Junior Appalachian Musicians program at BMCA offers musical opportunities

Jessica Klarp
Special To The Black Mountain News

When Marlee Merritt joined the Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) after-school music program at the Black Mountain Center for the Arts he was 9-years-old and wanted to learn the guitar. Two years later, having sufficiently gotten to know the instrument, he decided to explore the possibilities the banjo might offer.

By the end of the school year Merritt was offered a scholarship to the Swannanoa Gathering this summer in July. The Swannanoa Gathering is Warren Wilson College's educational program of summer folk arts workshops and Old Time week is a sort of Mecca for regional musicians.

JAM instructor Ben Nelson, left and student Marlee Merritt during Old Time Week at the 2018 Swannanoa Gathering hosted by Warren Wilson College. Merritt was awarded a scholarship to attend the summer program after learning to play the banjo in the BMCA program.

For Merritt it was a dream come true. In just a few short years he had learned to play two different instruments well enough to play well with others, by ear, in public.

The JAM program offers group lesson for students in the third through ninth grades (or ages 8-14) teaching traditional mountain tunes on fiddle, banjo and guitar. Professional musicians guide the classes every Wednesday through demonstration, repetition and verbal instructions, and then breaking students into smaller instrument groups.

It's a lot of fun and a great way to meet other children with similar tastes, according the young musicisian.

“To me, the best thing about JAM is the blend of being able to learn music yourself,” Merritt said. “While at the same time helping your friends develop their musical talent.”

BMCA hosts the Buncombe County classes which begin Wednesday, Sept. 5 with a parent meeting at 3:30 p.m. The classes meet at the Arts Center every Wednesday from 3:30 - 5 p.m. and last for 14 weeks.

The BMCA has some instruments available for rent. Tuition can be paid in two payments of $70 and home-schooled students are welcome.

JAM is supported by the N.C. Arts Council, a division of the Department of Cultural Resources, with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. BMCA hosts the Buncombe County JAM program, which has sister programs in neighboring counties and offers musical activities and opportunity for additional growth throughout the year.

Ben Nelson, who teaches banjo for the program, has been the lead JAM teacher at the BMCA for years and infuses the lessons on instruments with elements of mountain heritage such as dancing or song origins. Cary Fridley, who leads the guitar section, is well respected in the music community.

Both have taught Merritt the basics, not only of instrumentation but a broader cultural history. It was a lesson not lost on this talented young man.

“To me JAM means the passing on of heritage and culture to the future generation in order to remember the old ways," Merritt said. 

If your child has a desire to play an instrument and has an interest in mountain heritage, this program provides them the opportunity to learn about both. It is held throughout the school year, with a second section beginning in January.

The BMCA is located at 225 W. State Street. For more information about the program or the center itself call 669-0930 or visit