Wifi Networks Available

Roddy Moore points out the inscription on this 1832 dulcimer in the archives of the Blue Ridge Institute he directs.

While instrument making is an ancient art whose practice is alive and well along the Crooked Road, it has never been either a primary way of making a living in Southwest Virginia or the most common way that people here got their instruments. As Roddy Moore, director of the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum at Ferrum College, told us the first U.S. Census to inquire about occupations (in the mid-1800s) listed no instrument makers in the Commonwealth of Virginia. On the other hand, Moore showed us a beautiful dulcimer inscribed “Floyd County, John Scales, Jr., August 28, 1832.” Clearly, people have been making instruments along the road for a long, long time.

Of course, as Moore explained, at the turn of the 20th century you could mail-order a guitar from Sears for the equivalent of no more than $20, so for quite a while it has been pretty inexpensive to buy a guitar from elsewhere. The same has been true for other instruments, and many of the old banjos that the institute has collected in the area over the years were manufactured by a company in Baltimore.

That economic pattern reflects a fascinating tension along the road between old-time culture and outside influence.

The tension itself is embodied in the person of Rob Yard, an instrument maker who describes himself as a “back to the lander” of the 1970s, who has lived in Floyd County for about 40 years. He grew up in British Columbia and went to college in the state of Washington. He went to school on a track scholarship as a pole vaulter. Having learned to vault in the days of bamboo poles, he developed a fascination with that material. Today he crafts beautiful bamboo flutes, didgeridoos, drums and other instruments in an open-air workshop next to the house he and his wife built.

His grown children have built houses of their own on the property that lies at the end of a long dirt road that dips beneath a stream before rising to the homestead. Though it feels like the end of the earth, and certainly way beyond our cell signal, when Martin looked at his phone he saw the indication, “wifi networks available.”

Birthplace of Country Music

We spent a fascinating hour or so with Jessica Turner, a member of the board of the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance in Bristol. (We weren’t sure whether we were in Tennessee or Virginia at the time. State Street sits on the state line.) Turner spoke with us about the role Bristol played in the early days of recording Old Time, Country and Bluegrass music, and about the deeper roots of that music. The alliance is building a museum in Bristol to celebrate the city’s music heritage, and to tell the stories of the people who made it and continue to create it.

BCMA’s offices, where we met Turner, are near the site of the famous ’27 Sessions, and across the street from the train station where Ralph Peer rode into town to capture the sounds of the mountains for the Victor Talking Machine Company. Those two weeks of recordings in a warehouse in downtown Bristol launched the careers of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers among others. Johnny Cashed called the sessions “the Big Bang of Country Music.”

We followed our late afternoon conversation with Turner with an evening at the Carter Family Fold. Rita Forrester, granddaughter of A.P. and Sara Carter, graciously told us the story of her family back to those 27 Sessions and beyond.

Day 1

Production officially started today with our arrival at the Hotel Floyd. We will kick off our filming tomorrow when we interview Rita Forrester at the Carter Family Fold. Rita is the granddaughter of the famed AP Carter of the Carter family, and we expect to learn a good deal from her. We’ll keep you posted! 

These Hands

 

We met David Williams at a concert. Willard Gayheart and Bobby Patterson, the performers, asked him to perform this song he wrote for a documentary about the collapsing Appalachian furniture industry. The empty factories and mills and mines along the Crooked Road cause hard times, and it is a truth universally acknowledged that hard times breed good music.