My mind continues to search for what it is about mountain music that makes me so tender hearted shedding tears of joy hearing it. Not all, by any means, but just about any of it sometimes. There is an integrity about old time mountain music I hold way up high. It's an artistic integrity. A musician in these mountains is an artist in my way of defining artist. Playing by ear equals playing by heart. AP, Sara and Maybelle Carter were artists, each in their own way. AP took old songs he found in his searchings, and arranged them for the Carter Family way of singing. Sara sang them like nobody else could and Maybelle was a guitar master.
Appreciating the musicians as artists might be some of it, but not the bigger part. It gets down into my feelings about the old time ways, the people of those ways, the lives of the people of the old time ways. I've found the old timers of these mountains, people who grew up in the old time way before electricity, think about something besides money from time to time. The shallowness money brings with it, including pop culture that is only about money, never reached the mountain people until electricity brought pop culture and the reverence for money to break down the old ways like tearing down an old building to put up a new one.
Mountain culture is another of the many cultures around the world that television is changing faster than infestations of missionaries putting people of traditional cultures into factory made clothes of the colonists, tshirts, bluejeans and flipflops. Instead of hunting, fishing and gardening,
we're advised to get a low paying job at hard labor to enter the economy and buy necessities first, then everything else, like figurines of mermaids to hang on the wall in the bathroom. Instead of making music at home, the same thing over and over, we're advised to buy music made by professional musicians, not just the homegrown. Now that we've had a century of pop music, the rawest, most homegrown sounds best to my ear.
In the time of Backwoods Beat Music (03-07) somebody told me Eric Clapton played a Wayne Henderson guitar on his MTV Unplugged album. I wanted to see the dvd of the concert to check it out. If so, I wanted to get some in the store. First, you don't believe everything you hear. He did not have a Henderson guitar in his hands at any moment in the show, nor was one nearby to be picked from. While I was listening to the guitar player who blew me away with Cream, Derek & the Dominoes, Blind Faith, and some other bands, electric, I was sorely disappointed at what I heard acoustic. I wished I'd never heard his acoustic version of Layla. I sat watching the video thinking, in a fifty mile radius from my house, there are at the very least a dozen guitar pickers way better than Clapton. It's probably more like 20 or 30. From West Virginia to Georgia, these mountains are loaded with guitar pickers so much better than Clapton they put him to shame.
There has never been another music I've listened to that filled my eyes to overflowing with plain good feeling in the heart. Nothing in rock has ever made me weep for its beauty. No classical music has ever caused me to shed tears, but for Max Bruch's Scottish Symphony with Heifitz on the fiddle. That's got to me a time or two, but it's the mountain I hear in it that takes hold of me more than anything else about it. I believe that weepy feeling I get has to do with the mountains themselves, the soul of the mountains the Stanley Brothers and the Carter Family sang from. The music that came out of these mountains has a certain feeling I can't put my finger on, and maybe nobody can, that connects with my heart.
I don't think it's because I knew the culture first. The first times I heard the music, I knew next to nothing about the culture. In my early years in these hills I avoided mountain music to some degree. First times I heard it I was thinking I could listen to no music but this the rest of my life and die happy. I didn't want to give up all the other kinds of music I love for one, so I kept it in the background, hesitant about it. When I put on a cd of any mountain music I can't do anything but listen. It stops whatever I'm doing. It takes over. The more raw and from way back up in a holler the playing is, the better I like it. Like Fulton and Sidna Myers, Pop Birchfield and his brother Creed, Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham, Curly Ray Cline and Ralph Stanley. Just reading these names makes my eyes well up.
Whatever it is that takes hold of my heart about mountain music has to do with the mountains themselves, mountain culture, the way of life, the so very human way of life that manifests the full spectrum from the worst to the best, from the man whose brother calls him a silver-tongued rattlesnake, to one you could trust with anything, to the death. I believe this fullness of humanity as it has been lived in these mountains a few centuries is what tugs at my heart. It's gone. I've never truly experienced it, but I've known people who have told me many a tale of experiences in the old ways, like dragging logs out of the woods with horses, following a horses with a plow, riding a wagon to church, singing along the way. Possibly it has to do with the intensely emotional quality of mountain music made by people who lived by the heart, valued feeling above mind. Mind was a tool, what you use to figure things out, but feeling was of the heart, the very essence of a human being, the part that connects with the soul.