whitetop mountain band
the slate mountain ramblers
dale jett and hello stranger
Saturday's music festival continues to play in my head. All day today I was hearing Thornton Spencer play Sally Ann. The subtleties of Thornton's touch with the strings is something a beginning listener of old-time music would miss consciously, but hear subconsciously, not really aware of why his sound is so unique. I watched his fingers with their magical touch and the total command of the bow. A fiddler who has been playing all his life, in his 70s he has the touch of a master. I've heard of Thornton in the past playing all the strings off his bow and finishing the tune with the bow stick that had enough resin dust on it to work. I've heard of him putting resin on a toothpick and playing the fiddle with a toothpick. That wasn't really a trick as much as it was a bunch of musicians cutting up and having some fun. I feel about Thornton Spencer like I feel about Ralph Stanley, see his concert every chance I get. He has a touch with his fiddle that really is the master's touch.
My mind continues to float on the music of that day in the sun hearing music of Whitetop all day. I didn't know where all the people came from. Kilby later said they were from NC, Tennessee and Virginia, a lot of them people that go to the shows of the bands playing. I'd so much rather hear mountain music at home among the people that love it than presented as a folk art phenomenon to the middle-class curious. They have their own appreciation, which I have to say is along the order of mine, discovered late in life unaware that there even was such a thing as mountain music. But my audience preference to hear the music with is the mountain people themselves, who love it as I love it, even more than I love it. I'm really glad some of the universities have Appalachian folklife studies, though I'd rather learn the culture living among the people of the culture. Now that I know the culture well enough to get about in it, I'd kind of like to take an Appalachian class at the local community college extension branch. I saw they have a class on Southern culture too. But I'm not driving into town 3 nights a week.
In my first summer in the mountains, summer of 77, I went to a fiddler's convention in Independence, Virginia, just over the state line from Sparta. I heard Albert Hash play his fiddle. I remembered him because of the black tophat he wore, his incredible fiddle and the enthusiastic response of the audience. The name Albert Hash stuck with me. I later heard he made fiddles too, and his daughter, Audrey, continues to make fiddles. He died not many years after. Another musician remembered from that day was Kyle Creed, also alerted by the audience's response to pay close attention. Ernest East. And the New River Ramblers were there, John Perry picked guitar with them and picks with the Crooked Road Ramblers now. That day was my introduction to mountain music. I was still too close to the city within for the music and the whole experience to take ahold. It was a surprise, a big surprise. I had paid no attention to that kind of music, ever. Couldn't stand the Beverly Hillbillies Theme Song with Earl Scruggs a-layin it to it, evidence of how retarded I was in my mountain beginning. Makes me laugh out loud to think about it.
I think of what Ralph Stanley said in his memoir, "The mountains keep you humble. They put you in your place." It brings to my mind a Chinese mountain landscape painting, 3'x5' with people an inch high. What he meant, though, is the mountains are here a lot longer than we are. We're the same as the flash of a shooting star in relation to the mountains. He's talking about the ways of the mountain people too. They keep each other humble, and they put you in your place. If you're ahead of your place, they'll pull you back. If you're behind your place, they'll pull you forward. Flattery and bragging on somebody you just don't do in the mountains. Neither one takes. Somebody starts buttering you up and you wonder what they're selling, what;s coming next. For some people the strict codes the mountain people live by are too much, they want to go to a city where everybody doesn't know their business. In the old way, no man was better than another. Especially when every man was carrying a gun, a lot of them with short, short fuses. It made a very diplomatic community of people. I think diplomacy in interpersonal relations can qualify among my greatest learnings in these mountains, the one I'm most grateful for when I think about it. These mountains made me a good driver and taught me how to get along with other people. I wouldn't dare ask for better than that.
Saturday driving to the festival, 58 from Mouth of Wilson to Whitetop, I enjoyed being able to show my friend Judy some of the beautiful scenery in these mountains. The farm land to Volney where we turned left to go through more old farm land with no new houses anywhere. That's what I noticed first, the absence of new houses, like on 58 around Hiltons, Virginia, notable in memory for having no new houses. It's largely homes of people who have always lived there, community, people who have worked hard all their lives on the land, in factories, driving trucks, what have you, people whose belief in God and their faith is their own, not to be trifled with. All the time in that area of Hwy 58 and Whitetop, I remembered a friend from the past, Independence attorney, Lorne Campbell, who lived his later years in Sparta. Whitetop people were his favorite people on earth. Nobody from Whitetop ever paid in his office. They were his people, he took care of them. He believed Whitetop boys do not belong in prison. He had the name of a lawyer who would "hold your hand to the prison door," meaning he'd stay busy up to the last minute trying to keep you out.