On any Saturday night, there is a place that Diane, my wife of 27 years, and I can go to forget the worries of the workweek. This place is the Carter Fold in Hiltons, Virginia. The Fold is a true jewel in the crown of old-time music. Managed by Janette Carter, daughter of A.P. and Sara of the original Carter Family, Janette is assisted by her brother Joe, her son and daughter, Dale Jett and Rita Forrester, and a host of volunteers. I usually use their 7:30 pm start time to set my pocket watch, because Janette is so prompt that you know it must be exactly 7:30 when she steps up to the mike with autoharp in arms and says: "Good evening ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the old-time music showwere glad to see this number out tonight." The Fold is run with much precision, but also the good-natured, nurturing heart of Janette Carter comes through in everything that is done once you enter her doors. She is a "granny" to everyone regardless of age. Janette must hug every child and caution them not to run down the steep sloped aisles or to leap over the log benches so artfully covered with different colors and sizes of shag carpet samples. The smell of popcorn and hot dogs fills the air. I look forward to the fried apple pies made by Dales daughter. The building itself is not much more than a tin roofed barn carved into the hillside on the original property owned and farmed by A.P. Carter. The Fold music and dance building stands right next door to the country store originally built and run by A.P. The store now houses the Original Carter Family Museum. The museum is always open during the performance times each Saturday night. The A.P. Carter Store originally served as the center of this Virginia community of Poor Valley or Maces Springs if you want to be real specific. Much of the Carter Familys music started on the front porch and within the walls of this store and you cannot help but feel their presence.
Some of my favorite old-time music groups are featured here at the Carter Fold on a regular basis. Janette tries to give talented groups (ones that can keep good time) at least a once-a-year booking. Some preferred bands are seen more than once a year, especially if they possess a good fiddler. The crowd is a real dance crowd and the music and flatfooting are contagious especially to passers-through from out of state who just stop to quench their curiosity about what they have heard from friends about the Fold and its reputation. Some of my favorite groups have been The Farmers Daughters with Riley Baugus, The Konnarock Critters, The Wolfe Brothers, The Wayne Henderson Band, Greg Hooven & Galax Way, and The Whitetop Mountain Band. Janette brings a mix of both bluegrass and old-time bands alternating each week.
Another benefit of attending any Saturday night at the Carter Fold is that you never know who will show up and want to play immediately after the intermission. We have seen everyone from Bill Clifton, Stella Parton, Johnny Cash and June Carter, and Mike Seeger, to local "wannabes." At one recent post-intermission session, a large group of young people with instrument cases and led by a blond-haired woman took the stage with Janettes permission. Their leader was their band teacher, Emily Spencer, a prominent member of The Whitetop Mountain Band and great clawhammer banjoist in her own right. Emily introduced the young folks as her students in the Band II Class at the Mt. Rogers Combined School in the Whitetop Community of Grayson County, Virginia. The Band was called the Albert Hash Memorial Band. The class, led by Emily, proceeded to strike up two good old-time tunes that got the audience up and flatfooting with taps jingling and clacking on the concrete dance floor in front of the small stage. A huge applause was heard when they were finished. The students returned their well-worn instruments to their proper cases and marched out of the Fold building into the parking lot to deposit them into their waiting school bus. It had taken them over two hours to make this journey in this dusty Grayson County school bus. They later returned to their seats to watch the remainder of the show and had time to relax, enjoy the refreshments, and (even some brave souls) to practice their flatfooting, waltzing, and two-stepping.
Returning to my college teaching job on Monday morning, I couldnt get this band and their teacher off my mind. I teach business and education classes and work with prospective teachers. I was fascinated with the fact that a school could have an old-time music program instead of the standard orchestra or marching band that you sometimes find in some larger public school systems. I decided to give the school a call and asked to speak to Emily Spencer. When I spoke with Emily, I explained that I was interested in finding out how this old-time music program came to be at the Mt. Rogers School. Emily suggested that I come up, visit her classes, and see first hand the work she and the other volunteers were doing with these Grayson County young folks.
I pulled out the map to chart a course for Grayson County. Looking at the map I discovered that the best route and perhaps the only route from my location in Bristol was to go to Abingdon, Virginia and take Highway 58 from Damascus into the Mt. Rogers Recreation Area until I reached the Whitetop Community. The hour and a half trip took me through some of the most beautiful country I have found and the mountain stream that followed my course determined the path of Highway 58. The streams route demanded one switchback curve after another. Even though the road was difficult, the natural beauty of this region made up for it.
Soon I came to the Whitetop community and when I asked for final directions at a small country store, I found that the Mt. Rogers Combined School was only a few hundred yards ahead on the right.
Arriving at the school, I found a neat, clean brick and stone building that had a friendly feel about it and seemed to offer its welcome to strangers like myself. On entering the school building I obeyed the sign on the entrance door and headed immediately to the school office. Here I found a friendly secretary who led me to the principal. She was Ms. Pat Weaver, principal since Ms. Wilma Testerman had retired from this position after 55 years. I also met Ms. Testerman and they both proceeded to tell me the story of how the Albert Hash Memorial Band had come to be in Grayson County. Ms. Weaver told me that she had only 90 students in this combined school encompassing grades K-12. The high school graduation ceremony was slated for the next week with only three in the graduating class. I was invited to return for the ceremony if time allowed. Ms. Weaver led me down the tile floored halls across the gym and finally into the band room. Here I was introduced to Emily Spencer. It was just about time for the 10:30 bell to sound the beginning of the Band II class.
Folding chairs encircled the band room and music stands were placed strategically in front of each chair. Instrument cases lay in every corner and stacked against the wall. Over on one side was leaning an old bass that looked like it had been through WWII, but I later realized it had a wonderful deep rich sound, and of course in music thats what matters most. I was told that many of the instruments were purchased with funds approved by the School Board through the Rural Challenge Grant for which they qualified. The principal had also informed me that there were 18 students in the two band classes, which is a significant percentage of the 90 students in this small school.
Emily began to tell me the history of the band program. Albert Hash, a local fiddler and fiddle maker who lived most of his life in this community, officially started it in 1982. Albert was not only well known for his fiddling abilities, but the quality and sound of the instruments he built. He was respected for his intricate carving and selection of quality wood. Albert had started volunteering his time years before at the local volunteer fire department to pass on his knowledge of old-time music to all. His daughter, Audrey Hash Ham, who now continues the tradition of fiddle building so artfully started by her father, had always assisted Albert. Albert Hash died in January 1983, not long after the volunteer program at Mt. Rogers Combined School started up. It was now left up to Audrey to carry on the work of her father. Audrey continued as a volunteer for many years until she moved with her husband to nearby Lansing, North Carolina to live. The task was handed down to Emily Spencer, a family friend, and wife of Thornton Spencer, a fine old-time fiddler, and brother-in-law to Albert Hash. After much work and many trips to talk to the school board, Emily finally convinced them of the need for an old-time music program at the school and also a need to offer academic credit to grades eight through twelve for band. The school board agreed to allow Emily three years probational status to teach these classes part-time and to issue band credit to the participating students. The band was officially placed into the school curriculum for credit in the fall of 1999, and Emily and the students have just finished their first successful year of instruction and learning.
It is important to understand that Grayson County has a tremendous old-time music heritage. I was amazed at how many old-time musicians actually call Grayson County home, and it only takes a few minutes in Emilys class to come to the realization that these students bring the love of this type of music from home. It is ingrained in their memories as well as those of their parents, uncles, aunts, and grandparents who played and talked about this same music, which is still very much alive in this region of Southwest Virginia.
As I joined Emilys Band II advanced class, I couldnt help but notice how diversified the students were at being able to switch off on banjo, guitar, fiddle, and bass. Emily led the class through each old-time tune, pausing occasionally to make some specific instruction to an individual. Sometimes they would lead into a gospel song, or a solo or duet singing session. Emily was very patient with the students and it was apparent that they felt comfortable in their learning environment. It wasnt long until I had to return to my truck and retrieve my fiddle case. Emily had asked if I would like to join the class in some songs, and she didnt have to ask me twice. As I fiddled a tune with them, I started to realize (as a college teacher) the value of immersion as Emilys chosen method of teaching. The children learn from her and from each other and are reinforced by family members who also play and sing on nights and weekends. It is a family tradition for many in Grayson County. Emily handed out detailed sheets of a form of tablature that she has designed to make it easy for her students to learn new tunes. Most students were encouraged to learn to play by ear and to experiment with improvisation whenever possible. This class ended with a group flatfooting session out on the gym floor with Emily providing the banjo licks to keep time with their steps. Soon the younger students in Band I class arrived. I found them to be equally capable.
I joined the faculty table for lunch on this Tuesday. The meal was enjoyable as was the conversation with Emily and other faculty members about the importance of the Albert Hash Memorial Band and how each person involved with the school wishes it to survive the bureaucracy of the public school system. I soon returned with my fiddle case to my truck and pointed it in the direction of Bristol. As I followed the creek through the valley, I continued to think how fortunate this small school system is to have a band program that keeps alive their heritage and our heritage as well, and to have a dedicated teacher like Emily Spencer who believes in what she is doing. I couldnt help but wonder . . . if this works for Grayson County, why not for other school systems as well? It is just one small group trying to keep alive their love for old-time music.
All photos of Albert Hash Memorial Band members were taken by Chip Bailey in May 2000. Most of these students play several instruments and have ancestors and family who were/are Whitetop area musicians.
Chip Bailey is an Associate Professor of Business at Virginia Intermont College in Bristol, Virginia. Besides teaching traditional business courses, he enjoys teaching Appalachian Culture and The Business of Country Music. Chip is an old-time fiddler and member of The Skunk Skinners String Band.