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‘A Turnpike Sunset’ show offers local history lesson
Sunday, 11 February 2018 10:49
Special to the Daily Planet

It’s a lively Buncombe County evening around the campfire, circa 1860.

It’s “A Turnpike Sunset,” a locally written and produced musical presented Jan. 11-21 at Asheville Community Theater. 

In it, playwright and musician Tom Godleski portrayed Ezra, a turkey drover on the Buncombe Turnpike, the livestock transporting road that jutted through the mountains here in the mid-1800s.

Ezra, turkey feather in hatband, likes his corn whiskey and often breaks into song.

His friend Caleb, played by Steve Ansley, with grizzled whiskers, herds mules along the Turnpike, which ran from Tennessee to South Carolina and transported large numbers of people as well as animals.  Asked about his charges, he replies, “they’re stubborn.”

In black frock, Preacher, played by Jack Heinen, doesn’t quote Scripture. Instead, he tells corny jokes and delivers history lessons. 

 According to him, usage of the Turnpike declined during the Civil War due to a labor shortage and an economic depression due to the Union occupation. The fate of the Turnpike, says the Preacher, was sealed in 1880 when the railroad came through Asheville.

For capacity crowds of 40 each night in the 35 Below section of ACT, history came also through true from life songs written and performed by Godleski.  In “The Gallows,” a man sentenced to hang sits in jail while a gallows is being built while in “Old Man Mule,” a man murders his abusive son-in-law and then gets off scot-free.

The music, including two more murder ballads and a gospel song by Godleski, highlighted the 90-minute production, directed by Mary Ann Heinen.

Corn cob pipe in mouth, David Hyatt’s Silas character accompanied the vocals on banjo. In addition to Ezra’s spirited singing, Silas chimes in with “Dixie,” while Jesse,  played by Henry Callahan, adds adolescent versions of “Froggy Went A Couting” and “Get A Long Little Cindy.”  Callahan is a 12-year-old seventh-grader at Asheville Middle School.

Godleski himself also is a teaching assistant at Claxton Elementary school. He’s written several other plays that have been staged at the Folk Art Center. He’s at work on “The Sparrow and the Woodpile,” a drama about an elderly man with a sharp mind, but debilitated body, confined to a nursing home.

The Buncombe Turnpike band, with Godleski on bass and lead vocals, has been playing traditional bluegrass music for 20 years. The group has recorded six CDs and tours regionally.  In 2007, accompanying a team of Mars Hill cloggers, the group performed in Spain.

Hyatt, who plays mandolin in the band in A Turnpike Sunset, plays a homemade banjo named Mae in honor of his grandmother.  It features a Goodwill-purchased soup bowl and dinner fork bridge.  The 150-year-old neck, he explained, was purchased from a woman that puts old banjo parts on eBay.” 

Also playing on Buncombe Turnpike recordings and performances is Don Lewis, who also performs with The Sons of Ralph, local bluegrass icons. His father, Ralph Lewis, who played with Bill Monroe, died in 2017 at the age of 90. “We decided to keep the name and keep going,” Lewis said. “We are the sons of Ralph.”



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