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Volume 26, Number 5 — May 2019

Downtown Music: Celtic

Sandra Parker with her harp.
Sandra Parker with her harp.
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Sandra Parker celebrates Celtic music

By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | July 31, 2013

"The only thing certain in life is change," Sandra Parker, chair of the Virginia Highlands Festival music committee, says. "A lot of people, like me, resist change. You have to drag me screaming, crying and grumbling, and then I experience it; and I'm like "oh, why didn't I do that before.'"

The Virginia Highlands Festival has undergone a great deal of change in its 65-year history, including changes that Parker introduced. The biggest of those was the introduction of the Celtic Music Festival 13 years ago.

Celtic Music Weekend at the Virginia Highlands Festival is Aug. 3-4 at the Abingdon Market Pavilion.

"When I started the Celtic weekend I had been over to Grandfather Mountain Highlands Games. It was so exciting, and there was so much going on — that's what sparked the idea. And the first Celtic weekend we had, two of the groups were from that festival. Now there are so many ways to find groups. I look on the Internet, check music sites, check other Celtic festivals and listen to musicians on the computer. You don't have to e-mail them and ask for a CD anymore. Now it's instantaneous. I can't read the newspaper without scissors, because I'm cutting out stories about groups I want to check out on the Internet.

"Sometimes it's frustrating because I only have so many slots to fill. If I had as many slots as Rhythm and Roots has I'd be like a kid in a candy store, but I'd probably go insane."

Parker tries to book a mix of favorites and new groups. "This year Maidens IV is a favorite; this is their fourth year. Rathkeltair is back this year, and Sharon Knight is new. The audience seems to have their favorites, and they'll just keep coming back for those favorites. Last year, I brought in some new groups, and I think our attendance was down a little. One woman said she didn't come, because Rathkeltair wasn't there."

Parker has been on the music committee for 17 years. A friend encouraged her to join the committee; and she's been there ever since, although there was one year of panic. "I was told that I'd been appointed co-chairman with Donnamarie Emmert. I freaked out and said "are you kidding?' I dumped it all on Donnamarie and just helped her. And I took it over the next year. One thing that keeps me on this committee is my love of music and the Celtic Music Weekend. That was my brainchild. I didn't know how well it would go over. Some people said "are you sure about this, we're in the bluegrass belt.' I felt fairly good about it and thought it would do well. Since the first weekend, it's proven to be very popular. I'm a big Celtic music fan, and I've developed relationships with the bands. We have a real mix, very traditional and edgy. I haven't got Celtic punk in there yet, but maybe one year. I can't seem to turn my back and walk away."

The music committee is unlike a lot of committees, according to Parker. It has several chiefs. Parker is chairman because she says, "somebody has to have that title." But others take care of specific portions of the music. Daveena Sexton ran the bluegrass weekend until this year. Major Calendar schedules the gospel night, and Marva Wheeler organizes the classical Sunday series. "All I have to do is take care of the groups I personally book," Parker says. "I'm very fortunate. I've got a great committee. It works really well. We have a couple of people on the committee who get the volunteers together and sell the armbands. I don't know what I'd do without Richard Clayton. He's a very important part of the committee; he takes care of all the logistics. It's a well-oiled machine. I've been here a long time; sometimes I feel like I'm getting a little tired. When I first came in, I was one of the young folks on the board, but I'm not one of the younger folks on the board anymore."

The other members of Parker's committee have orchestrated musical festivals within the Virginia Highlands Festival. The opening night concert features Annabelle's Curse and The Return, a Beatles tribute band. They've also arranged a weekend concert series featuring local up-and-coming groups, classical music, gospel concerts, 7 Bridges (an Eagles tribute band), and more.

All of this isn't free. Parker says that the festival committee works very hard to raise money through sponsorships to pay for it. "The committee does a great job getting sponsorships. I'd rather just book the bands, and I've had that luxury."

Parker, who sings Celtic folk songs and plays the Celtic harp, says she booked herself once since she started the Celtic Weekend. "The first time I ever played the festival, my friend Susan and I had this little duo called Fairlight. We were street musicians. I played guitar, and we sang two-part harmony. We were on the Barter Green playing on a tree stump, and the chairman of the music committee came over and said that her noon series band hadn't shown up and could we play instead. That was exhilarating. I performed with the noon series for several years and at the Celtic Weekend once. Because of all my other responsibilities, I'm not going to try to perform during the Celtic Weekend again.

"I've loved music since I was a child. My father played guitar and sang, and he would teach me songs when I was little. My mother had a beautiful voice and played piano. They put me in piano when I was little, and thank goodness they did. The piano is one of the basic things for all music, I believe. I can't remember not liking music. When I was a child, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I said a "singer.' I didn't quite make it, except maybe locally. I picked up a Celtic harp about 10 years ago, and I'm just in love with that. Where I might have played the piano for a wedding in the past, people want me to play the harp now."

"I've always been a big supporter of live music," Parker says. "I was sad growing up because we didn't have much around here at that time. The Down Home in Johnson City has been around for a while, and I was envious of that when I was young. Live music has brought a lot of life back to Bristol and Abingdon.

"What I'd like on my tombstone is "Let music charm me last on earth and greet me first in heaven.' Music is like so many other of the art forms; I can't imagine life without it."

A crowd enjoys Celtic music at the Virginia Highlands Festival.