This year, my summer vacation started the Friday before Labor Day. The wife didn’t have any time off, but she works one of them straight office jobs and they give they give her “federal holidays” off, whatever they are. So we had a three-day weekend to work with. Cool. We could do this. And so we went off to Appalachia to hear some gen-yew-wine foot-stompin’, old time music. We’d use a Saturday night visit to the Carter Family Fold as the anchor, the centerpiece of the trip. We could do stuff before and afterward. Do whatever. Drive the mountains, dig the view. But the music had to be our first priority.
We made a good choice. The Carter Family Fold is in Hiltons, Virginia. It’s near both Bristol and Johnson City, Tennessee. And, of course, there were the everpresent mountains. I told the wife that we should leave Baltimore and move here to have “mountain babies.” I was only halfway kidding.
I can’t remember if it was before or after the trip, but recently I ran across a quote somewhere online that said country music used to be closely related to folk music. True, but if you go back far enough, you’ll find that it was folk music. That is to say that it fell somewhere on the folk music spectrum as perhaps a subgenre. Which is important to remember, especially when you’re going on the kind of quest the wife and I were on. Or at least I was on. I was obviously searching for some sort of musical purity, though it’s a little embarrassing to admit. I was searching for a beginning, or at least the point where the music was made strictly by amateurs, because there literally wasn’t any money to be made from this kind of stuff.
But consider that we were going to listen to music at a place that was built to honor the Carter Family. Starting way back in 1927, they were the very first superstar country music group. And they were a group pushed together by A.P. Carter because he thought they could make some money. And they did make money. Plenty of it. But they might not have been discovered at all had it not been for a stroke of good luck. The Carters’ luck came in the form of producer Ralph Peer. Peer had decided to record Appalachian musicians in their own area, instead of hauling them up to New York City, which was the practice up until that time. So he set up a portable recording studio in Bristol. It was 1927, the birth of commercial country music as a distinct music genre. A.P. heard about what would later be called the Bristol Sessions through a newspaper article and brought his wife Sara and sister-in-law Maybelle to the studio to audition.
Sara and Maybelle were first cousins and they married brothers A.P. and Ezra Carter. Ezra wasn’t in the group, though he did provide Sara with her last name, which naturally made the “family” part of the group a little easier to explain. In addition to providing background vocals, A.P. either wrote the songs or made new arrangements for traditional songs. Some of the traditional songs he found while he made extensive driving trips around southern Appalachia, just visiting folks’ homes and looking around. A.P. spent a lot of time on the road and, when he was home, he was busy writing songs or arranging them. This must have had something to do with Sara’s having an affair with his cousin and the pair’s eventual divorce. But who could blame her? She and Maybelle had humble dreams. Neither of them wanted to be professional musicians. That was A.P.’s dream. But when they started making good money, it became almost impossible for Sara to give it up.
Because it’s Sara’s voice you hear singing lead on a typical Carter Family tune. She also played the autoharp. Sara’s voice could sound male or female, given the song. Maybelle played guitar and is famous for inventing a picking technique that allowed her to play both rhythm and lead on the same guitar. Listen to her play and you can hear the beginnings of the Western honky-tonk guitar style that’s still used today.
Even if you’ve never heard of the Carter Family, you’re more than likely familiar with at least a few of the tunes they popularized. Songs like “Wildwood Flower,” “Will the Circle be Unbroken?” and “Keep on the Sunny Side” are folk music standards, all recorded by hundreds of other artists. “Keep on the Sunny Side” was featured on the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou?
So you might have some idea of the type of music they play at the Fold. Old-time Appalachian music and bluegrass mostly, with special gospel shows every now and then. The venue seats nearly 1,000 folks and, the night we were there, it was about half full. I did overhear one of the nice ticket ladies remark that this was the slowest they’d seen it in a while. But it was Labor Day weekend and people were out of town. Checking out the website, it says that their gospel and Christmas shows frequently sell out, but those are the only events where you might want to get tickets ahead of time. Regular Saturday night shows, like the one we were attending, you can get tickets at the door no problem.
We got to the place around 6:30, an hour before the music was supposed to start. Parking was either cheap or free, I can’t remember. We got there early because we wanted to check out the two other attractions besides the music venue: the Carter Family museum and the cabin where A.P. Carter was born. The museum was converted from A.P.’s old general store, which he opened after his divorce from Sara and his retirement from the music business. Everything was packed into a single room. There were cool exhibits and old instruments. Took about fifteen or twenty minutes to see everything. The Carter cabin was taken down from what Fold promotional materials call an “inaccessible location.” The wife and I looked at all the cool turn of the century household items and dug on how difficult it would have been to raise a family in such a tight space. There was also a rocking chair that belonged to Johnny Cash (who married Maybelle’s daughter, June) that they let you sit in for a spell.
After those short visits, we went to the music venue. We got some popcorn and nachos and a couple of sodas. Then we took a seat maybe ten rows back. The seats are stadium style, so there’s really not a bad view in the place. Although if you’re not planning on doing any dancing, it might be best to sit a little further back. There’s a dancing area in front of the stage and, hoo boy, as long as there’s a foot-tappin’ song playing, you can be sure it’ll be packed with mountain folk of all ages. Along with the sound of whoops and hollers, you’ll also hear dozens of clogging shoes accompanying the band. Interesting dancing, this. It’s all in the feet and legs. Don’t even have to move your arms if you don’t want. In fact, several people had theirs crossed behind their back.
The band that night was the New Ballards Branch Bogtrotters. Try saying that three times fast, eh? Led by Eddie Bond, the fiddler and singer, they played for two hours with a short intermission. Most of the Bogtrotters come from old-time music families who passed the music down through the generations. The Bogtrotters made sure to keep the cloggers happy, playing at least two or three fast numbers before playing a ballad or gospel tune (actually, a couple of the gospel songs were up-tempo enough to dance to, though no one did, out of respect). It was fun watching the mandolin player, Leon Frost. He strutted and profiled as he played, reminding me of an old-time Chuck Berry or Hendrix. Ol’ Leon was way off to the left side of the stage while the other four members were all bunched together on the right. Because Leon needed his own dancin’ space. Or maybe they separated him because his awesomeness was such that to get too close to it would immediately turn them into a pile of dust.
Yup, but what a night! History, culture, music. Walking back to the car with my wife, surrounded on all sides by nothing but silence and mountains, I was filled with joy. Oh yes, I will be coming back to this place.