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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s a beautiful early spring afternoon in Southwest Virginia and I’m deep in Franklin County. One of the things that everyone seems to know about Franklin County (named for Benjamin Franklin) is that the writer, Sherwood Anderson, once dubbed it “The wettest county in the world.” I am on Boyd land, just off Dry Hill Road. The Boyd’s have owned, farmed, and worked land in this county since the earliest settlers came to Virginia. They have also contributed substantially to its legendary status since the “Great Moonshine Conspiracy” of the early 1930s and to its renown as one of the natural sources of great old time mountain made music in the world.
Jimmy Boyd believes in genetics. “There’s something about us Boyds,” he told me, “that just put rhythm in us. My daddy played all sorts of things,” he remembered, “but when he danced, his body would just come alive, and people would come to watch. There was an old mountain woman that lived in the hills over there and everybody wanted to watch her dance with my daddy.
As I waited near a beautiful pond on the Boyd property, an old battered red flatbed truck approached hauling its capacity in large round hay bales. Out of the driver’s side popped a larger than life mountain man, wearing a well-worn moonshiner’s hat, a flannel shirt draped loosely over a t-shirt from one or the other old time music festivals. He grabbed my hand, momentarily crushing it in his, and smiled a wry smile. Grandchildren climbed in and out of the truck and then his son, Stacy, jumped in and took over Jimmy’s chores while we grabbed chairs down by the pond. For the next two hours I was in the presence of living folk lore: moonshine historian, storyteller, banjoist, band leader, and proud head of the clan, Jimmy Boyd.
Jimmy’s earliest memories of growing up in Franklin County are of two things that have greatly influenced his life. One is of men making shine along the creek banks and hollers and the second is of hearing old time music at corn shuckin’s and parties and in his own home.
“The two have always just seemed to go together, somehow in my life,” said Jimmy. He remembers vividly being carried on his father’s hip down a long winding path to a still way back in the woods near his earliest home and seeing men standing around a still. “The thing I remember the most is the sweet smell of that corn cooking. Back then, those men made it right, little or no sugar, almost all grain. It smelled so good,” exclaimed Jimmy.
The moonshine really came first. Jimmy’s older brother, Billy, who he looked up to, became involved in working with and for the local shiners in his teens. In the post-Prohibition days in Franklin County, there had been so many families involved in the moonshining business (one estimate in the Roanoke Times was that 90% of Franklin County’s population was somehow involved in its shine production and export business in the ‘20s and ‘30s) and so many of the families relied on moonshine for their income, that the tradition was hard to die. Many of the folks from the Moonshine Conspiracy and moonshine makers warring days with law enforcement didn’t have any other source of income and jobs were scarce for those not fighting in WWII. Some of the best moonshine runners from the area became race car drivers. Others like Jimmy and his brother, joined the tradition and learned the trade of Franklin County whiskey production at young ages.
“I was about 12 years old,” recalled Jimmy, “and my brother, Billy was about 8 years older. When he left home at about 16, he didn’t go to the factory, he went down in the holler to make whiskey,” he said, “He got with some old timers who really knew how to make whiskey. He would make good, clean whiskey.”
“He got me going. I made my first real batch when I was 20, soon as I was big enough to haul a 100 pound bag of sugar. But back in those days we didn’t use any sugar on the first run. It was pure grain, no sugar. We would save back the backwash from that first run, the grain and the yeast, add some barley malt and a little sugar and the yeast would go again, and that’d be our second run, the first sugar,” Jimmy continued, “You could do that four times. Cornmeal and barley malt, and sometimes dry meal.” He continued, “That made the best whiskey. Some folks around here now just make sugar whiskey, that is awful stuff and not good for you,” said Jimmy. “Some people would want that first all-grain run, some preferred the first sugar. It was all good,” he laughed.
He remembered the thrill of heading down to the first barrel of corn mash that he fermented. “It was the springtime, like this,” Jimmy recalled, “You start up that holler to that still and you can smell it fermentin’ and that smell gets mixed with the honeysuckle smells and those flowers, that’s fun,” he smiled. “We enjoyed our work. A lot of that moonshine we made didn’t stay around here. A lot of it was headed up to the city folk up north,” said Jimmy.
There was an organization of labor involved in the process. “At first, I was just the labor at the still site,” he told me. “It was my job to help make the moonshine, ferment the mash and then cook it,” Jimmy said. “Most of the time you had your distillers and then you had someone around who did your furnishings. A fellow that done your furnishings, he would bring you your grain, and when you were done, he would pick up the whiskey and he would distribute it.”
Stacy Boyd, Jimmy’s oldest son, remembers being a small child when his father was making whiskey at a still site on the other side of a ridge near their home. “Our job, when Daddy was shining and we were playing in the yard, was to watch the cars going up the only road near our house,” Stacy said. “We were supposed to count how many people were in the car when it went up the road, and then count how many were in it when it came back down. If there was less people in that car, we had to run over the ridge and tell Daddy, because it was probably a revenue agent being dropped off to find the still.”
Over the years, Jimmy has had his share of run-ins with local law enforcement and has spent an accumulation of nearly a year of jail time for his hobby. “We had to be real careful, back in those days,” Jimmy said, “A lot of times my wife wouldn’t even know where I was working at. Sometimes the people paying us wouldn’t know.”
Watch a short video about Moonshining in Franklin County HERE
The life of a moonshiner in Franklin county had lots of risks. Jimmy recalled getting caught and spending time in city and county jails. “I had been pulling three months and some days in the Rocky Mount jail,” he said, “And the old sheriff, he took a likin’ to us because moonshiners are good people overall. They’ll pay you every cent they owe you and they are just as honest as days are long. Most of ‘em are. Every now and then you’ll get someone who wants to turn the next fella in to get some money, you know.”
Jimmy continued his story, “Well, that old sheriff at Rocky Mount, he took a likin’ to us, you know. We had a year to pull and he made a trustee out of me and then said, ‘Boys, how would you all like to go home?’ Well, that sounded good to me! So, he said, ‘I’ll tell you what, if you paint my jail inside and you get it done, I’ll see that you go home.’”
“We stood around there a day or two, and then he came by one day and looked at it and said, ‘Well, boys I got some good news and I got some bad news. I’ll tell you the good news first,’ he said, ‘You can go home, but the bad news is you got to pay your fine.’”
Jimmy and his partner owed nearly $1200 in fines for getting caught moonshining. “Well, my buddy, he called his wife and he paid his fine,” Jimmy told me, “and he got out and she paid his fine, and then he said ‘I’m gonna come get you out tomorrow.’ So, he did, he went and got the money and paid my fine so I could get out. I had so many kids and I’d been in there three months, I had to get out.”
Jimmy laughed and then recounted the story of how he and his partner got caught. “See we had this still set up, and we were making whiskey to sell. We had what you called the old pots, and they held about 800 gallons a piece and we had four of them set up. They were what you called submarine type pots. We could make 20 cases of whiskey out of each one of them. And we had done run one of them and filled 20 cases of liquor that day,” Jimmy said.
“Well, we was getting ready to cap the second one that day,” he continued, “The old boy that was helping me, he was putting the whiskey out into jugs. Well, I looked down there towards the road and I seen somebody jerk his head back behind a tree. I said ‘We’d better go!’ and so we hit the holler. We went straight into the holler, right straight away from him. Dumbest thing we could ever do. We went about 75 or 50 yards up that holler and there was a fence come down across there. Well, we run right up against that fence, and there was five or six of them on the outside and three or four on the inside and they had us up against that fence,” said Jimmy.
Jimmy got more animated as the story unfolded. “When I went in that morning, I was a little juvenus (sic), anyway, I had on a pair of tennis shoes, so I was ready to run. When they all gathered around us right there, I was gonna break and run across the branch. Well, when I jumped across the branch, I sunk into the mud about that deep!” Jimmy motioned towards his elbow. “And one of them jumped on my back. Yea, one of them ABC bosses jumped on my back! And, well I knew I wasn’t getting out of this, so I just gave up.”
“So, he said to me, ‘What’s your name,’” Jimmy went on. “Well, I knew I didn’t have no ID on me, you know. I didn’t carry no identification, no driver’s license or nothing, so I told him, ‘John Holly.’ It come to me just like that. And then he said, ‘Where you live at?’ and I said ‘Bassett, Virginia.’ See I was down towards Basset working you know,” Jimmy smiled a wry smile.
“So, they put handcuffs on us,” he recalled, “And took us back to the still site. They read us our rights. Then they asked us, ‘If we take those handcuffs off are you all going to run anymore if we take those handcuffs off?’ And I said, ‘I don’t reckon. It’s no use. You know my life’s history, don’t you?’ Of course, I hadn’t told them nothing and had no driver’s license, you know. They didn’t know nothing about me. So, they took the handcuffs off of us, and, we had put some soda pops down in the branch to cool and some of them got soft drinks.”
“Well,” Jimmy continued, “They got to laughin’ and chopping the still up, and laughin and a choppin’ and a bustin’ the jugs up. Well, I caught them all five or six yards away from me, and I hit that hill a runnin’. I had to go straight up a hill, just like that over yonder,” Jimmy paused dramatically. “Shooting! You’ve never heard such shooting! They probably shot 25 times. And there didn’t but one take off after me. I don’t know if he were the fastest one or what. But he was just right on my heels going up that hill.”
“When I got on top,” Jimmy remembered, “I was a little bit ahead of him and I got out front of him about eight or ten yards. Can you imagine run all the way to the top of that hill over yonder? You’re gonna’ be out of breath! I wasn’t but about 25 years old at the time. I was in good shape. “Well,” Jimmy said, “We both got down to a rock wall going out through the woods and jumped it. Finally, we came to this little dirt road going off down the woods that hardly anybody travelled, and I hit that little ol’ dirt road and had got about from here to that dirt pile yonder ahead of him,” Jimmy pointed at a small dirt pile about four yards away, “And I looked back to see if he had gained any on me.”
Jimmy then imitated his pursuer. “He hollered, ‘Look back you SOB, I’ve got a good notion to blow your head off.’ I didn’t say nothin,’ Jimmy laughed, “I just kept a haulin’ it. Well, I went up there and went through an old farm house yard and got over there and hit that hill, and I lost him. But we went about five miles and we come out in Henry. Right in the little town of Henry. I come out on the right hand side of the road about a hundred yards, and he come out right in the middle of town. I don’t know if he was following me or what, but he didn’t catch me that day.”
“I stopped at a man’s house,” said Jimmy, “And asked him if he’d take me to a certain place and he said, ‘Well I’m in my bed trying to get some rest,’ and then he looks at his wife and says ‘Take this man where he needs to go.’ So, I got clean away from them. Now that boy, the one who got caught with me, he was just 18 years old. He was just a young’un. They tried him. And I’m pretty sure when they tried him, he told them who I was, but they weren’t in no hurry to come and get me. It was three months before they came and got me. They sent a United States Marshall after me.”
“By that time, me and a buddy were making liquor somewhere else,” Jimmy continued, “And I lived in a house just down the road here. The house set on one side of a little creek and it had a walkway going off of the porch to a spring house over on the other side of the creek. And we had 60, no I can’t remember, maybe 160 cases of liquor packed into that little spring house. See, sometimes when you’re making whiskey, it’ll sell good for maybe three or four weeks and you’ll get rid of every drop you made and more, and then again, you may have to hold it for several weeks.”
“At that time,” said Jimmy, “it was cold, dead winter. We had it packed up in there. One evening I had been down to Ferrum with my whole family, and I was coming home and looked over in my yard, and there was a bunch of State Troopers and deputy cars about a dozen or so sitting in my yard. So, I just went on by, I drove right past them. And someone recognized my car and they tore out after me. Well, here they come, chasin’ after me down the road for about two miles. Now I didn’t try to outrun them or nothing, cause I had the whole family with me. Oh, I wanted to jump out of that car and run so bad, I could hardly stand it. But I decided I’d just stay with it.”
Jimmy then told me, “When they stopped me, I just sat there and they come up there to me. There was the nicest young fella, his name was Bob Johnson and he was a United States Marshall. They sent a Marshall after me. He arrested me and read me my rights and got me in the car with him and told me all about the reasons he was after me. And you know, that man stuck with me like glue. I don’t know why he took a liken’ to me. When I went down there, he was just the nicest feller you have ever seen. Later on, he become a preacher. And now he plays old time music! He sure does, I’ve played some with him!”
“Anyway,” Jimmy went on, “we had about a half inch of snow on the ground. And it was all over that walkway going to that spring house. They put me in jail that night and the next morning this old fella come over and bailed me out. I went home. All night long I’d been worrying, afraid they were going to find all those cases of liquor. All our profit was packed up in that spring house. So, when I come home next morning, I went and looked at their tracks. Well, they had been all around the house, looked in every window, looked in every door. You could see their tracks. But there wasn’t a single track going down that slippery walkway to the spring house. That was in 1972.”
One of the things that I was most curious to find out from Jimmy was what he saw as the relationship that has always seemed to exist between making and drinking moonshine and old time music. He believes they go hand in hand because “They’re both about having fun, dancing, and having a party. But they’re also both something you can make yourself. Self-made fun!” he said, “But moonshine, it settles your nerves and you’re more carefree when you take a drink.”
“I’d known a woman that used to come around,” Jimmy told me, “Her name was Brona Bennett. She told me one day after the Dry Hill Draggers was playing, ‘You all always get to playing a lot better after you take a little drink. Your music flows better, blends better.’ So, I always figured that when your music and your moonshine get together, they flow,” said Jimmy.
It was Jimmy’s brother, Billy, and a great uncle, Ted Boyd (of Orchard Grass fame,) who first got him into playing old time music. Surprisingly, Jimmy didn’t start seriously learning the banjo until he was 30 years old, although he had listened to and enjoyed old time music since he was two years old. Jimmy was just starting out, borrowing one of his brother’s banjos to learn with when he went to his great uncle and said, “I don’t know if I’ll ever figure out how to play this thing.”
Ted Boyd looked at Jimmy and replied, “Well I don’t know either, Jimmy, but you have good timing.” That was it. Timing. Jimmy began to look on the banjo as a drum. Learning a lick or two from his older brother, he began to develop what would become one of the most recognizable clawhammer banjo sounds in old time music. Not just Galax style rollicking banjo, certainly not the melodic Round Peak style of Tommy Jarrell and Kyle Creed, but Jimmy Boyd style, a rhythmic romp that would take him to play in some of the most prestigious old time music venues on the planet and with some of the greatest players of his times.
“My brother was the backbone of what I learned. He passed away, though, of lung cancer when he was just 50,” Jimmy said, “But he got me going and encouraged me to put together a band. He helped me learn a few tunes and to play them fast and hard with a lot of rhythm.”
“Well once I had a few tunes down and noticed they brought the dancers around and they loved ‘em, and danced. It started looking like everyone wanted to come around and dance when we was playing, you know. At somebody’s house party or front yard,” said Jimmy.
Then Jimmy revealed the method behind his style of banjo playing. “You see, then, I stopped trying to learn individual tunes. I concentrated on the dance lick on the banjo. It was a lot of pleasure, playing. I found that if I strummed down a little harder on that banjo, I could make them people dance harder,” he proclaimed.
“Some old fellow told me one time,” said Jimmy, “he had been coming around where we’d been playing a lot and he said, ‘I finally figured out what you’re doing,’ he was talking about that lick that I’ve got, ‘You’re playing something like the tempo, the rhythm and the tune all at the same time.’ I laughed and I said, ‘Well that might be what I’m doing, but all I can do is what I know, you know.”
After Jimmy got his lick down, he first started playing with a neighbor who played the fiddle. “There was an old man that lived up the road here, he played with us on the first record that we made, named Murphy Shively. He was the type of fellow that if he could get out of doing something the hard way, that’s what he’d do. His ancestors are buried all around here and his daddy was a fiddler, too.”
“He said his daddy would tune up his fiddle and banjo and go out of the room and tell Murphy, ‘Now don’t you be touching those instruments. They’re all in tune.’ Well as soon as his daddy would leave the room, he’d make a dive for them. And he learned to play that fiddle like Posey Rorrer did, that played for Charlie Poole, with the least amount of effort that he could put out. And Murph had some of the best rhythm of anybody that I’ve ever sat down and played with. When you would sit down to play with that man and he’d start a tune, it would just lift you up, and take you along with it. His music would do that to you! He put everything in such an easy gait that it was a lot easier to play.”
In about 1980, Jimmy had a body shop on Dry Hill road. Every Friday night, he would brush the shop out with a broom and water the floor down to get rid of the metal dust, and all the musicians in the Dry Hill area of Franklin County would come pouring into the shop. They would play until one or two o’clock in the morning, with lots of dancers joining in. Jimmy recalled that the area got its name from a little one room school that used to be in the area. He said that you had to walk a half a mile down from the school house to a little spring to get water, so they named it the Dry Hill School.
“Well, one day a bunch of us were gathered over there,” Jimmy recalled, “And in those days we didn’t have fancy tuning instruments like they do now, we had a pitchfork, so it would take us a while to get tuned up to play. Well one day this old boy who lived over there got his banjo all tuned up and was sitting there waitin’ on the rest of us. Now he was a good clawhammer player. All of a sudden he says to us ‘You all drag around too much. Hurry up and tune up. If you don’t hurry up and get tuned, I’m calling you all The Dry Hill Draggers.’ And that name stuck for over 40 years!”
Right away, the Draggers became known across SW Virginia as a dancer’s band. People would travel miles over mountain roads to dance the Buck and Wing or their own style to the Draggers solid beats and fast tempo. “There were oodles and oodles of dancers that would come from miles and miles to dance with us,” recalled Jimmy, “They’d come from all over Virginia and North Carolina and West Virginia. We never advertised nothing. All those dancers knew we were such a good dance band that they’d figure out where we’d be playing next and call each other and there’d they be when we showed up.” In 1982, just a band for two years, The Dry Hill Draggers were invited to Knoxville, Tennessee, to represent Virginia music at the World’s Fair.
The dance following grew and grew. The Dry Hill Draggers recorded their first record, Knocking Around with the Ole Time Sound, with a large ensemble of players from their Friday night get togethers at the request of their fans and dancers. The lineup for their first recording included Jimmy Boyd and his brother Billy on banjo, Murphy Shively on fiddle, along with Carl Scott also on fiddle and some guitar, Monroe Boyd on guitar (no relation to Jimmy and Billy), and Kenney Ferguson on bass. It was recorded on the Outlet Records label in Ferrum, VA. They had been playing together for just two years.
“Well, we were going strong after that,” said Jimmy. “We played at the Rocky Mount Armory and the VFW and the American Legion. We played all over Roanoke and Vinton and Stuart. Now there were certain places that had a really good dance floor. And when you played there, you could bet you’d have a big crowd, you know,” Jimmy told me. “If you’ve got a cement floor, it just didn’t come across like a good hardwood floor. One of the best places, I guess, was over at the American Legion building in Stuart, VA. They had a good hardwood floor and it was upstairs. It would give, you know. You could be downstairs when they were dancing and look up and see that floor just a goin’ up and down like that,” Jimmy demonstrated with his hands.
The Dry Hill Draggers began to be in demand. “We went to all the festivals and did some travelling,” Jimmy said, “We went up to New York at least three times and to New Jersey and stuff like that. One old boy, he was very wealthy, invited us up to play at his big dance party in New York. He had about a 100 foot square white tent. There were 25 or 30 tables covered in white tablecloths under it, everything was snow white. And off to the side was a huge wooden dance floor. We had a great time playing there.”
A year after the World’s Fair, in 1983, Jimmy took the band into the studio to lay down a second album, There Will Come a Time, featuring the same lineup as their first LP. In 1985, the Draggers recorded their third LP, Budded Roses. By that time the band’s lineup had changed, as it always did over the years. Carl Scott had taken over the primary fiddler position, along with Roy Hambrick. They also both played some guitar on the recording, along with Monroe Boyd. Jimmy still held down the rhythm on his banjo, and Cordell Pinkard played the upright bass. Roy Hambrick was also featured on vocals on four songs.
Shortly after the release of Budded Roses, the Draggers went into the studio again to record their fourth album, A Daisy for You. The album was titled after a song that Roy Hambrick had penned specifically for the album. If featured the same lineup as their previous release, with Carl Scott and Hambrick sharing fiddle duties, while Jimmy drove the band with his signature banjo sound. Two years later, in 1989, The Draggers put out a cassette entitled Yellow Cat. Once again, Jimmy Boyd played banjo, Carl Scott played fiddle, Monroe Boyd played rhythm guitar, Cordell Pinkard was on bass. For this recording, George Hayden replaced Roy Hambrick on lead guitar and vocals.
Then tragedy struck the band. Carl Scott, one of the original fiddle players who was with the band for its first 10 years would have his life drastically changed in one instant. “One day we played at the fire station in Ferrum,” recalled Jimmy, “It was a fund raiser for the fire department. That evening we had to go straight to Stuart and play a dance over there. Carl had two daughters, his wife and his son,” he said.
“We got over there to the Stuart American Legion and started playing,” continued Jimmy, “And then we got word that Carl’s wife and daughter had been killed in a car accident.
It also disabled his son. Well, after that, Carl quit playing with us. He did keep playing, though. He joined a church and got away from the type of music we played. He wanted to do better, I reckon, and he got to playing a lot of gospel music and he’s real good at it. We’re still good buddies. It’ll be 31 years this May since he lost part of his family. We went to Ferrum school together. We’ve always been friends and always will be,” said Jimmy.
About the same time, George Hayden who had joined the band in 1989 succumbed to cancer. With Carl gone from the band, and no one to match Jimmy’s hard driving banjo rhythm, the band went looking for a new fiddler and they found one. It was the legendary fiddler, Benton Flippen. For the next four years, from 1990 to 1994, Benton’s pounding rhythmic fiddle would match Jimmy’s banjo. “We had played with Benton some before,” said Jimmy, “I remember one year when Benton, Carl, and the bass player and I went down to the Union Grove Festival and won it, first place. We had played some with Benton at festivals. At that time, around 1990, his band had done got old, and some of them had quit playing, and he was just playing with this ‘un, here and yonder, you know. So, I called him one day and said, ‘Why don’t you just come and play with us,’ and Benton thought for a minute and said ‘I believe I will.’ And then he stayed for four years.”
Benton was a North Carolina fiddler from Mt. Airy. He started playing music in 1938 at the age of 18. He was a powerful fiddler who followed in the footsteps of his mentor, Esker Hutchins, a highly respected local fiddler and banjo player. In the 1970s Benton gained national attention as the fiddler for his band, The Smoky Valley Boys, who won nearly every fiddle contest in the Appalachians. He, like Jimmy Boyd, was a strong rhythmic musician and was known for his unusual finger patterns and powerful slides. In 1990 he was awarded the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award. “He was a lot of fun to play with,” said Jimmy, “We loved our time with him.”
Unfortunately, the band did not record a commercial album during their years with Benton, but there are some recordings of them made by collector and musician Paul Brown and a few recordings they made while guests on WPAQ radio’s Saturday Merry go round. In 1994, he left the band. Mr. Flippen passed away in 2011.
After Benton Flippen’s departure, the Draggers would record two cassettes. The first was entitled Pallet on Your Floor, and the second was Don’t Get Trouble in Your Mind. These two recordings featured a young fiddler named Chris Prillaman and one of Jimmy’s sons, Jamie Boyd. Jamie had taken an interest in his dad’s music and with his brother Stacy had been attending many of the Draggers’ appearances at dances and festivals. When he was about 13, Jamie was with his dad at the Galax Old Fiddler’s Convention, and after watching the banjo competition said, “Daddy, next year I’m going to enter the competition up here.” According to Jimmy, he not only entered but placed in the competition that featured some of the best banjo players in the world. Jimmy began to use Jamie as a second banjo and at times he would fill in for Jimmy.
CLICK HERE TO HEAR SNIPPETS FROM 30 YEARS OF DRYHILL DRAGGERS RECORDINGS
Chris Prillaman is another testament to the old time musical gene. His great grandfather was famous in Franklin County. He was a bootlegger and fiddler know as James Walker “Peg” Hatcher. The “Peg” nickname came from his fiddle peg. Peg Hatcher became a prominent figure in the 1936 “Moonshine Conspiracy” trial that rocked not only SW Virginia, but the entire nation. Peg was recorded by music collectors from the Smithsonian and his music appeared on several collections of Virginia fiddle music. Chris’s father and grandfather had also been musicians.
He had been listening to the Dry Hill Draggers since he was very young, going to garage parties and dances with his dad and grandfather. When Chris was fourteen years old, his father became seriously ill. During that time and ash his father became worse, Chris was taken by friends to music events to help lift his spirits. Chris was just getting very interested in music, so Chris’s grandfather took him to learn to play banjo from Jimmy Boyd. He became a dancer, and loved to dance to Benton Flippen’s fiddling when he was with the Draggers. Soon, Jimmy had him learning fiddle, and as he dealt with his father’s death, he became more and more immersed in the music of Franklin County.
“I have to credit Jimmy with just about everything I know about music,” Chris told me. “He was interested in learning to fiddle and so was I. So, we’d go off together and learn to play. He would always have that fiddle with him, and he’d tell me, get my fiddle out and fool with that thing. Pretty soon I was playin’ along with Jimmy’s banjo. At first, I was just schreechin’ and scratchin’ along, and Jimmy would play so hard that he’d just carry me along. I learned to fiddle following him on the banjo!” said Chris.
Chris inherited his great grandfather Peg Hatcher’s old fiddle and started to play on it as often as he could. He jumped in and soon was playing up to the Dragger’s hard driving dance speed. Jimmy began to invite Chris up on stage to play with the band and he loved the attention the audience gave him. “Jimmy just carried me along, and before I knew it, I was A Dry Hill Dragger,” Chris said, “He made me feel confident cause he could use that banjo to just pick you up and carry you along! When the Draggers got behind you, you just went with them.”
Chris remembered the heyday of the band in the 1990s. “You’d look out there in the audience and there would be a sea of white hair. Everyone of those old folks would be dancing their hearts out to the band. It was so much fun. It was almost embarrassing, though, because I was just following them along, I had no idea how to lead on the fiddle.”
Slowly, Jimmy started playing less with the band, encouraging his son Jamie to take over the role of banjo player and of driving the band’s sound. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell on a recording if it was me or Jamie playing the banjo,” Jimmy said, “He developed a dance lick on that banjo that sounds a lot like mine.”
Chris and Jamie Boyd began to learn tunes together, trying to keep the Dragger’s dance tempo and driving rhythm going. Soon, the Draggers were younger, with new guitarists and vocalists joining them, but retaining Jimmy’s sound and influence. Sometimes Jimmy would double up on banjo with his son, Jamie, and sometimes they would invite Billy Woods, another local fiddler, to join them for a twin fiddle, twin banjo sound.
Playing old time music was not the only skill Chris Prillaman learned from Jimmy Boyd.
After his dad died, Chris started spending a lot of time with the Boyd family, staying at their farm for long periods of time. Jimmy would take him hunting and fishing, and soon Chris was asking Jimmy to show him how to make shine. Both of Chris’s great grandfathers had been indicted in the Moonshine Conspiracy and making shine was another genetic imprint Chris wanted to follow.
“Jimmy got me started, and I worked hard at it,” said Chris, “I had it in my blood. The first liquor I ever made was with Jimmy. I wanted to make some so bad. When I was a little boy, my cousin’s grandpa had two pot stills and me and my cousin snuck up on Dry Hill Road and there was a big underground still site. It just fascinated me.”
“Finally, I got all the stuff together to try to make my own shine, and I begged Jimmy to show me, to help me. Well, we got together and made a batch together. It was a good time. The smell and the work and everything, I was hooked on making it,” said Chris.
Chris was hooked. He perfected his style of distilling based on Jimmy and other local elders who remembered the old ways of making liquor, who knew the traditional styles of both corn liquor and fruit brandies. In 2015, Chris bought a warehouse in Rocky Mount and started the first legal liquor distillery in the wettest county in America. However, after experimenting with town water in Rocky Mount, he decided to move his distillery out of town to take advantage of Franklin County’s pure spring waters. He then opened a tasting room in Rocky Mount, right next to the Harvester Center, a popular music venue.
The Twin Creeks distillery features a fiddle on their mason jar labels and prides itself in carrying on the traditions of the area, making shine as close to the old recipes as state regulations will allow. Genetics and tradition, the Boyd family way.
Stacy Boyd, another of Jimmy’s son, had first become aware of old time music at the age of 10, when his father started playing the banjo. He loved to accompany his dad to the Draggers’ parties and performances and was soon learning to dance with the band. “I loved going places with my dad,” he told me. “It was so much fun, always.” He started out in the early 1990s trying to learn the upright bass because he wanted to join in on his dad’s fun. In 1987, he met Vickie Sutphin, a member of the musical Spangler family from around Laurel Fork, VA. Vickie’s Uncle, Arnold Spangler, had helped found and played fiddle for The Laurel Fork Ramblers, a well-known string band in the area. Genetics at it again. Vickie and Stacy met at a Dry Hill Draggers dance. She had been following the Draggers, dancing to them whenever she could. She has become the historian of the band and still attends every performance.
When their son Jared was born, Stacy began to take a real interest in playing the bass. He played on stage with the Draggers at the Galax Old Time Fiddler’s Convention, and then started playing regularly with the Draggers. At this time, Chris Prillaman, who Stacy had known since they were boys, was fiddling and Stacy’s brother, Jamie, was playing banjo most of the time. Jimmy would make an occasional appearance with the band, doubling on banjo.
“I felt like I had the rhythm, I would study what Cordell was doing in the band, and one day the bass started to come to me,” said Stacy. About this time, another childhood friend joined the band, Jason Hambrick. Jason had learned guitar and singing from his father, Roy Hambrick, who had been with the Draggers for two recordings. Jason could play the guitar well and had learned his father’s singing repertoire. “Jimmy had encouraged me all along. He knew I had it in my genes,” Jason told me. When his father passed away, Jason began to take a real interest in keeping his father’s legacy with the band alive and Jimmy and the other band members welcomed his talent.
After a long dry spell, and a few years of slowing down their appearances, the Dry Hill Draggers went back into the recording studio. By 2006, the new generation of Draggers emerged. Stacy Boyd on bass, Jason Hambrick on guitar and vocals, Chris Prillaman on fiddle along with Billy Woods, and Jamie Boyd was primarily on banjo, with Jimmy Boyd joining them occasionally. They went to the recording studio again in 2009 and recorded their first CD, Take a Drink on Me. After nearly 30 years, the musical torch had been passed.
Over the next few years, the Draggers kept the torch going, playing at festivals and dances throughout Southwest Virginia and “holding court” as they always did in the campgrounds of the Galax Convention. For the big festivals Jimmy would join them, but spent less time accompanying them at dances and smaller venues. 2011 found them in the studio again, recording a 30th anniversary CD. This concept album had the younger Draggers going back to rerecord some of the Draggers’ earlier songs and tunes with the new younger lineup. The CD features Jason Hambrick honoring his father’s memory by singing “A Daisy for You,” a song that his father had penned and recorded during his years with the draggers. In 2013, The Dry Hill Draggers released their tenth recording, Dreaming of a Little Cabin, with the same configuration as on the 2009 and 2011 CDs.
In the late 2000s the band began to change again. Jamie Boyd and fiddler, Billy Woods, left the band. Stacy and Vickie Boyd had been devoting much of their time to raising their son Jared. Although Jared had been around old time music all of his life, he hadn’t taken much interest in playing music. “To be honest, my parents decided, around 2007, when I was 11, they decided I would learn to play music. They enrolled me in Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAMs) program at the Blue Ridge Music Center,” said Jared. “I went there once a week to learn banjo from Ray Chatfield. For the first year, my parents made me practice 30 minutes a day on the banjo. I wasn’t all that excited about it,” Jared said.
“After about a year, I realized I had it in my genes, in my blood. We’d go over to see my grandpa, Jimmy, once a month and he would give me lessons. He got me excited about it,” Jared told me. “I started realizing I had the Spanglers on one side and the Boyds on the other, and there was no way I could avoid playing. It took a while. I told myself, maybe my parents will give up on me.”
“After a few years, I started to going to festivals and competing in banjo contests, and I realized I was starting to get pretty good,” said Jared. “By the time I was in high school, I was loving playing banjo.” In 2013, Jared applied for and received a Virginia Folklife Program award to study under his grandpa, Jimmy Boyd, learning both clawhammer banjo and stories of the moonshine culture.
Jared formed his own bands through high school and began winning most of the banjo contests in the area. In 2010 he played in a band called Old Grass that was made up of former JAMs graduates. His peers and his teachers recognized that Jared had exceptional timing. Some of the professional musicians in the area, like Mac Traynham in Floyd County and fiddler Eddie Bond in Grayson County, took an interest in Jared and began to teach him local tunes.
“Since I learned a lot from Ray Chatfield, I play a more melodic style. I didn’t really play my grandpa’s style, but I felt like I got his sense of rhythm. Like grandpa, I didn’t drop thumb at all, but I started studying the playing of Kyle Creed and his style seemed to have more of what I was wanting. Somewhere along the line, I taught myself to drop my thumb like the Round Peak players do. That upped my style,” said Jared. “Then, at the same time, Eddie Bond of the New Ballard’s Branch Bogtrotters took an interest in my playing. And I got to learn to play with him. After that, people started asking me to fill in with their bands and I gained confidence. Jared was encouraged by his father to play on stage with the Draggers.
In 2017, Jamie Boyd, Jared’s uncle, decided to leave the Draggers. Since they had dates planned, Jared filled in for Jamie on the banjo. After those dates were finished, the band, Chris Prillaman, Jason Hambrick, Stacy Boyd and Jared Boyd, decided to continue playing together. “The defining character of the band had been the banjo. When I took over, the banjo sound of my grandpa and uncle had been consistent, but my style is very different. So, we decided to continue the Boyd family tradition, but to change the name of the band.”
The Twin Creeks String Band honors their history by playing fast, hard driving dance music. It’s named for the confluence of creeks near Rocky Mount and for Chris’s distillery. “It was hard for me to keep up at first,” said Jared, “At first, Chris was used to being pushed by the banjo. All of a sudden, they were having to bring me along with them. But we worked it out.”
In 2020, the Twin Creeks Stringband recorded their first CD, Lee Highway Blues. It was very well received by old time radio shows and is selling well through County Sales and other outlets. The 40-year tradition of the Boyd family’s music and moonshine continues to provide fun and dancing across Southwest Virginia through genetics and rhythm.
These days Jimmy spends his time enjoying his grandkids, telling stories, and making an occasional appearance with Twin Creeks at festivals. Every year he totes a large submarine pot still over to the Virginia Folklife Festival at Ferrum College and demonstrates the dying Southwest Virginia art of moonshining for appreciative crowds. It’s in his heart and in his blood and like old time rhythm, it’s in his genes.
Stacy Boyd, Interview conducted by Malcolm Smith, March 14, 2021, Laurel Fork, VA.
Vickie Sutphin Boyd, Interview conducted by Malcolm Smith, March 14, 2021, Laurel
Jared Boyd, Interview conducted by Malcolm Smith, March 14, 2021, Laurel Fork, VA.
Jimmy Boyd, Interview conducted by Malcolm Smith, March 21, 2021, Franklin County, VA.
Chris Prillaman, Interview conducted by Malcolm Smith, April 8, 2021, Rocky Mount, VA.
Jason Hambrick, Interview conducted by Malcolm Smith, April 8, 2021, Rocky Mount, VA
Dry Hill Draggers, Liner Notes, 11 Recordings, 1982-213
Edward D. Ives, (1990) The Tape Recorded Interview: A Manual for Field Workers in Folklore
and History, Fourth Edition, University of Tennessee Press
Kenneth S. Goldstein, (1964) A Guide for Field Workers in Folklore, Hatboro, PA, The
American Folklore Society
Don Harrison, (2017), August, A Back Woods Q and A with the Last of the Old Time
Moonshiners, Savor Virginia, retrieved April 10, 2021 from:
Charles D. Thompson, (2011), Spirits of Just Men: Mountaineers, Liquor Bosses and
Lawmen in the Moonshine Capital of the World, Bloomington, University of Illinois Press
Twin Creeks Stringband, 2020, Lee Highway Blues, Liner Notes
Earl White is driving the jam. It’s 2am at the far end of his 75 acre lush farm in the heart of the Blue Ridge mountains on a mid-July Saturday night, and he and his wife, Adrienne Davis, have just hosted 300 of their friends and new acquaintances since Wednesday. Not only have they provided free camping space in one of the prettiest valleys in Virginia, they have fed all of these campers two meals a day! Not only have they fed them, they’ve made lamb stew from their own flock, prepared some of their free range chickens as tingling meat for tacos and burritos and served up breakfasts featuring pastries from their own organic bakery.
It’s two in the morning and Earl is in a groove, as he often is. Adrienne, Earl’s musical collaborator is punching his rhythmic fiddling with her own solid guitar backup and Mark Olitsky who has driven from Ohio is getting an African primitive popcorn beat on the banjo. Nearly everyone else is asleep or lying in campers and tents grooving to the music coming down the valley. It is Earl’s time to shine and those of us listening don’t want this moment to ever end.
For the past seven years, in mid to late July, Earl and Adrienne have hosted the Fiddler’s Jam at Big Indian Farm in remote Floyd County, Virginia, and for the past seven years I’ve been honored and I guess lucky enough to be there. Knowing the vastness of their farm, I didn’t hurry to get my camper over there from my cabin, just 15 miles away, so I was totally astonished to find that nearly every inch of the just mowed camping area along Big Indian Creek was full.
Although the Jam has happened for seven years, Earl and Adrienne have just lived full time on the farm for the past five years. In that time they have built and managed a major organic sourdough bakery, begun raising free range chickens, raised five amazing boys, established a sheep farm, begun growing organic produce to use in their bakery products but also to share, and become a major force in the area’s exploding old time music scene. That’s a lot of work for two former California medical professionals who “retired” to the mountains of Virginia. They have created a ray of hope in the region that has nearly become a food desert, especially where wholesome and organic food is concerned.
Oh, and by the way, Earl is one of possibly 10 Black Old Time fiddlers in the world right now. He is also a scholar of Old Time music who is on a mission to teach young people about the importance of Black fiddler’s contributions to American Folk music and thus recruit more young people of color to play America’s indigenous music. His fiddling and his knowledge of folk traditions has recently been featured by The Smithsonian, The Handmade Music School, The Moss Arts Center at Virginia Tech, in Zoom casts and documentaries and in the Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) program that teaches school children to play traditional music of the Appalachians in after school programs.
Earl, who is originally from New Jersey, grew up spending summers on his grandfather’s farm in Eastern North Carolina, near Greenville. It was there that he first saw his grandfather and great uncles cut up after a day of hard work on the farm and start to play hambone or flatfoot dance to invisible music in the dirt. Years later, as a student at Eastern Carolina University, he was majoring in psychology and minoring in drama when a friend and fellow psychology major came back from a fiddle convention dancing a strange dance he had learned. At first, Earl remembers, “He looked like he was affected, but over time, he got it and started to teach us.”
The group started to meet regularly and dance to recordings of bluegrass and old time music. Since they were psychology majors, they often performed for the patients in a nearby mental hospital. When the local paper showed up to one of their performances and described the positive effects that they were having on non communicative patients, the community took notice. So did their neighbors. They got kicked out of their house for dancing too hard so they had to move their practices to an auditorium. Soon they were getting requests to dance all over the area. And thus, the infamous Green Grass Cloggers who have been chronicled in story and documentaries ever since, was born. The founding members who still survive, like Earl, have been dancing together on and off for 50 years.
The Cloggers began to build a national reputation and were favorites as bluegrass festivals, fiddler’s gatherings and even rock festivals. What Earl looked for and couldn’t find at all of these festivals were other Black dancers and musicians. He began to ask “Where are they?” and “What are their names?’ Although some of the old timers at festivals like the Old Fiddler’s Gathering in Galax, VA. remembered there being, in the past, lots of Black players and dancers, Earl couldn’t find any. At one festival, the legendary founder of Bluegrass Music, Bill Monroe, walked over to Earl after watching him dance, and said, “You know, you remind me of a fellow I used to know and learned a lot of music from.”
“What’s his name?” Earl thought. Later he would learn that one of the main influences on Bill Monroe, and thus Bluegrass, was Arnold Schultz, a legendary Black musician. Earl wants us to know the names of the Black fiddlers and dancers who influenced our music, but he also doesn’t want to cancel any culture. “It was a mix,” he told one interviewer, “Just like dance, Appalachian music is a mix of the Scots/Irish, the Blacks, the Native Americans and other traditions who settled into or escaped into these mountains, and what came out is great music”
It wasn’t until the Green Grass Cloggers danced at a festival in Maine, that Earl met and heard a Black fiddle player. “We were on the bill with Alice Cooper, Seals and Crofts, The Jefferson Airplane and Little Feat. I walked into the green room back stage, and there was, to my surprise, a Black Fiddler warming up to go onstage with Jefferson Airplane!” Earl said, “His name was Poppa John Creach, and I thought, that’s it! I can do that.” He’s been fiddling ever since.
In most recent years, Earl’s reputation has largely spread by word of mouth. He an his family have been prominent fixtures at the Appalachian String Band Competition in Clifftop, West Virginia, holding forth near the tennis courts on the large Clifftop camping area and attracting large crowds of listeners. He has been teaching across the country and most recently he and Adrienne have started hosting a series of music camps for serious musicians on their land. Their band, The Earl White String Band has recorded one album and is beginning to play out after a hiatus during Covid.
See a video of the Earl White String Band Click Here
Over the years Earl has had his share of culture clashes from being a Black Old Time fiddler. Like the Black couple in California when they heard him playing fiddle on a street corner and walked a distance away with their heads hung down who told him that music brought back too many bad memories. And then there was this:
A few years ago, living in Pennsylvania, Earl had to travel long distances between seeing patients as a respiratory therapist. Often, when traveling down I-81, he would take out his fiddle, wear the hair off his right knee by steering, and practice fiddle while he was sailing down the highway. One night on a long stretch he was literally driving a tune at nearly 90, when he looked to his left and saw a highway patrol man waving him over, lights flashing. The patrolman jumped out of his car as Earl pulled over and quickly laid his fiddle down. “Son,” the officer growled, “Tell me I didn’t just see you playing the fiddle while driving.” The proof was sitting beside him, so Earl honestly told the man that indeed he was. “Well, I’ve been trying to stop you for miles. Didn’t you hear my siren?”.
Earl had been playing too loudly. “Get out of that car and come over here,” demanded the officer, “I don’t even know what to do, I’ve never dealt with anything like this.” Earl got out and started to walk. “No, bring that fiddle over here,” demanded the officer. Then he turned on his radio and pushed the talk button down. “I want to know if you can really play the fiddle,” he said. Knowing that there would be others listening over the officer’s radio Earl cut loose on Devil in the Strawstack and played it once through, loud and hard. When he was done, he heard applause coming through that radio. “Well, l guess you can damn well play that thing,” the officer said. “Since I don’t know how to write this up, I am going to give you a ticket for defective equipment!”
Earl couldn’t believe his good fortune, no 90 speeding ticket, no distracted driver, just a small offense. Earl thanked the officer profusely who told him if he ever saw him playing the fiddle again on his highway post, he would be going under the jail. Earl politely got back in the car, drove 15 miles down 81 and finished the tune.
This year’s Fiddler’s Jam was much like a Who’s Who of the Old Time scene with prominent players from Seattle to New York City, and up and down the East Coast. Throw in a lot of locals from the Blue Ridge region and you’ve got a great party. Each night, after readying the outdoor serving area and guiding countless volunteers, 300 people would stop playing and run towards Earl as he rang the dinner bell. Then he and Adrienne would great and hug each old and new friend, wearing themselves thin with kindness and servitude. Diners would be greeted by a few roosters and a host of hens, young and old, gadding underfoot, lots of dogs and kids everywhere. Like a great reunion friends ate quickly to run to campsites to jam under dim light, playing and telling stories early into the morning.
Earl spent his spare time online doing interviews with Virginia Tech and a film crew making a documentary on the history of Black fiddling in American followed him around. Adrienne joined jams and then solved problems for the young people swimming in the creek, and then checked on the goodies in the bakery and then answered phone calls and ran around making sure all were having a good time. And everyone was. I have some good neighbors here in the Blue Ridge Mountains!
~Listen to a great interview with Earl during the Fiddler’s Jam: click here
~Listen to Sepia Tones: Exploring Black Appalachian Music Featuring Earl: click here
~Follow the Earl White String Band on Facebook: click here
~See a prelim trailer for the Black Fiddler’s documentary: click here
~To learn about Earl and Adrienne’s Big Indian Bakery and find out about events and camps: click here
The Wednesday morning sun glared off my mirrored sunglasses as the highway twisted and turned up and down in the Meadows of Dan. The wind blew the sleep out of my eyes and ruffled the dog in the back seat’s red coat.
In front of me an oil battered “farm use only” Chevy pickup with no exhaust popped and screamed up the road. Suddenly the driver swerved to the left lane in a chug of accelerated exhaust and I sat staring wildly into the face of a 400 pound brown bear who showed no fear nor terror in his stoic gaze. We locked eyes.
I was helpless. The crunch of plastic, metal, glass and fur surrounded me. I heard the silent groan of deeply rooted pain. My front tire on the driver’s side rose and dropped over the carcass. In my rear view mirror, I saw the blood and body parts rolling towards the shoulder.
I stopped my badly beaten truck and cried. For the victim, for the wildness I had tamed, for they chain of natural events my driving would surely produce. However, I cried mostly for all of us: those that made the trucks and those that drive them. Then I started the broken machine and drove to the farm to pick blueberries while telling the bear tale to any who would listen, leaving out essential elements of the story to protect the guilty and the innocent.
Sometimes our lives become loosely entwined with remarkable people, human beings who possess incredible talents, minds, ideas and actions. Often we fail to recognize how important they are to our lives. They bring a joy of artistry and spontaneity that our lives sorely need to be rich and fulfilling. And then, without warning, they are gone.
The first time I met Mike Ramsey, I had driven an hour into Kansas City to peruse the local banjo supply at Old Town Music, a long gone acoustic music store run by a great banjo player and his mother. For me, this was like a trip to the library where you could touch and feel all the old books that the world had to offer. Here was a jungle of open backed banjos from some of the world’s greatest masters. As I was demonstrating my limited tune knowledge on a variety of exquisitely designed instruments, I noticed a guy in a pair of overhauls and a flannel shirt with wildly curly hair watching me. He made me nervous, so I bleated out a weak, “Howdy,” to see if I could unnerve him.
To my dismay, he headed straight towards me. I knew he didn’t work in the store, so I was wondering what in the hell this guy wanted. “Say,” he said, “I noticed you were looking at a lot of banjos. Which ones here do you favor?” he asked.
I hesitated. What business was it of his? “Well if I had to say,” I cautiously replied, “I’m kind of partial to this Mike Ramsey ‘Woody’ model.”
“Right answer!” declared the stranger gleefully as he stuck his hand at me for me to shake, “I’m Mike Ramsey.” Damned. I was speechless. Standing right there with my banjo building hero and not a penny to my sorry ass. I wanted to buy that Woody 12″ cherry banjo right there, from the maker and live happily ever after. Well, in a way I did….
A couple years later, in 2007, having never saved enough to own a Mike Ramsey Woody banjo, I got up the nerve to attend one of his infamous banjo building workshops near Appomatox at the 4H Camp. It was Spring and quite cold as I can remember but the 8 or so of us locked away in the temporary woodshop Mike set up at the camp didn’t notice. These many years later, I refer to it in my memory as a weekend of guys, whiskey, power tools and eventually banjos. Mike was not only a master banjo builder, having built over 2000 banjos in his first 10 years in the business, but was an inspirational and remarkable teacher. In three days he helped each of us build, inlay, finish and play a quality banjo, largely from scratch and hardware. When each of us knew we had just ruined our project and took it to Mike with tears, he just laughed and said “The thing about wood is, it forgives you!” Taking our partially built instrument to the belt sander, fixing our wounded wood and sending us on our merry way.
After getting to know Mike at the banjo building fling, I decided I’d write an article about him for The Old Time Herald, a magazine that follows traditional musicians as well as luthiers like Mike. What I learned about him was pretty amazing. Born in 1949, Mike first heard old time music when he was in college, a business major at the University of Tennessee. Originally from Roanoke, Mike had heard the music of the mountains most of his life, but never really listened until a moment in college when he walked into a jam with his guitar that he happened to pass at an old church in Knoxville. Inside were two fiddlers and two banjo players who showed him the chords to “Liberty” and off he went. “I was mesmerized,” Mike told me. Soon he was traveling to Old Time Music Festivals across the South soaking up some of the great players of the time. “It changed who I was, forever,” said Mike.
After college, Mike went to work in the corporate world as a manager for Proctor and Gamble. He soon realized he wasn’t cut out for supervising hundreds of people and towing the corporate line. “They just couldn’t stuff me into that jar,” Mike told me. In 1983, Mike started a small hardwood lumber business in Ohio, learning about wood just as he was learning about old time music. He took banjo lessons and in 1986, won his first banjo contest. That same year, with the help and encouragement of friends, he built his first banjo. When he held it in his hands, his life changed once again. Having ordered a banjo from Kyle Creed the legendary builder from Galax, Mike was so disappointed when he found out Creed had died before finishing his banjo that he set out on his own quest: to build the perfect banjo. The one that Kyle would have built.
Soon, banjo making consumed much of his spare time and began to eat into his business time. In 1992 he met banjo builder Bart Reiter who became a tremendous supporter of Mike’s advising him about his work and helping him set up a production shop. In 1995, in Appomattox, his banjo shop was complete and his business Chanterelle Banjos was born. Mike started off by putting a beautiful rendition of the planet Saturn in the h eadstocks of his banjos and built them to sound deep and throaty like Kyle Creed. Before long, he was building banjos at a record pace and his banjos were featured in high end music shops from New York to Portland, Oregon.
Mike was an innovator in many ways. One was the speed at which he could produce a quality, hand crafted banjo. At one point he was able to produce a banjo a day, unheard of by most small builders. Another of his great innovations was the banjo head or skin itself. Mike, like many builders, was always searching for that authentic sound, that mysterious Kyle Creed plunk. He like other builders experimented with a variety of drum heads and skins to get the right sound. In the early 2000’s he was approached by a company that made timpani drum heads who was experimenting with a new synthetic head they called Fiberskyn, because of its resemblance in sound to skin heads without the hassle of using real skins which took great care and skill to fit and maintain. Mike loved the idea and was one of the first banjo builders to use the fiber heads, which have now become standard among open back banjo builders.
Mike was also known as a character. He liked whiskey, Volkswagens, cooking and collecting guns among other things. He was kind and generous, fun loving and an endearing friend. He was also wild as hell.
About a year after my story about Mike appeared in The Old Time Herald, I was at my home in Lawrence, KS when the phone rang early on a Saturday morning. It was Mike. “What are you doing right now?” he asked.
“Thinking about breakfast,” I answered honestly.
“I need you to come get me at the airport,” he said totally out of the blue. “I’m at the Kansas City Airport. We have a mission. I tried to explain to my wife why I had to spend the day driving to Kansas City to go on a mission with a banjo builder I barely knew, but she finally just shrugged and waved me away. I picked Mike up in my pickup and he handed me a banjo case to put in the back of the truck. Other than the banjo, his only luggage was a backpack.
“What’s up?” I nearly begged, wondering what I had gotten myself into. Mike jumped into the truck, throwing his backpack in the back and pulled out a wad of papers from his front pocket. “Your mission is to find this place,” he handed me a piece of paper that had some Northern Missouri address in a rural town I’d never heard of.
OK, I said trying to decipher his MapQuest printed directions. “I bought me a VW Bug on Ebay, he told me,” and you’re going to help me find it. After a couple of hours driving we pulled into a strange farm with a small house but two huge barns. A tall slender fellow with a cowboy hat met us in the drive. He brought us into the house and filled two huge bowls with some of the best and hottest chili I had ever tasted. Turns out he was an international Chili competition winner and was preparing for the Tulsa, OK chili cook off. Go figure.
We headed out to the first barn and the fellow raised the door to reveal several VW’s in varying states of disrepair. Except one. We had discovered a Missouri anomaly – a VW ranch. Mike got in the small black bug, shoved some cash at the guy through the window and yelled, “Follow me!” as he left in a haze of dust. I followed him out of the drive and onto a road, knowing full well that Mike had no idea where he was or where he was going. It was clear, however, that he was looking for something. And then he found it. In the middle of nowhere Northern Missouri, Mike had somehow led us to a biker bar.
He came over to the truck and took out his backpack which seemed to only contain a fiddle case. He handed me the banjo in the case and smiled, saying “Let’s go have some fun. Bikers love old time music!” I wasn’t so sure.
Once inside the bar, Mike was holding court. Teasing the young waitress, telling jokes to bikers and consuming copious amounts of alcohol. Soon, he handed me the banjo case and said “Here.” I opened the case to find a brand new Mike Ramsey 12″ Woody with a beautiful inlay in the scoop that was a “peace banjo” identical to the one I have tattooed on my right knee. I tuned the banjo up and we proceeded to play the day away in that bar. Finally, at about 6pm, Mike leaned over to me and in a fog whispered “Time to go.” I figured he’d finally had enough. As we got out to the parking lot, he asked “How’d you like your new banjo?” I couldn’t believe it, he had remembered that day in the store. I finally owned a real Woody. I pleaded with Mike to to home with me and rest up before he drove back to North Carolina where he was living. “Gotta go!” he proclaimed, and drove out of my life, only to be seen as a glimpse at a festival or concert here or there.
Mike Ramsey was a wild genius. He was an innovator, a master craftsman and a lover of humans. He had his flaws, as we all do. He made some mad, but many more happy. He made the world he lived in a better place because of the joy he got from hearing people play his banjos. He is survived by two beautiful and incredible daughters Sarah Rovnak and Racheal Kerns and by his sister Gayle Brown and his brother, Kevin Ramsey. He is also survived by a world wide community of old time musicians who often tell stories about him around campfires high in the mountains late at night, or play dance music on plunky banjos early in the morning. His thousands of banjos live on!
In the very early morning of August 11, 1933, Albert Hash and his three brothers got their morning chores done early. The excitement they felt must have been contagious as they ran up and down the mountains and hollows of the highlands of Virginia, travelling by foot from their remote three-room home in Fees Branch to the very top of the second highest mountain in Virginia. Albert was just 16 and had already built his fourth fiddle. He had carefully placed it inside a gunny sack that morning to prevent his neighbors from judging his fiddling ways. After that day, the Third Annual White Top Interstate Folk Festival, he would never hide his fiddling or his fiddle playing again (Smith, 8-10).
As the three young men approached the mountain top, after nearly four hours of hiking, they very likely gasped in unison at what they saw. Spread out across the rounded peak and sides of the mountain were nearly 22,000 people; more than the population of the entire county, more people, cars, horse carts, tents, and musicians than they had ever seen in their lives. These folks, including the First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, had made the perilous back road journey up the mountain for one unified purpose: to hear the music and see the local dances of the Appalachian Mountains as pure as possible, in their “native” environment, and to listen, dance, and shout themselves with the intensity of feelings the music elicited from them.
For nine years, 1931-1939, the White Top Mountain Festival became a national celebration of the music and culture of the Southern highlands, launching the early careers of many young traditional musicians like Albert Hash, and solidifying the careers of many other more well-known musicians attending and competing. Some would become legends of old-time music like Fields and Wade Ward of the Galax, Virginia, band The Bogtrotters; Frank and Ed Blevins of The Tar Heel Rattler’s fame; Hobart Smith and his sister, Texas Gladden, and Emmet Lundy. Others would find new joy in trading regional tunes and playing together long into the night.
It would not be hard to assume that in a region that is considered the birthplace of all country music, that is considered the font of old-time fiddle music and mountain ballads, that such a famous series of gatherings would be continually celebrated and chronicled in the academic literature of folk music in America. Alas, it is not. White Top’s fame, notoriety, and any celebratory or positive research of its impact on the music of the southern mountains have been quashed long ago. Its status as the “whipping post” of the cultural elite became solidified with the publication, in 1983, of one book: David Whisnant’s All That Is Native and Fine (Chap. 3).
Whisnant, an English professor who had grown up near Ashville, North Carolina, and then left the mountains for many years only to return with a big-city education and an attitude about what was best, native, and fine, quickly climbed to the top of the mountain in the new burgeoning field of Appalachian Studies. His academic pontification purported that the White Top Mountain Festival was one of three cases (the only three he has ever given us) of what he termed “systemic cultural intervention.”
Whisnant defined these interventions as occurring when “someone (or some institution) consciously and programmatically takes action within a culture with an intent of affecting it in some specific way that the intervenor thinks desirable.” He goes on to specify that these interventions, whether “active” or “passive,” can have unintended or intended positive or negative effects upon the receiving culture (pg. 13-14). He also believed, based on three case studies, that the results were almost certainly damning to any culture.
The three cases that Whisnant chose to illustrate are interestingly and notably led by women. They include, aside from his biting rebuke of the White Top Mountain festivals of the 1930s, the efficacy as cultural interventions of the Hindman Settlement School in Kentucky founded in 1904, and the development of the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina, in 1926. It should be noted that the women who were spearheading each of these three movements deeply believed in one unifying purpose: that mountain culture was well worth saving, sharing, and celebrating (Mathews and Kirby).
In the case of the White Top Festivals, Whisnant blamed the naivete of folk song collector and festival founder Annabel Morris Buchanan on allowing the intervention to become what Whisnant calls “manipulation of reality” (p. 247). Along with composer, scholar, tune collector, and pianist extraordinaire, John Powell, an admitted fan of Anglo-Saxon music over other forms, and lawyer and entrepreneur John Blakemore (who happened to own the top of White Top Mountain), Buchanan became intrigued with the idea of creating a large venue to showcase the music she deeply loved, the music of the mountains.
White Top was certainly not the first folk festival to showcase the music of the Appalachians. Entrepreneur and salesman Bascom Lamar Lunsford had already successfully developed and was evolving the annual Mountain Dance and Music Festival in Asheville, and Jean Thomas was successfully hosting the American Folk Song Festival to promote Kentucky mountain music. They were soon followed by the establishment of The National Folk Festival, organized by Sarah Gertrude Knott. Even Whisnant found that these four monumental festivals shared a noble premise, to “bring the performers out of their isolated surroundings and place them before an appreciative audience.” He went on to surmise, “That approval would heighten the performers’ sense of self-worth and pride in their imperiled culture” (Native and Fine, p. 185).
Although similar in nature and structure, Whisnant never attacked the other three major Folk Festivals of the ‘20s and ‘30s. In fact, in a 1979 piece published in the Appalachian Journal, he spent nearly 20 pages heaping praise upon Lunsford’s Mountain Music and Dance Festival upon which the White Top Festival had been partially based (Mountain Music and Dance). What did Whisnant see that separated White Top from these other major “systemic cultural interventions? Why has one fallen into the cracks of historical significance while the other three continue to be lauded in academic and popular history? Why did Whisnant brilliantly decimate the reputation of White Top?
Whisnant castigates the White Top organizers for being too focused on the virtues of Anglo mountain music and its purity and superiority as representing a fragile culture (Native and Fine). On the other hand, he depicts Lunsford’s noble cause as “to seek at last a position of parity for the fiddler by the opera door, and to thereby inject a note of cultural realism and authenticity into the imported booster fantasy” (Music and Dance, 138). One elevates the fiddler above opera, the other, White Top, hopes to elevate the fiddler to be considered playing a valid and vibrant music that could add much to the compositions of classical and operatic programs. Were not both noble grounds upon which to build festival premises?
Whisnant’s criticisms have not been without detractors. However, for the most part and for unknown reasons, his 1983 book has rarely been challenged by academics and most of the criticism has come from non-academics. In a rare rebuke, researcher Helen Lewis and musician and musicologist Rich Kirby saw the book as “marred by its contentiousness and tendency to overdramatize (p. 654). Few others have been so bold.
One of Whisnant’s primary complaints about White Top was the not-so-hidden proclivities of its founders, John Powell, towards racism. This is certainly a valid criticism, especially coupled with the fact that during its nine years, the White Top festival directors did not allow Black musicians to play from the stage or compete in the contests. However, remember that this festival, like Lunsford’s, took place in the deep South in 1930’s America and had grown out of the smaller fiddler contest movement that had been happening in the South since the 1700s.
To this day, with hundreds of old-time and bluegrass music festivals and contests being held across the nation, it is rare to see black participants and performers at these festivals. In 2019, for example, The National Appalachian String Band Festival, held for the past 30 years in Clifftop, West Virginia, with nearly 3,000 participants from across the world, had its first Black winner in any of the numerous categories of competitions offered during the week-long festival. It is both by musical heritage, constituency, and subtle bigotry that this trend has continued.
However, Whisnant’s complaint could be leveled against the board of nearly every major fiddle contest in the country, from the Galax Festival to MerleFest, to both be predominantly white and to promote primarily Anglo music over other more integrated musical genres. There are and always have been representations of many cultures in what we know as “traditional” American folk music of the South, but for whatever reasons, they have remained, until more recently, primarily segregated by venue and festival type. This is, was, and will be an ongoing challenge to folk music organizers, but certainly wasn’t unique to the White Top founders.
It is also a fact that currently, according to music journalist Jemayel Khawaja writing in The Guardian in 2017, that all American music festivals remain largely controlled by and attended by primarily white participants. One of the iconic current music festivals, Burning Man, has an 87% white attendance. Coachella, another iconic nationally attended music festival, has under 5% black attendees. Khawaja finds that nearly all American music festivals have been less than friendly to black participants over their long history. The problem, according to Khawaja, is that festival organizers, promoters, and sponsors are Caucasian.
It should also be noted that Lunsford biographer, Loyal Jones, could find no instance of Blacks ever performing at one of the Mountain Music and Dance Festivals. While Lunsford certainly had no political agenda such as John Powell in excluding Black performers, it is obvious that he did not see them as the right “fit” for his festival. Thus, it should be noted that White Top did not and does not stand out as a particularly racist construct among the distant and recent history of American festivals.
While Whisnant not only chides the organizers of White Top for excluding Blacks, he also blames one of the organizers, John Blakemore, for having more entrepreneurial interests than merely promoting the music of the mountains. That criticism is a bit suspect following the praise that Whisnant had previously given Mr. Lunsford, who was, like Blakemore, both a lawyer and an entrepreneur who had previously made his living as an “authentic” mountain musician even though he had also been educated at two colleges and an academy, been to law school, taught English and history at Rutherford College, edited newspapers, and worked as a federal agent (Mountain Music and Dance, 140).
In many ways, it seems, Lunsford’s forays into promoting mountain music were for monetary concerns as well as ideological undertakings. Reportedly, he was often viewed as “shiftless” by local musicians. Even by Whisnant’s measure, he was a ruthless self-promoter who loved to see his picture on handbills, and often referred to himself as “the minstrel of the Appalachians.” In contrast, none of the White Top organizers tried to further their own reputations through the festivals, but stuck to their ideological, financial, and more humble interests in promoting mountain music. While Blakemore owned the festival grounds, he generously spent hundreds of dollars on improving the festival site to accommodate the large numbers of performers, attendees, and dignitaries who made the trek to the mountaintop over the years.
Another problem with Whisnant’s critique of White Top compared to his adulation for the Mountain Music and Dance Festival was his distaste of Buchanan and Powell’s requirement that White Top performers adhere to the rule that “Only old time music [will be] considered in contests: no modern songs, tunes or dances” (Native and Fine, 229). On the other hand, Lunsford dictated to his performers that they not wear cowboy or hillbilly garb and often guided their choice of music to play on stage. Again, the organizers of fiddle festivals from the 1740s to the present day have been very clear in dictating what type of music can and can’t be played, but few, if any, have actually told the performers how to dress.
One of the current longest running fiddler conventions in the U.S., The Old Fiddler’s Convention at Galax, VA., has more than 27 rules performers must adhere to, including type of song, length, format, composition of musical personnel, style of playing, and much more (Galax Rules). Contests and festivals have always tried to limit their performers to certain genres , similar to both Lunsford’s festival and the White Top Festivals. Whisnant’s contention that Buchanan and Powell’s demands that performers not play “modern” tunes and limit themselves to “archaic fiddle and banjo tunes with Child ballads” does not seem particularly limiting if you consider that the purpose of the event, like Lunsford’s and others’, was to promote music that was indigenous, not modern or “hillbilly” music that was quickly overshadowing through radio and mass distribution of recordings the folk music of the Appalachians.
While Whisnant took great afront at the fact that many performers went back to their homes and sought to find more “authentic” tunes and songs to perform at the festival, this appeared to be one of the legs of any folk process, to seek out tunes from older times, to learn them as close to the source, either written or by hearing them in person, and then presenting them to a wider audience. What Whisnant found appalling seems to be the process of every folk musician in America, although now “authentic” renditions are often learned off the internet from such sources as Slippery-hill.com. In many ways the White Top organizers may have helped save many mountain tunes from extinction by their insistence on non-modernized tunes and their ban on “hillbilly” hits.
The areas of extreme praise that Whisnant heaps on what he seems to believe is a positive systemic cultural intervention, The Mountain Music and Dance Festivals, are the positive impacts upon the performers, upon the traditional culture of the region, upon other festivals, and upon the popular image of mountain culture itself. If these are the standards upon which one judges the relative success of a “systemic cultural intervention,” then one must examine the neglected constituents in the entirety of All that is Native and Fine; we must consider the impact upon the participants themselves. As Mathews and Kirby put it, Whisnant’s critique has a “curious lack of testimony from the ‘other side,’ from the people whose culture was being interfered with” (p. 653).
In the case of the White Top festival, Whisnant did manage to interview one participant, Albert Hash, even though many of the hundreds of performers who had participated and many local people who attended were still living when Whisnant went to White Top to do his research.
Hash, a young fiddler of 14 who had already built several fiddles when he attended the first White Top Festival in 1931, saw the festival as a major turning point in his musical life. As recounted earlier, he had carried his fiddle in a gunny sack to the festival to hide it from the scornful eyes of neighbors who did not all approve of fiddle music because of longstanding religious beliefs in the primitive mountain churches. When young Hash was invited to help play for dancers at the festival, then was invited to play with one of his idols, Fries, VA., musician and balladeer Henry Whitter, and saw the accolades his fiddling drew, he never hid his fiddle again (Smith, Chap. 1).
Hash related to Whisnant, nearly 50 years following the festival, that a Colonel Kettlewell from England took a picture of his home-made fiddle. He realized for the first time in his life that his pursuit of music was taken much more seriously than he had considered and that for the first time, he felt “justified in what he was doing” (Native and Fine, 232). That is no small statement from a young man who would go on to build over 300 fiddles in his lifetime, play at the Smithsonian, Wolf Trap, The World’s Fair, and venues nationwide, teach fiddling and fiddle building at folk schools across the South, launch hundreds of luthiers, including Virginia guitar-building icon Wayne Henderson, and establish the first school-based program for young people in the U.S. dedicated to teaching young people the traditional music of Appalachia, now known as Junior Appalachian Musicians. When Hash died in 1982, the Virginia Legislature noted his life with a proclamation and a moment of silence. Hash often credited it all to that long trek up White Top Mountain (Smith).
Hash’s life alone stands as lasting tribute to the cultural value of the White Top festivals but Hash was not the only regional participant who was deeply affected by the festivals. Among those who benefited were many names that have become legendary among folk enthusiasts:
Frank and Edd Blevins: These two brothers had already recorded as members of the Tar Heel Rattlers and had ended their careers to work at a furniture factory in Marion, VA. Specifically, for White Top, and at the urging of Mrs. Buchanan, they formed a new band with banjoist Jack Reedy and became the Southern Buccaneers, reviving their careers and winning many prizes at the festival. During this time, they became the foremost country string band in Southwest Virginia, with a diverse local repertoire and frequent broadcasts over radio stations across the area. They often attributed the tutelage of White Top founder Annabel Morris Buchanan for their continued success. In 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt herself pinned two blue ribbons on Frank, whose recordings would later be considered among the finest examples of early southern music ever recorded. Their influence on the music of the area continued until 1944 when Ed tragically died, and Frank hung up his fiddle.
Wade, Crockett and Fields Ward, Eck Dunford, and Doc Davis: The Bogtrotters: Legendary banjoist Wade Ward, from Independence, VA., his brother, Fields Ward, and his brother’s son, Fields Ward, had formed a group that premiered at the White Top festivals. Known as the Bogtrotters, they were to become one of the most enduring string bands in American history. Although the original group lasted until the 1950s, a newer version of the band continues to play many of their original tunes in Southwest Virginia today. Wade’s banjo playing earned the attention of Folklorists John and Alan Lomax, who recorded several sides with him and the Bogtrotters following one of their trips to White Top. Their unique style of string band music captured the attention of a worldwide audience and served as a foundation for the formation of the Galax Fiddler’s convention where they became known as the house band. In the 1950s, folklorist and performer Mike Seeger rediscovered Ward’s recordings and helped issue several sets of recordings that have carried his reputation as one of the greatest of all old-time banjoists into the current era. (Carlin)
Arthur Wooten: Wooten had grown up and always lived in rural Alleghany County, NC, and came to White Top festivals as a young fiddler at the beginning of his career. He often performed with a contraption he built that allowed him to play the guitar and organ at the same time. His fiddling was noted by many during his performances at White Top and that directly led him to be hired by Bluegrass Master Bill Monroe and in 1939 to become the first fiddler in Monroe’s band. Following that he became a beloved member of the Stanley Brother’s Clinch Mountain Band and helped them define their classic Bluegrass sound. (Blueridgeheritage.com)
Harold Hensley: Hensley was a shy teenager when he took the stage at the 1938 White Top festival. Born on the mountain, this was his first real public exposure. In the 1940s he headed to California armed with a fiddle built for him by neighbor and fellow fiddler Albert Hash. Hensley would go on to have a nearly 40-year career as a fiddler, actor, and showman. In 1943, he was the featured act on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry. He also was a regular on WHO’s Iowa Barn Dance Frolic, and the Hometown Jamboree. He appeared infrequently on the popular TV show the Walton’s as a fiddler, and was inducted into the Western Swing Society Hall of Fame. He also penned many songs, including “You’ll find Her Name Written There” that was recorded by Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys.
Roy “Speedy” Tolliver: Roy Tolliver, like his lifelong friend, Harold Hensley, who he met in a jam session at a White Top festival, became inspired at the White Top festivals to pursue a life in music. He had walked to the festivals from his house, banjo in hand. JWhen he was well received in the banjo contest, his life took a turn and he decided to be a professional musician. In 1939 he moved to Fairfax, VA., to play in a band with John Stringer, a powerful young fiddler he had first met at a White Top festival. For five years they played in the Washington, DC, area as the Melody Trail Boys, sharing old time mountain music with an urban crowd. In the ‘40s the two formed a new band known as the Lee Highway Boys that quickly became a favorite of the transplanted Appalachians who had moved to the city to find work. Later he played with legendary bands such as The Stoneman’s and in Roy Clark’s (of Hee Haw television fame) band. During his career he performed at the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian, toured Europe with a show organized by folklorist Joe Wilson, and played for President Jimmy Carter at the Whitehouse. He received the Virginia Heritage Award and a Speedy Tolliver Fiddle and Banjo Contest is held each year in Arlington, VA. (Spencer).
In fact, most, like William “Uncle Bud” Spencer, saw the “systemic cultural intervention” as one of the highlights of their lives. Spencer, who lived right below the mountain, won the traditional dancing competition in 1933. When the First Lady of the United States herself pinned the two blue ribbons he won on his chest in front of a roaring crowd, he vowed to always remember that moment. Spencer, who became the grandfather to world renowned fiddler Thornton Spencer of the famed traditional string band The White Top Mountain Band, stayed true to his word. When he died, he requested that those two ribbons, still carefully pinned to the vest he danced in at the festival, be placed on his corpse.
These are just a few of the stories of the powerful cultural influence that the White Top Mountain Interstate Folk Festivals had on its participants, stories that Whisnant either denied or failed to investigate. Nearly all of the folks mentioned were still living in the White Top area when Whisnant interviewed Albert Hash. However, they were not alone. It is highly suggested that links to the cultural influence of White Top be investigated for Hobart Smith and his sister Texas Gladden, Horton Baker, Emmet Lundy, John Cruise and family, O.C. Roark, C.B. Wholford, Francis Atkins, Jake Rosenbaum and members of The Peakes Band, The Moonlight Ramblers, The White Top Jiggers, The Old Virginia Band, and countless others.
In summation, the validity and worth of a systemic cultural intervention cannot be judged solely on the proclivities of the founders of an event. It must be measured against the worth it had in the culture itself, by the people who live in that culture. To simply surmise that because the founders of an intervention are elites or have archaic views does not mean their contribution is worthless. If that were the case, then Whisnant’s beloved Mountain and Music and Dance Festivals would surely be admonished for being run by a huckster and elitist who pawned himself off as “the balladeer of the Appalachians.” In order to determine the value of any cultural intervention, one must examine the lives and voices of the people of the culture and in the culture.
In August of 2019, a group of 50 local musicians gathered on top of White Top Mountain to celebrate the history of the White Top Festivals. They spent a day eating barbeque and playing the archaic tunes that were loved by the founders of the festival. Even though the remnants of lodges and tents that once proudly adorned the mountain are gone, the participants found joy, strength, and confidence in the music of their ancestors. Among the musicians were direct descendants of White Top’s influence, including guitarist and guitar builder Wayne Henderson. It is hoped to be an annual event for many years to come. Like the Festival itself, it had a humble resurgence. Let us hope this revival will not be judged as harshly as its predecessor.
When I heard the tune named Twin Sisters (listen above)by Sidna and Fulton Myers,I knew I had to learn it. It had everything. A title that made you wonder, a modal sounding-deep in the mountains-feel, and my favorite setting, just fiddle and banjo. Old style. The way of the Holler.
Not only did I want to play it, I wanted to know everything about it. Where did it come from? Who were these musicians What did it mean? In other words, as I often do, I became obsessed.
It turns out that my search would lead me first to Ithaca, New York, to Long Island, and Manhattan then down to Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, and ultimately, to 11 miles from here in the holler to Five Forks, Carroll County, and to graveyards across SW Virginia. This journey had some strange and fun hairpin turns, major potholes and dead end roads along the way.
Sidna and Fulton Myers lived in a very rural area, just a few miles north of Hillsville, VA. in a village known as Five Forks. Although not remarkably rugged the pastures of the area sit comfortably at about one half mile above sea level. According to locals, the Myers brothers were born and lived, as far as is known, in Five Forks all of their lives. Sidna Monteville Myers was born on September 25, 1890 and died December 18, of 1972. His younger brother James Fulton Myers, came along four years later, on April 22 of 1894 and died on January 3 of 1979. That much we do know for pretty much sure. Facts beyond that are more than a bit fuzzy.
Sidna and Fulton resided in a Virginia world, that was much different than mine. Neither of the brothers ever had electricity or running water on their farms. Crop and livestock work was hard, involving battling rocky soil and a host of predators, and, at times we know at least Fulton went to work on and off in the furniture mills of Galax. The neighbors lovingly remember the brothers, from the time they were young men, playing tunes together on into the night on one or the other’s back porches.
Over time they learned a local SW Virginia repertoire that included tunes in the style of both Galax and nearby Round Peak, and we know that they traded tunes with the likes of Tommy Jarrell as well as the Ward and Crockett families. That was later. When you really listen, though, what comes through is the Myers brothers, playing their hearts out in a smooth, mystifying old time style that was shaped by the Blue Ridge life they lived. If you listen, you can hear the meanness of their work, the beauty of their surroundings, the tragedies of their lives and the echoes of those who had gone before them.
“Now they were old fashioned,” fiddler Wayne Lowe once told folklorist Kevin Donleavy, with his wife, Edna chiming in, “They stayed the old time way.”
Wayne also recalled that Sidna often wore the old time button up shoes from early in the past century but as to the music the brothers played, he was exuberant.
“They played the smoothest music I believe I ever heard,” he recalled. “That music was like floating on water!” Thus begins the mystery of the Myers brothers.
Sometime in the summer of 1962, a 22 year old geology student at the University of Pittsburg, Peter Hoover, loaded a banjo and some sophisticated, borrowed recording equipment into the back of his parents car and headed for the South.
It was Peter’s second trip to the area around Carroll and Grayson counties in Virginia in search of real, authentic banjo music. On his first trip he had met such local luminary musicians as Wade Ward and Glen Smith (Smith is another mysterious figure in local circles, a great banjo player who won many contests and appears in several collections of music including Peter Hoover’s, he was from the same area, as was another musician by the same name who later moved to West Virginia and claimed fame there, very confusing, but its history!)
Anyway, Smith had told Peter that he had to hear and record the Myers brothers and told him how to find them. When Peter got there, he realized that the first problem was that he had absolutely no where near to plug in his humongous tape recorder. Patiently, he pleaded with Sidna and Fulton to help him find some place to plug in so that he could record them. When they played their smooth, powerful tunes there on the porch he nearly demanded them to help him.
So, Peter, the Myers brothers, and a few tag alongs headed up to Spraker’s General Store, a modest little country store that had the only electricity in the area. There, on a summer day, Peter Hoover brought the spotlight of the infant folk music revival onto the music of two brothers who didn’t even own a record player between them. During the recordings, sometimes you can hear a small grandchild bump the recorder and slow it down. It was both reel to reel and real!
The Myers preferred to play in the oldest style of Virginia music. Banjo and fiddle. No guitar, no bass, nothing between the melodic whine of the fiddle and the ringing drum of the banjo. All of their music was learned by ear, by listening to others, or through the painful process of memory, hearing a tune and then trying later to scratch it out. This was the way it was in the mountains when the African Americans first brought the instrument to the South and the minstrel shows popularized it. This was how the settlers in the Blue Ridge, finding they could fashion a banjo out of wood and hide first played it. In perfect synchrony with the mesmerizing tunes of the fiddle, brought from many places around the globe and sifted through the rugged hills and hollers of the mountains. Listen to how the Myers set Shady Grove. It is Five Forks Shady Grove, for sure.
Fulton, who somehow garnered the nickname “Jimmy Natural,” played in a style of fiddle that as Charlie Faurot later said, “was pure rural music.” This was dance music, the dance music of 100 years ago, when the Myers were young men, and they played it well. The boys had been playing since they were 8 or 9 years old, learning first from their father and according to Kerry Blech, who wrote a review of the CD made from Peter Hoover’s tapes, from “Old Man” Mac Farmer who gave Fulton his first fiddle. It was during these early years that they first traveled a few miles to North Carolina to learn tunes from Tommy Jarrell and his Civil War era fiddler father, Ben Jarrell.
The recordings that Peter Hoover are luscious, rich reminders of Appalachia’s past played by people with a strong sense of passion about their place, their Blue Ridge Mountain homes. So impressive were they when the New York Folk elite heard them, they immediately had to travel South. Three years later, Sidna’s banjo plasying came to the attention of banjoist, film maker, folklorist and “Beat Generation” survivor, John Cohen. Cohen, who lived on Long Island, had decided, after hearing snippets of various recordings and having founded with Mike Seeger (Pete’s half brother) The New Lost City Ramblers, a folk-revival group playing old time music in New York City, he needed to go South.
So Cohen threw his smaller recorder, various instruments, a few clothes, into his Volkswagen Beetle and somehow convinced his wife, Penney to climb in with their five month old daughter, Sonya, and headed down to the Blue Ridge. John’s first stop was the home of Sidna Myers. There he recorded Sidna’s banjo artistry on two songs. The first was a solo banjo version of Twin Sisters (the haunting tune at the top of this page) and the second was “Alabama Girls” a tune that Sidna claims to have made up and chided Cohen to learn. These are both stunning examples of clawhammer artistry and Cohen, who was a banjo player was very impressed.
These recordings that Cohen made, would sit in his New York home for nearly 10 years. Besides Sidna, he went to the houses of Wade Ward in Galax, E.C. and Orna Ball in the Mouth of Wilson, and headed on over to North Carolina to record Frank Proffit, Doc Watson’s father-in-law, Gaither Carlton and a host of musicians and ballad singers. Then in 1974, Rounder Records, deep into 10 years of folk revival recordings, ask John to produce the collection. And produce he did, complete with stunning photos. The album did well over the years and was critically acclaimed and, in 1995, Rounder re-issued the collection on CD and added 30 more minutes of original recordings. Big stuff for a musicologist.
In 1968, another knock came on the Myers brother’s doors. This time it was a Yale educated Manhattanite named Charlie Faurot rented a house in Galax. Another banjo player, Faurot sought out the Myers brothers with another, even smaller recorder and recorded 10 unique and powerful tunes from the brothers. Two of these tunes made it to later releases by. Faurot and County Records owner Dave Freeman, both the famed Clawhammer Banjo Volumes in 2004, and the Legends of Old Time Music Box Set in 2015.. I think its important to note that at this point, the brothers had not (nor ever did) garner one cent for all this recording work. They both seemed to love that these young folks with fancy electric machines wanted to record them and neither encouraged or discouraged them. In true rural fashion, they just played the tunes they had to play.
In the coming years, many others would trek to Five Forks and record them. The last known field recordings were made by Blanton Owen, who had a session in 1973 recording Fulton, a year after Sidna died. These tracks were later released on a very successful but controversial set called “The Old Originals” on Rounder. Controversial because esteemed White Top Mountain fiddler Albert Hash felt that Owen and his recording partner had not really let the musicians know that these recordings were going to be published by a big industry firm and that they used “rough sounding” takes that didn’t really represent the skill of the mountain musicians who were featured.
In 2005, the Field Recorder’s Collective, a group of old time music collectors led by another New Yorker, Ray Alden who was a teacher who frequently made his own trips to the area, released 25 tunes that Peter Hoover had recorded on their own label, simply known as FRC504-Sidna and Fulton Myers.
So, at least three prominent musicologists, two funded folklorists, and five separate releases of the Myers recordings had been out in the public since the early 70’s to 2015, being issued and reissued. In old time folk music, that is notoriety! But here’s my question. All of these young visitors, all of these years of listening by banjo and fiddle addicts and this article contains the sum total of what we know about these very talented and well recorded brothers.
My search, so far, has turned up a few neighbors, quite a few locals who play their tunes especially a beautiful quirky dance tune called “Sweet Grapes,’ but no one seems to know a thing more about them. Especially Sidna. Blanton Owen wrote the few things we know about Fulton, but no one seemed to say much about Sidna, except that he “always had a chaw.”
In this hero worshipping culture of ours we seem to know every detail about our musical performers. Who they sleep with, what they eat, where they shop, and so on. Well, here’s the kicker. I decided to hunt down the long gone brothers and say a few words of gratitude to them both. I travelled first, of course to Five Forks to look for Cemeteries. I found one. Just a few feet from Spraker’s store where Peter Hoover first recorded them. The Shiloh Methodist Cemetery. I got out on a windy spring day and walked the small plot. No luck. I succumbed, I googled. No “Find a Grave” listing for a Sidna Myers or Fulton Myers.
However, there did appear to be a Myers Cemetery just up the road. I found a beautifully maintained cemetery with many folks named Myers and Sutphin and Spencer and other local names but no Fulton or Sidna. Over the course of the next week, I examined every cemetery within 10 miles of Five Forks. Nothing. Then I got desperate. I Facebooked a Carroll Count Virginia Facebook page. Immediate feedback. Thanks to some kind folks who knew the area, I found both of them the next day.
Sidna, it seems was at Five Forks in the Shiloh Cemetery. There were two reasons I didn’t find him. One the large gravestone in the very northeast corner of the cemetery had his name spelled wrong. I verified it from his death certificate that was spelled right. Sidna, it seems, will live in infamy as “Sidney M-E-Y-E-R-S,” not Myers. Hours of recordings, scores of musicians learning and loving his banjo playing, half of New York City coming to visit and they couldn’t even get his name right. Why?
Oh, and guess what? Fulton is buried nearly 15 miles away up above Piper’s Gap at the Coleman Primitive Baptist Cemetery. After nearly an hour of searching the 30 or so graves in this beautiful mountaintop resting place, I found him. If you look at the tombstone, however, you’ll notice that he is buried not with his wife or family, but with someone named Claude Felts, who passed in 1971. Well, at least they got his name right.
I can see Edith Lowe smiling when she told folklorist Kevin Donleavy about the brothers:
“You could go up to their house some evening. They’d say, ‘We don’t play anymore.’ Then, they would get their instruments out and they wouldn’t have to tune them. So you would know by that they were playing all the time.”
They played it alright. And they were heard. But like so many before them, their haunting melodies and beautiful fingerings are outliving even the slightest memories of them. I can hear the wind at Five Forks and up on Coleman Mountain wondering, “Sidna and Fulton, where did you come from? Where’d you go?” It’s the mystery we live with.
County Records, 6001, Legends of Old Time Music Liner Notes by Kinney Rorrer
Field Recorders Collective, FRC 504, Sidna and Fulton Myers, Liner Notes
Kerry Blech, Review of Sidna and Fulton Myers FRC 504 originally from The Old Time Herald, available here
Kevin Donleavy, Strings of Life, 2004, Blacksburg, VA Pocahontas Press
I come from Kansas. Even though I lived and often worked on Kansas farms and have been around lots of livestock, I had never, not once, eaten, fed, smelled, thought about or even really looked at a goat. Having too much time on your hands in retirement can cause you to think strange thoughts and travel through unusual portals.
One beautiful spring day, standing on the porch of my cabin, I turned to my dear friend, Nancy, and said, “I’ve been thinking,” (she knew this was not always a good thing) “I’d like to clear that little fenced off two acres over there, and I think we need some goats to do it.” Nancy just shook her head.
I had been reading and watching videos about a strange breed of goats called Tennessee Fainting Goats.” All I knew about them is that they are actually a recognized breed because of a carnival barker from Tennessee.
It seems that in the early part of the last century this sideshow guy had a goat that would faint every time it was startled. Some genetic quirk caused the goat, upon hearing a noise or being threatened, to put its front legs straight out and the fall stiffly over on its side, rolling its eyes back in its head. It was a big hit with the carnival crowd and the Tennessean was seeing visions of dollar signs, so he travelled from town to town he went seeking out goats with this genetic anomaly.Before long, he had a small herd and began to breed the goats specifically for the amusement of folks who would pay money to see a goat faint. Soon, a Texan heard about this small herd of goats that fainted, and had to have one to impress his neighbors, and well, you know Texans.
Once I read about these goats I had to have one. I figured they’d be great entertainment, but on top of amazing my friends and frequent visitors to the cabin, I could get them to clean up my small pasture. It has a clearwater spring running right through the pen that never freezes, so I would never have to water them and there was plenty of grown up, horrible looking, and very prickly brush for them to eat. So I immediately enlisted Nancy’s help to embellish the yards of barb wire fencing with stronger livestock caging. Four days, a stuck brush hog, a couple of broken fence stretchers, a borrowed come-along, a dented rental trailer and a case of lyme’s disease later, we had a goat-proof fence.
Then we (or maybe I should say “I”) designed the worst looking pole shelter on the planet, roofed it with tin, put some cheap siding on it that immediately warped, threw some Tractor Supply Company compressed straw on the ground, and we were ready. After days of Craigslist searching, I found a Fainting Goat breeder. (Did I say “breeder?”) She was three hours away in a godforsaken region of the North Carolina Piedmont. Not only did we have to come down off the mountain to get these goats we had to drive three hours in the unbearable heat and humidity of the Piedmont. Piedmont, in French, means “foot of the mountain.” However in my way of thinking, it means “hot dirt farmers drenched in sweat.”
The goat lady of the Piedmont told me on the phone that she had two young males, brothers, that would be perfect lawn mowers, and they fainted on command! I thought about getting a male and a female so we could have goat’s milk, until I read that in order to have goat’s milk, you have to keep the female pregnant. I quickly decided brush eating boy goats would be just fine.
I couldn’t wait! Nancy and I hopped in my Toyota FJ Cruiser and headed for goat land, never bothering to think that you usually haul goats in a livestock trailer. Three hours later, we pulled into a small piece of North Carolina, at least 30 miles from anywhere. Nancy picked this time in the car to have a deep discussion about relationships, of course, and had required a quick prerequisite reading of the book Love Languages before the goat trip. Well, as you can imagine, that whole conversation ended badly because my male brain was focused on goat love and her feminine multi ganglia brain was focused on improving our relationship….
Then, suddenly, we were at the end of a rutted dirt road. Thank God! At the end there was a small farmhouse, a very large recreational camping vehicle and a barn. Surrounding the barn was a herd of the smelliest, strangest looking four legged beings I’ve ever seen. They were everywhere: In the woods, in a field, in the barn, on the barn, and oh yea, coming out of the door of the RV!
We got crawled out of the Toyota into the “melt your face heat” and stood there gawking, in awe of these strange creatures, afraid that one of them might touch us. Suddenly an older woman with a stern look and goat-like face appeared before us. She just materialized out of the proximity of the barn. “Hi there,” I timidly spoke, half wondering if she understood human speech.
“You must be Mr. Smith,” she spoke in a cigarette smoked voice.
“I think so,” I mumbled not sure what I was doing here in this very strange place.
“Well, Come with me,” she rasped. And so we opened the gate and headed towards the barn. Inside were two small creatures in a bed of straw in a small holding bin. One was black and white and one was brown. The stared at us and then cowered in the corner of the pen. The brown one immediately stuck his front legs straight over and fell over on his side. His eyes looked like he was either having a seizure or was dead.
“I’ll take them,” I said.
“Where’s your trailer,” the goat lady asked.
“Oh, I don’t have one,” I suddenly realized.
“Well, it’s your car,” she shrugged. “You’re lucky that I neutered them. The big males like to urinate on their beards to attract females,” she declared. I winced, then I followed her through the gate and began to fold down the back seats in the Cruiser, looking feverishly for something to cover the back with and luckily found an old picnic blanket.
“Come on up to the house,” she commanded. So we did. The whole time Nancy was following us, a half smile on her face, eyes wide open, and a disbelieving sort of gaze. We walked into a small back door and stood in a strange little kitchen, mostly counter space with a burnt out looking toaster. There was a coffee can next to a big stack of papers. I wrote her a check. She handed me about 30 pages of hand written notes.
“This here is their feeding instructions,” she said. “I start with goat feed in the morning, not Purina, mind you, but the better stuff at Tractor Supply. Then I give them two scoops of real oats at around noon, then a lot of alfalfa in the evening. I just wormed them, but you’ll need to do that. It’s all in there.”
I looked at this overwhelming stack of barely legible pages and felt like crying. She then grilled me about having an adequate shelter for them. “Oh we just built a nice pole barn,” I lied. She had me sign a bunch of papers that would allow some goat organization to send me their pedigree (that, four years later, I’m still waiting for), shoved the instructions and a Folgers can full of oats in my hand and we headed back to the barn. We went inside, and the goat lady barked, “I’ll grab the black one, you grab the brown one.”
She jumped in the pen and goat legs went every which way. In what I can only describe as a goat rodeo hold, she hoisted the black spotted goat up to her chest half ran to the Toyota and threw it in the back. By that time I had been kicked, horn, bit and gouged. Nancy was laughing so hard she was no use. Somehow, the small goat and I stumbled to the SUV and I threw it in the back. Then the bleating began. I brushed hundreds of perfectly round little goat turds off of my arms, pants and shoes.
In a daze, I ordered Nancy into the FJ and tried to drive away. As we were leaving, the goat lady yelled, “Look out, those Arabs will want to steal them and eat them. They come down here all the time!” First of all, I doubted that anyone of Middle Eastern descent in their right mind would drive down her road, and second of all, I hadn’t seen too many bands of goat seeking raiders in the Blue Ridge so I waved and we got the hell out of there.
We both looked at our precious cargo in the back of the SUV and giggled. The goats were crying and complaining, but they fit, and we might just make it home with them. After about 10 minutes of incessant bleating I had an idea. One thing about FJ Cruisers is they have great rear speakers. I turned on the voice of the Blue Ridge, WPAQ AM and cranked up the old time and blue grass music they were playing. The goat boys quieted immediately! Especially to old time fiddle tunes. A revelation!
After three hours of radio, a stop at a convenient Tractor Supply Store off of Interstate 77 to buy a list of goat supplies and absolutely no “Love Language” talk, we made it home. Not wanting to hold these animals any more than I had to, I opened the gate to the two acre enclosure, backed in and wrangled each goat out the back and on to the ground. Brownie fainted again. Blackie stared at me like he might eat me. Then they wandered away.
I took the expensive feeding pan I had bought, filled it with some sugary smelling goat crack of some sort and watched them devour it like addicts. That was it. I was a bonafide goat farmer. I spent an hour cleaning goat turds out of the Toyota. That evening I read and reread the goat lady’s 30 pages of notes. About every two hours the next day I was running down to their pen. Oats, the goat crack (the expensive kind), then alfalfa, then more goat crack. A goat block in the pole shelter to lick on, and so on.
For the next three weeks I sat back and waited for the horrible brush in the goat area to disappear. Nothing happened.
“They’re crack goats,” I told Nancy in frustration. “I thought they were going to clear my land for me, make a nice area in there!” I complained, “They just sit around and wait for me to give them goat crack. I’ve become a pusher man!
Nancy had that look she gets when she doesn’t want to hurt my feelings. “Well,” she said, “What I’ve noticed is that they seem to be eating better than we do. If you’re down there feeding them on that ridiculous schedule, they don’t have time to eat brush.”
Damn, I hate it when I’m caught being so stupid. The next day, I stopped feeding them all together. Oh, they complained, yelling and bleating every time I even looked towards their lair. But slowly, gradually, I noticed that all of the Poison Ivy was disappearing from around the edges of the fence. Then the gawdawful briar bushes were gone. Then it happened, I saw Blackie tearing down an entire blackberry bush and ingesting it! Bowels of steel and all of it coming back to the land as a perfectly round, compact little turd ball.
I found one other real benefit to becoming a goat farmer. We suddenly had two live-in entertainment units for our resident rescue Corgi, Riley. Once he discovered the panels in the goat fence were just right for him to climb through he would head down in the morning and bark at the new residents. Then he would try to engage them in his favorite chase game that he plays with every other dog who visits, crocodile chase. Immediately Brownie fainted and Riley yelped, thinking he had killed him. Bigger brother Blackie walked over and applied both horns to the little brown dog’s stomach and I watched him fly through the air for about three feet. Entertainment at its best. Goat farming.
OK. I’ve never done this or ever thought I would do this. However, the last five years of my life since fleeing academia in a hurry and moving to a 3 room cabin in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains has been nothing short of unbelievable. Five years ago I drove down the mountain road on the left and have never looked back. As I’m sure you’ve heard, it took me 61 years to get here but it sure is worth it.
My journey started way out on the Kansas plains. In fact until my 50th year, I had never lived anywhere else. But with a family to help care for and mostly being self-employed, I took my PhD and headed to academia to see if I could grab some retirement. ” Nothing could be that bad,” I thought, “I can put up with it for a few years while my retirement account gets big and fat.” Little did I know.
I landed at a state university in New England, and did what I thought you were supposed to do. To engage. I helped pass anti-bullying laws, wrote papers and books and pamphlets and educated prisoners and parents and legislators. I responded to school shootings and taught teachers how to deal with angry and violent students. Basically, I got shit done. At the same time I had a lot of fun and created a lot of passion in my students. One thing they forget to tell you about the residents of the snooty ivory tower, though, is that they are a jealous, conniving, egocentric bunch who don’t like it when you get attention outside the hallowed halls.
So in 2016, I ran as fast as I could. High-tailed it for the mountains just as many before me had done.
In reality, it really was coming home. See, for the past 40 years I had been traveling to the Appalachians to fill my ears and my soul with pure mountain music. Since first hearing Old Time music at the Winfield Festival in the early 1970’s I have been deeply in love with it and pursued it where ever and whenever I could find it. It has become such a part of me that it seems to have infiltrated my very DNA.
First it was the Galax Fiddler’s Convention. I just had to go, but instead of feeding my lust for old time, it just created more need. As a social scientist and educator in my day jobs became more unforgiving and intense ( I was studying student violence and incivility) and the school shootings across the nation increased, I found a deep need to find a simpler, prettier, less complicated and certainly less depressing place to retreat. The year after Galax, I headed to the Mt. Airy Fiddler’s convention and was regaled with the music and incredible tales of the likes of Tommy Jarrell and Kyle Creed. The next year included The Elk Creek Festival in Virginia that was highly recommended to me by my dear friend, Frank Lee of The Freighthoppers fame (another blog) and so on. I was spending my entire summers camping and listening to and playing some of the best music on the planet.
So, many years later, here I sit on my cabin’s porch. Heading down a new hiking trail with my banjo over my shoulder. Coming across the mountain to share my life with you. Along the way, you’ll meet many of my friends, acquaintances and be exposed to some places you’ve probably never been. Our journey starts down here, in the holler, on the crick bank. You all comin’?
In the upcoming weeks we’ll explore:
The Mystery of the Myers Brothers, Sidna and Fulton
The Wild Goose
The Boyd Family and Nearly 50 years of Moonshine and Mountain Music
Riley the Rescue Dog
The White Top Mountain Folk Festivals and how Whisnant got it wrong