he had a brief, ski bum relapse traveling east when the slopes of Vail, Colorado beckoned.  He regained his bearings and soon found himself back in Asheville – broke, out of gas and still three hours from home.  A friend loaned Devin enough money for a tank of gas.  He rolled back into Alleghany with empty pockets.

The trip home

Devin in Asheville – The trip home

Sometime later, while at a music festival in Union Grove, Devin was introduced to his future wife, Anna – a photographer, by Sparta native Brian Swank (of the band Big Daddy Love).  Devin and Anna married and settled down in Boone.  Devin came back into the family business with a renewed energy.

Now, Devin takes a lead role in the shop.  In yet another iteration, Designs in Wood transitioned in name to Carolina Farm Table.  Internet sales account for approximately 50% of their current sales.  The name change made it easier for customers to find the shop in Sparta when using Internet search engines.  Shows in Brimfield, Massachusetts and Roundtop, Texas continue to expose Carolina Farm Table to those interested in antique reproduction furniture.

The Carolina Farm Table Team

The Carolina Farm Table Team

When asked how he accounts for their success, Devin describes a seemingly simple formula.  They keep the company versatile and adaptable – all employees can fill virtually any role in the shop.  They monitor their competitors’ product lines and price points.  Social media sites such as Pinterest give them insight into trends.  Most of all they listen closely to their customers.

This has led to Devin and Anna’s newest venture.

Devin and Anna

Devin and Anna in the photo booth

Both continue to work as photographers and often shoot weddings.  They saw a need for casual, whimsical photos.  This observation led to Boone Photo Booth.  In their 8×8 foot “photo booth” guests can have an old-time experience with the immediate gratification of high quality, printed photographs.  They have found it to be the perfect addition to a wedding, prom, family reunion, company picnic, or school field day.


Versatility, adaptability, quality work, an eye for innovation, and a strong work ethic are the keys to success for any business.  Coupled with lessons learned in Massachusetts, California, Colorado and stops in-between, these qualities have led to success for Carolina Farm Table and Devin Ulery.  The boy who once declared “I’m out of here” became the man who now says, “I’m back.”


To learn more about Carolina Farm Table, visit  Or you can follow them on Facebook, Pinterest, and their blog.  For tours and visits, please call 336-372-8995 for an appointment.

For more information about Boone Photo Booth visit or call 828-773-3133.  You can find them here on Facebook.


Roger May – Looking at Appalachia

“We must get beyond our stereotyping histories and fears of misrepresenting poor Appalachian culture as, all of us: when in fact, this work really is about “All of Us” in the broadest sense. We all need to perceive ourselves more clearly interconnected, internally, humanly and less defensively.” Shelby Lee Adams

 Photographer Rob Amberg. June 2, 2014. Kelsey Green herding sheep to the barn, Paw Paw, Madison County, North Carolina

Photographer Rob Amberg. June 2, 2014. Kelsey Green herding sheep to the barn, Paw Paw, Madison County, North Carolina

When asked how he goes about carving life-like characters from a block of basswood, an old woodcarver replied, “I just whittle away everything that doesn’t look like it belongs.”  Sculptors use similar imagery when they talk of “releasing” a sculpture from a slab of stone.  Both describe a process that requires one to look beyond the obvious piece of raw material to see the beauty and artistry hidden from the casual observer.  This is the process that Roger May and a group of contributing photographers have set out to do with Looking at Appalachia.

Roger May, Project Director of Looking at Appalachia

Roger May, Project Director of Looking at Appalachia

Roger May was born in the Tug River Valley, a border land between eastern Kentucky and southwestern West Virginia.  In the heart of coal country, the Tug River area is infamously identified with the Hatfield and McCoy families and The Battle of Blair Mountain.  Roger’s mom, a struggling single mother on welfare, moved the family to North Carolina in search of steady work and financial stability when Roger was 14 years old.

Other than a short stint with his dad in Kentucky, Roger spent his high school years in North Carolina.  A student at Athens High School in Raleigh, he went on to receive a basketball scholarship to Montreat College in the mountains of western North Carolina.  But college classes sandwiched between morning and evening practices wasn’t how Roger envisioned spending his days.  He left school and married at age 19.  Six weeks later the young couple  discovered they were expecting their first child – a daughter.  Roger joined the Army and a couple of years later their son was born while they were stationed in Alaska.

During his seven years of military service, Roger always found himself in or near mountains.  After his military days were behind him, his desire was to move back home to West Virginia.  But, employment opportunities were limited.  Now a single father, as his mom before him, he needed a career that provided stability for his family.  He found himself back in North Carolina, and currently works in Information Technology (IT) in local government.  Married now for three years to what he describes as “a great West Virginia gal,” Roger and his wife have a blended family of four children spread from college to elementary school.

Each of these life steps whittled away chips from the raw blank that was becoming Roger May.  As the chips piled around his feet, his life’s purpose became more defined.

At age 29, Roger began a serious pursuit of photography as an art form.  High quality digital cameras had become more commonplace.  The digital format allowed for affordable practice and experimentation.  Largely self-taught, he used his emerging skills to reinforce his sense of memory, place and connection with his West Virginian roots.  As he examines the totality of his photographic work, it is obvious to him that his captured images are largely autobiographical.  Roger describes his photos as a collection of people and places he misses from the mountains.

After seven years of honing his craft, Roger sorted through over 10,000 photos and began a long series of edits.  The resulting work was a photobook entitled Testify which he describes as, “A visual love letter to Appalachia, the land of my blood.”  He used Kickstarter, a crowdfunding platform, to breathe life into the project.  But, Roger’s desire is to reach a much broader audience on a topic near to his heart.

For several generations, images of barefoot children and haggard women on the porches of broken down homes reinforced the stereotype of Appalachia as a poverty stricken region filled with feuding, toothless hillbillies.  Pop culture contributed to this imagery by way of Li’l Abner and Snuffy Smith comics, and films such as Deliverance.

Looking at Appalachia is an effort to combat those negative stereotypes.  The contributors’ photos are all current for the year of submission and represent the vast diversity Appalachia.  They hope this project generates conversation about our cultural heritage, and helps promote and further a sense of pride in our region.

Kristian Thacker. April 25, 2014. Snaggy Mountain Farm, Burnsville, Yancey County, North Carolina.

Photographer Kristian Thacker. April 25, 2014. Snaggy Mountain Farm, Burnsville, Yancey County, North Carolina.

So, is our cultural pride missing, taken for granted or just underdeveloped?  If so, how do we develop or enhance pride in a way that is positive and productive?  Maybe a more important question to ponder is whether our perceptual challenges are internal, external, or combinations of both?  These are the types of discussions this project hopes to generate in our communities.

While the woodcarver or sculptor may have a clear vision for what they hope to make from that wooden blank or block of granite, the reality is that the characteristics of the wood or stone dictate the finished product.  These mountains are nothing more that wood and stone.  The people here are a product of these mountains.  Pride doesn’t come from trying to hammer us into something we are not.  Pride comes from celebrating who we are.  Looking at Appalachia is a celebration of mountain life.


We are fortunate to host an exhibition of 75 photographs from the Looking at Appalachia project at the Blue Ridge Business Development Center (BDC) in Sparta, NC from September 19 through October 31, 2015.  A reception and panel discussion of the project will be held on September 26, 2015 at 4:00 pm at the BDC.

To learn more about Roger May visit or  You can also follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

To read what others are saying about Looking at Appalachia explore the following links:

National Geographic

New York Times

North Carolina Public Radio

Global Citizen

Poster designed by Liz Pavlovic of Morgantown, West Virginia Copies are available contact Dale Caveny at

Poster designed by Liz Pavlovic of Morgantown, West Virginia
Copies are available: contact Dale Caveny at