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Friday, May 1, 2015


the carter family

From social moments I've engaged in over the last weeks I'm seeing I don't know how to talk to anybody anymore. Never did, really. Consciously worked at learning to be witty and entertaining, but it never took. Something like taking a chemistry class when I never wanted to know anything about chemistry. I couldn't learn those letters with the lines between them. It was opaque as trying to learn to read music. It never took. I understand what people who cannot read see when they look at a page of words, same thing I see in a sheet of music. At piano concerts I've been to, Peter Serkin, Artur Rubinstein, some others with familiar names and some without, I see people reading music and playing really fast, I'm in awe, even knowing they've practiced it ten thousand hours and don't need the written music but for emergency moments, like somebody coughs and distracts the musician for a tenth of a second. I'm in awe of anybody who can read music and play at the same time, even make music of it. A musician is someone who likes to play the same thing over and over working on nuances, smoothing the finger work, learning the tune so well it's automatic. Playing old-time mountain music of no written notes and no written words, passed from musician to musician, is a matter of subtle musicianship as subtle as more "serious," school educated music that is indeed more advanced for having been written over hundreds of years, studied and played by serious musicians. Years and hours of mastery of an instrument matures with age in hillbilly music as in classical. Jascha Heifetz's violin is the only classical violin that has made tears run down my face like hillbilly fiddling does when it's by Tommy Jarrell or Fred Cockerham or Howard Joines sawing the strings.

the carter family

First time I heard Heifetz play Scottish Fantasy, by Max Bruch, I'd been in the hills a few years, had a few LPs of hillbilly fiddling I didn't listen to much, but liked. I was in the house with a classical station on the radio. Scottish Fantasy came on and the fiddle went straight to my heart like a bolt of joy lightning. I flopped down in a chair and wept throughout the song. It's the same thing that happens to me at a Ralph Stanley concert. The music is so beautiful my heart overflows with joy and tears run down my face. The name Ralph Stanley comes to mind and my eyes dampen. The names of the Carter Family, Sara, AP and Maybelle, dampen my eyes. Can't leave out Carter Stanley who can make you feel a song, like Sara Carter, with a plain voice telling the story, like few other singers do for me. I think I have everything the Stanley Brothers recorded, the Carter Family too, also Uncle Dave Macon, another of the great ones. In the time I had the music store of mountain music, I had speakers outside that played onto Main St, hillbilly music all day long. One day a car parked in front, a middle-aged woman driving. She left the car to pay a bill or something, leaving an old man, evidently her dad of 90+. I noticed the bill of his ball cap bobbing up and down and his fingers tapping rhythm on the armrest of the open window, Dave Macon clucking his banjo. The old boy too feeble to drive could still be moved by good music. Dave Macon used to play in the very building when he came to Sparta to play at the Spartan theater, now the Jubilee, in the 1940s. The building in that time was DC Bledsoe's Ford dealership. Local musicians jammed in the showroom with Uncle Dave and his musicians the afternoon before the show. A fruit jar went  the rounds and everybody got right for the concert. 

the carter family

Had a radio show on Saturday mornings of regional mountain music on the local AM station, until it was sold to a preacher who shut it down and left it. It was a bitter shame for Sparta to lose its station. Every Saturday morning I went to the station from ten to eleven and played mountain music from here in this county, surrounding counties and the Central Blue Ridge. Never had to play the same thing twice, but by choice. I searched for everything I could find from here by local musicians, tapes they made practicing, recordings. Local fiddler, Art Wooten, recorded 9 songs with Bill Monroe, played the first bluegrass song to be played on Grand Ole Opry, Mule Skinner Blues, in January, 1939, with Bill Monroe's band. He forever has the title, The First Bluegrass Fiddler. I often referred to the show as music from home. Art recorded, I think, eight songs with the Stanley Brothers and four with Flatt & Scruggs. Often I'd devote an hour to a given band or artist, an hour of Whitetop Mountain Band, an hour of Alternate Roots, an hour of Big Country Bluegrass. My purpose was to give the people of the county who love their own music a chance to hear it. The radio show was one of my many art forms. It was a creative expression as dj, making an hour of good mountain music to fill the listener's ears with joy. I had no idea how many people listened, who, or anything. I talked to a black microphone. It was my listener. It took a little time to learn how to talk to a black tennis ball as though it were conscious, like Hamlet talking to a skull. I went to Dudley Carpenter at first to teach me how to dj. He was a good teacher. He taught me how to do it right. I didn't want to do it right, but wanted to know how. I wanted to talk no more than to tell who made the music and song titles. Occasionally, I'd tell a little something, but my attention was on playing the music. 

the carter family

It was my favorite hour of the week. Eventually, I got the feel for people hearing it at home, driving, living their lives. I loved the Carter Family so much and knew my listeners loved them even more than I did, people of the same culture as the Carter Family, I could not talk during a Carter Family show. Everybody knew the titles, I didn't need to introduce any song. I sat with tears flowing down my face for an hour loving the music and happy my listeners were loving it too. My style as a dj was more NPR than commercial. I talked reasonably. Mountain people don't like to hear a lot of talk. They want to hear music. I played music. When it was the Stanley Brothers, tears ran down my face the whole hour. They are so of these mountains. The Carter Family, The Stanley Brothers, Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson are the voices the soul of the Southern Appalachians chose to sing through. These musicians, in my heart's way of hearing them, are of these mountains to the place they are these mountains. The only Christmas song I never tire of hearing is Ralph Stanley's Beautiful Star of Bethlehem. It tears me up every time I hear it. He can make you feel a gospel song in the heart. I had a good time sharing the beautiful music of these hills with the people whose music it was. I never imagined in earlier life I might one day be a dj playing mountain music on a local AM station in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Backwoods Beat Music Hour. I loved my listeners, even though I did not know who they were. Occasionally, in the grocery store or post office I'd fall into conversation with someone who told me they listen. I've met some wonderful people like that. The radio show was an expression of my love for the people of the county, a thank you for allowing me to live here in peace.        


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