A New Legend is Born in SW Virginian

The First “Legends of Grayson County Gathering in Independence

During the first weekend of April, 2022, a new kind of celebration of the rich musical heritage surrounding Grayson County, Virginia was born.  The “Legends of Grayson County” was a unique musical gathering, including historic and educational presentations, storytelling, music and dancing, discussions and master led jams. It was part fiddle festival, part class structured learning like Augusta or Swannanoa, and part historical lecture including workshops and master led jams.  In what is perceived to be the first of many years of celebrations, the first “Legends” celebrated the life and musical legacy of White Top Mountain Band fiddler Thornton Spencer, as well as the accomplishments of Junior Appalachian Musicians founder, Helen White.

Legendary Grayson County Fiddler, Thornton Spencer (photo by Mark Sanderford)

The celebration was held in Independence at the 1908 Courthouse whose museum setting and old time upstairs courtroom converted into an auditorium, set the scene well.  The gathering started on Friday night, with a master-led jam led by fiddler Lucas Paisley who helped participants get acquainted with local fiddle tunes.  The formal program started with a short lecture on the life of Thornton Spencer, presented by Malcolm Smith who wrote a book about Thornton’s brother-in-law, Albert Hash.

Thornton was born near Rugby Virginia under the watchful eye of both Mt. Rogers and White Top Mountains, the two highest peaks in Virginia.  A place where old time music, particularly banjo and fiddle music, has survived in its purest form for two centuries. Thornton became a torch bearer of Grayson’s high country music when his older sister married legendary White Top fiddler and fiddle maker Albert Hash.  As a young teenager, Thornton spent most of his time at his sister’s home on Fee’s Ridge, studying his brother in law’s music.  Albert showed him how to play the guitar and his love for fiddle tunes began.

One Friday, Albert came to his young brother in law and took a fiddle he had built down off the wall and handed it to him.   Albert showed Thornton two tunes and told him if he could play them by the time he got back, he could own the fiddle.  After being banished to the corn crib by his sister, Thornton spent three days scratching out those two tunes until he could play them..  He won the fiddle and did not look back for nearly 70 years.

Thornton became known for his ongoing jams at his parent’s country store that stood right near Mt. Rogers school.  There many legendary musicians from Grayson would gather including banjoist Jont Blevins, Stuart Carrico, Munsey Galtney, Dean Sturgill, and a cast of hundreds of young people who flocked to learn old time music from the likes of Albert Hash.

In the early 1970’s Thornton met a young college student who was studying ballad singing.  He married Emily Paxton who was from Northern Virginia, and a musical collaboration that would last nearly 40 years was born.  In the mid 1970’s Thornton and Emily joined Albert and a young banjo player, Flurry Dowe, who had “stopped by” the store and was groomed by Albert and Thornton to become steeped in the mountain style of banjo playing, to form The White Top Mountain Band.  Over the next three decades, Thornton would help lead the band to international recognition while becoming one of the favorite old time dance bands in the region. Tom Barr, on bass, and his wife Becky on second guitar and vocals help round out the dynamic sound of the band.

While his brother in law was alive, Thornton became his biggest fan and supporter, playing second fiddle to him in the White Top band, and promoting Albert’s unique fiddle style.  During this time, Thornton sought out and learned with Albert, from some of the region’s great masters of old time fiddling.  He became well versed on the music of the region and was often sought after for his knowledge of local music as well as for his playing.  The band received national recognition, playing at the Smithsonian, The Carter Family Fold, and the 1982 World’s Fair.

In early 1983, Albert Hash died at the age of 62, leaving Thornton to carry on his legacy of preserving and exciting people to help preserve the music of the Virginia Highlands in Grayson.

To that aim, Thornton had helped Emily and Albert establish the first music program at Mt. Rogers school, that was designed to teach traditional music to the young people of the area.  They also taught music at the Mt. Rogers fire house, to spread their knowledge of traditional music.  The relaxed, but exciting atmosphere that they created at these lessons eventually evolved into the JAM Program when a young counselor in the Ashe County schools in North Carolina named Helen White asked for Emily’s help in getting her program started.

Thornton continued his work as a fiddler, teacher and cheerleader for old time music until his death in 2017.  During a magical evening on April 1, 2022 at the Legends event, the White Top Mountain band, now made up of Emily and her and Thornton’s two children, Kilby Spencer replacing his dad on fiddle and Martha who sings, plays a variety of instruments and dances with the band.  As the evening progressed, many of Thornton’s former students and friends took the stage in his honor, including fiddler and luthier Chris Testerman, banjoist Larry Sigmon, and Martha Spencer’s own group, The Blue Ridge Girls. At the end of the White Top Mountain Band and Friends performances, Emily Spencer was presented with a handmade plaque honoring Thornton’s contributions to Grayson music.

Current Whitetop Mountain Band: L to R: Ersel Fletcher, Emily Paxton Spencer, Kilby Spencer, Debbie Bramer, and Martha Spencer. (Photo by Kevin Combs)

The evening ended with a Master led jam featuring one of Thornton and Albert’s most celebrated fiddle students, Brian Grim who with his sister Debbie, formed the Konarock Critters one of the most famous powerhouse old time bands from Grayson County.  The evening sold out, with the old courthouse rocking with a maximum capacity audience.

The second day began with coffee and donuts with some of the best story-telling and history- recounting names in old time music.  The roundtable discussion about Thornton Spencer, Grayson County music and the regions rich heritage was led by an all-star cast of characters.  Among those assembled were guitarist and guitar builder Wayne Henderson, musician and author Wayne Erbsen who had lived in Grayson County before moving to Asheville, NC and was influenced by the White Top Mountain Band, Emily Spencer, Rita Scott who learned fiddle from Thornton and Albert, banjoist Trish Fore, Tom Barr who played bass for many years with the White Top Mountain band, and Jim Lloyd who played guitar with the Konnarock Critters.  The group provided a monumental morning of stories and anecdotes about the legendary Grayson County old time scene.

Saturday afternoon was dedicated to the memory of Helen White, founder of the Junior Appalachian Musicians program and life partner of guitarist and guitar builder, Wayne Henderson.  Helen was a life-long educator and musician who attended both the University of North Carolina and Appalachian State University.  

Junior Appalachian Musicians Founder and Legend, Helen White (Photo by Mark Sanderford)

After becoming an elementary school counselor in Sparta, North Carolina, in the early 2000’s Helen noticed that many of her students didn’t have a sense of pride in their Appalachian heritage.  As she thought about how much she felt connected to Appalachian music, especially through her partnership traveling and performing with Wayne Henderson, she decided to start involving local students and their families in learning how to play the old time and bluegrass traditions of the area.

Helen recruited local musicians to teach traditional instruments and dance, including banjo, fiddle, mandolin and guitar as well as various forms of old time dancing.  The idea spread and Helen was soon directing a regional organization with hundreds of students. It travelled through communities in the region like a virus and before long there were JAMs programs across the mountains of North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and South Carolina. Although Helen passed at the age of 69 in 2019, her creation has spread to more than 40 cities and flourishes under the direction of Brett Morris, who led the tribute to Helen’s work on Saturday at the Legends events.

Besides sharing Helen story, Brett invited JAM instructors, students (both current and former) and friends of Helen to pay tribute to Helen in music.  Of course, Wayne Henderson played some of the tunes he had played onstage with Helen over the years on his guitar. Eddie Bond, a National Heritage Award winning fiddler and JAMs teacher played with former JAMs student and clawhammer banjo master Jared Boyd of the Twin Creeks Stringband.

Former JAMs student, Jared Boyd; JAMs Teacher Eddie Bond; Wayne Henderson and Bonnie Bond (Photo by Nick Hancock

A fitting and tear filled moment of recognition happened when local musicians Betty Vornbrock and Billy Cornette of the Reed Island Rounders played “Helen’s Waltz,” a fiddle tune that Betty had written to honor her dear friend.

The evening ended with concerts by The Crooked Road Ramblers, featuring Kilby Spencer, Thornton’s son, on fiddle, playing many of his dad’s tunes.  Their performance was followed by a reunion of one of Grayson County’s most powerful old time bands, The Konnarock Critters.  Brian and Debbie Grim (fiddle and banjo) were joined by Wayne Henderson on guitar as well as Jim Lloyd, playing as a band for the first time in 20 years.  Their performance was wildly received with a standing ovation.

The Konnarock Critters Reunion: L to R: Jim Lloyd, Wayne Henderson, Brian Grim, Tim Yates, Debbie Grim Yates (Photo by Nick Hancock)

Throughout the day on Saturday there were workshops on fiddling, mountain dance, guitar, as well as clawhammer and two finger styles of banjo.  Saturday, like Friday was sold out, and the event came to a close late Saturday evening with a master-led jam officiated by Kilby Sp;encer.

“Legends of Grayson County” is the brainchild of two Atlanta based musicians, Steve Soltis and Mark Boyles, who have formed a deep appreciation for the region over the past 25 years and wanted to give something back.  Both men escaped their corporate jobs in the city and headed to the Blue Ridge mountains around Independence to fish, hike, and camp along the New River.  Those trips inevitably led to their discovery of the area’s rich musical traditions.  They became annual campers at the Grayson County Fiddler’s Convention and began to make acquaintance with many of the area’s musicians.  In 2021 they founded a not-for-profit called Peach Bottom Partners.

“This is our tribute to the extraordinary musicians who have contributed to the Grayson County sound,” said Steve Soltis, “It’s going to be an annual event.”  Soltis and Boyles also enlisted the Grayson County Tourism division, the Town of Independence, local churches and the Historical- Society to help with food, logistics, promotion and volunteers.  

According to Boyles, the collaboration was a huge success. “We presented a new kind of immersion into old time music and the people who played and still play it, and our attendees loved it,” he said. Proceeds from this year’s event will benefit both the restoration of Mt. Rogers school into a community arts center and the JAMs program.

Preliminary planning has already begun for the second Legends of Grayson event, scheduled for March 31 and April 1 of 2023.  Next year’s celebration will include the life of banjoist Wade Ward and the contributions of musician and organizer Donna Correll, who with her husband, Jerry Correll helped shape the more recent Grayson County sound.  For more info visit the “Legends of Grayson Old Time Weekend” on Facebook.