by Spencer Griffith | Photography by Caitlin Penna
If fiddler and country music star Roy Acuff were around today and passed through Moore County on a Tuesday night, he would likely tell Clyde Maness “I told you so!” Decades ago, Maness told Acuff—at the Grand Ole Opry, no less—of his plans to build a music barn to host his informal acoustic jams, and the country music legend responded, “You build it and they’ll come,” remembers Maness. For nearly 45 years, people have indeed flocked from far and wide to Maness Pottery and Music Barn—located about six miles west of Carthage’s Courthouse Square on an otherwise desolate segment of NC Highway 24/27—for music, food, and fellowship in an atmosphere that’s hard to find elsewhere.
It’s easy to find Maness Pottery and Music Barn, however, which possesses the telltale indicator of arriving in the right place at the right time in rural North Carolina: The small parking area can be found overflowing with pickup trucks and aging sedans as early as 6 p.m. some weeks, meaning others will have to park in the three acres out back. By that time, covered dishes are being carefully arranged on vinyl tablecloths by which time the music is just starting up. In warmer weather, there might be musicians picking their instruments outside near the large wooden sign along the roadside; flanked by hand painted depictions of both a ceramic pitcher and a pair of beamed music notes, the sign’s faded image of a fiddle alludes to the frozen-in-time nature waiting inside.
The name itself is somewhat of a misnomer; although there’s obvious evidence of the building’s previous lives. Rather than an actual barn, the exterior actually looks more like a huge garage, which it indeed was when Maness ran a lawnmower shop there before converting it when the weekly music gatherings he hosted outgrew his home. While Maness estimates he and his painter wife Edna made around 30,000 pieces over the years, they stopped selling pottery three years ago when she was diagnosed with cancer—“She’s still alive and fussing,” he jokingly confirms—but remnants of their work still decorate the facility.
Adjacent to a window with sills packed with ceramics, the metal front door— adorned with both a Snapper Mowers sign and “I Love Bluegrass” sticker— leads visitors into Clyde’s Place, the less formal name favored by locals and regulars—which buzzes with so much activity on a Tuesday evening that it almost overwhelms the senses. The inviting aroma of a burning wood stove draws visitors past a couple rows of tables—covered by instrument cases and filled with the banter of listeners—to a loose circle of chairs where casual jamming and conversation nearly always takes place. Pickers of all ages share and soak up wisdom. With the exception of whoever is drafted to hold down the low end—steadily thumping away on either a washtub bass or double bass—folks may sit for a spell, instrument in hand, interrupted by the greeting of a passing friend or the laughter elicited by a neighbor’s joke.
“I learned a lot from those circles around that wood stove,” recalls Harold Pickett, who plays guitar in Deep River Bluegrass Band and has been coming to the music barn—usually at least twice per month—since 2005, when he began learning bluegrass. He initially found the timing and rhythm was tricky to pick up, despite his background in classic rock and church music. “It was quite humbling.
You’ve got to have a bit of a tough skin because the older folks will tell you where you’re messing up, but eventually you’ll get it right.”
“The younger folks want to watch what you do and see if you can help in any way,” agrees veteran mandolin player Buddy Buchanan, who has come to Maness from nearby Broadway nearly every week since the mid-90s. “I feel like some of the kids have picked up on some stuff from me.” On this late October evening, Buchanan is rehearsing with his group Salt Creek Bluegrass Band in a cozy, dirt-floor room off to the side of the front room, the most intimate space for both performing and observing. Random collections of books and CDs are scattered around the room’s assorted knick-knacks, supplies, equipment and even relics of Moore County’s past, like the original cash register from the Belk-Cline in Robbins, which props up a framed dollar bill, the first received on the department store’s opening day in 1948. It’s a design theme common throughout the building, even if unintentional—old glass bottles and clay pots ring the large entry room, interspersed with Americana artifacts and bits of local history.
A triptych of paintings featuring country music icon Ernest Tubb and bluegrass pioneers Lester Flatt and Bill Monroe look down on the stage in the main music room, where the tunes they composed and made popular are staples to this day. With rows of metal and plastic chairs, the room—added in 1990 when the gatherings outgrew their existing space—can easily seat upwards of 100 spectators. There’s space to spare for dancing, too, and the sharp click-clack of cloggers often accompanies upbeat standards like The Dillards’ “The Old Home Place” and The Osborne Brothers’ “Big Spike Hammer.”
In the back corner, Maness can often be found adjusting levels on the soundboard in a humble booth not far from a photo that proves that he once played with Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass himself. He considers himself largely self-taught on both the bass and guitar, which he began learning as a grade schooler after his fiddle-playing cousin piqued his interest. A lover of bluegrass, country, and gospel, Maness grew up listening to folks like Hank Williams on the Grand Ole Opry every Saturday night, then later became a local radio star himself, performing multiple times each Saturday for decades on Asheboro’s WGWR with Tommy Floyd and the Bluegrass Buddies. He still regularly performs with groups in the area and is often involved in the music here on Tuesday nights.
Otherwise, Maness—a larger-than-life character who spent stretches growing tobacco, weaving in a textile mill, and making furniture between his forty-five years raising chickens—roams throughout the property and plays the role of jovial host, shaking hands of regulars and newcomers alike while always prepared to share a story (or 10). It’s no surprise he feels so at home here; after all, he was born and raised just a couple miles away and has lived in the area ever since.
Each week, he cooks a dozen pounds of pintos and even more potato salad. Whether picked up at a store on the way or, more likely, home cooked, Clyde’s specialties are supplemented by barbecue sandwiches, fried chicken, several different batches of cornbread, a slew of veggies, and more pies and cakes than you can shake a stick at. A chummy game of rummy is located at a card table between the long buffet, the perpetually full coffee pot and the refrigerator stocked with soda and bottled water, the latter hinting at the family-friendly list of rules—which bans alcohol, smoking and drugs—posted nearby. “It’s just a good clean place to go play,” says Buchanan. “There’s no drinking – he doesn’t put up with any bull mess like that.”
While there’s a printed sheet of paper pinned to the wall announcing no talking in the music room, Maness—whose name is on the sign itself—doesn’t seem to mind breaking it when he’s got a tale to tell. Pointing at the flags of various US states that cover an entire wall of the newest room, he talks about the travels that have taken him all over the country. On the opposite side, oversized letters reading “Memory Lane” sit above large snapshot collages—featuring the likes of bluegrass star Mac Wiseman—that occupy the wood paneled walls next to a hodge-podge collection of framed portraits of friends and publicity photos of fiddler Charlie Daniels and singer Brenda Lee, images that help illustrate the stories Maness already paints with his words.
Though Maness Pottery and Music Barn sees its share of celebrities pass through, it draws folks from all walks of life—from Nashville musicians to area accountants, lawyers and retail workers—serving as an entertainment venue, gathering space, and community hub. Though donations are gladly accepted, there’s no charge for the meal or the performances as Clyde opens the doors of his music barn every Tuesday for anyone who’s interested in attending. “When you walk through those doors, you’re the same,” says Pickett. “Everyone’s the same at Clyde’s.” Everyone, that is, except Clyde himself, the man who welcomes folks into this community while also helping bind it together.