Sisters Trish Bowen and Maureen King recently spent their Friday night and Saturday morning at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte. Their 87-year-old mother had fallen and cut her head.
Doctors stitched up the wound, and their mother was fine. But it was still a stressful and sleepless night. That’s one reason why, as Trish and Maureen rounded a corner on the way to the hospital’s cafeteria, they wondered briefly if they were hearing things.
“It sounded like leprechauns,” said Maureen.
“I said, I thought maybe there was going to be a leprechaun jumping out,” added Trish with a laugh.
It was an old-time fiddle tune called “Staten Island.” The sisters had stumbled upon what’s turned into an unlikely Saturday morning fixture at Presbyterian. It’s a group of musicians who refer to themselves informally as The Local Tomatoes.
Shortly before 10 a.m., musicians begin showing up in a lobby, cases in hand. They grab chairs from the cafeteria and arrange them into a circle behind a glass enclosure for Australian finches.
Then they play Appalachian old-time music, for the pleasure of passersby and themselves. It lasts for two hours, give or take, depending on the mood. Some days, three or four musicians show up, sometimes as many as a dozen. On this Saturday morning, it’s nine. Nobody’s calling roll. It’s all pretty informal.
“I love it,” Trish said. “I’m an activity director for a retirement community, and I’m always interested in getting bands like this in for my residents. Very good. Very good.”
This has been going on at the hospital for about two years. The group’s members all know each other through the Charlotte Folk Society. But the Saturday morning sessions aren’t official Folk Society or hospital events. They’re just gatherings of like-minded folk musicians who like to get together and jam.
Charlotte attorney Ray Owens is a regular. He plays guitar and fiddle. “They didn’t think we would set back health care but so far by having the music in the hospital,” Owens said, “and we’ve been excited ever since.”
The Tomatoes played for a while at the small farmer’s market on Harding Place in Myers Park. That’s how they came up with the group’s name.
Then one morning, Marcia Farroch stopped by the market to shop, “and I thought they were just a neat group of people — great music,” she said.
Farroch is the longtime director of volunteer services at Presbyterian. The hospital on Hawthorne Lane has a grand piano in its lobby and hosts a Celtic music trio on Wednesday mornings, so it’s used to having amateur musicians play on its grounds.
When she heard The Local Tomatoes were looking for a new place to play because space was tight at the farmer’s market, she reached out. Musicians and venue have merged perfectly.
“The family members, the patients, anybody that walks by, there’s always that look of surprise, like, ’Oh, my goodness! There’s music!’” Farroch said. “But that kind of music is really special.”
The music has deep roots in Piedmont North Carolina.
“Well, it’s kind of the music that comes from the people,” says Ray Owens. “At the heart of it is a lot of music that African-Americans have given, ethnic music, people who come from Ireland and Scotland and all of that came to the South in the United States, so it represents a real bridge to a lot of culture.”
The fiddle players dominate and carry the melody, and banjo and guitar players provide bass lines and rhythm. On this Saturday morning, the circle consists of six fiddles, two banjos, and a guitar, fingered by Mike Hancock.
“I’ve played all kinds of music,” Hancock said. “When I was a kid, I played rhythm and blues, and rock, and country, and everything else. But this is just sort of roots music.”
Hancock is an aircraft mechanic. Tom Walsh, on fiddle, is a retired chemistry professor at UNC Charlotte. Another fiddler, Tom Hanchett, is the staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South. Harry Taylor, on banjo, is an author and activist.
But the group’s members connect through their abiding love for the music, and they’ve come to love the way people react to their playing in such an unlikely, and often grim, setting. “We’ve had some folks come down whose loved ones are in the hospital,” Owens said, “and they’ll cry and say how much the music means because it’s just not where you expect to find that kind of joy.”
This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance.