(The Smithsonian magazine wrote about the Red Clay Ramblers performing at the Saturday night gathering at the Carter Family grocery store near Hiltons, Virginia, in the April, 1976 issue, pages 104-113. Portions are here for your enjoyment. Photos are by Susanne Anderson except for the Ramblers with Janette Carter, which was taken by Cece Conway.)
Old-time Pickin' and Playin'
in Poor Valley
In the hills of Virginia a member of a famous country music family keeps down-home traditions alive
They call it Poor Valley but that’s the last notion you would get about the place if you kept your ears open. Especially on Saturday night. Then, around six o-clock, people start out from the hollows and hills and drive along Route 614 in the southwestern tip of Virginia, a road that winds through the valley’s farms, crossing and recrossing the north fork of the Holston River like two blacksnakes in love. Some come all the way around Clinch Mountain from what they call Rich Valley; others come from as far away as Johnson City, Tennessee, and even Charleston, West Virginia. They converge on a nondescript twin-gabled store three miles up the river from Hiltons—a store where no one has sold groceries for years.
By seven o-clock, mountain people of all ages, college students and a professor or two have formed into small groups leaning against the cars and pickups next to the store. Someone takes a quiet lick on a guitar. Here and there is some soft, spontaneous singing in the dusk.
Half an hour later, some 200 people have moved inside, to sit on wooden auditorium chairs that were obviously salvaged from an old school, and a woman with brown wavy hair is standing on the small wooden stage wearing a long dress and cradling an autoharp.
“Well I’m sure glad you call came,” she begins in a deep voice. She is Janette Carter, youngest daughter of the late A.P. Carter, and this is A.P.’s grocery store. Everyone in the room knows what that means. This slightly ramshackle store, with jerry-built bleachers along two walls, with Pepsi, candy and cigarettes for sale in the back (but no smoking in the store), is the latest manifestation in a musical legend, an out-of-the-way mecca for folks who love fiddling, banjo-picking and the other joys of foot-stomping, old-timey, down-home, authentic country music.
On the stage, the night I was there, Janette mentioned the imported talent that would perform—the Red Clay Ramblers, a young group from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who spent eight months providing the music for Diamond Studs, an Off-Broadway musical about Jesse James.
Janette was a little nervous about the Red Clay Ramblers. Unlike the other performers she had invited, they were unknown to her. (They had been recommended by one of the Morris Brothers, Dave Morris of Charleston, West Virginia, a normally down and out but irrepressible cultural minister for “pure” country music.) While Janette was introducing the Ramblers there was a crash. Their ample banjo player, Tommy Thompson, had fallen part way through a window he was leaning against at the side of the stage. Intact, he explained that since the audience at the store was known to be highly critical, he was merely clearing out an escape route in the event that their music just wasn’t good enough.
It was good enough.
Every two or three numbers, there was a cacophonous foot-thumping fiddle tune, and with the first raucous chords of each one, like the bell at a horse race, people took off from the rows of auditorium chairs and mounted the steps to the stage just to the right of the band. The rickety floorboards would then strain under the clattering heels of the buck-dancers (or flatfooters), of whom the star was unquestionably a 76-year-old woman named Nannie Smallwood. The wife of a retired carpenter, she learned only a few years back how to play the banjo herself because her husband made one for her out of cedar. She is proud to have been recorded playing her banjo, along with Janette and other local talent from Poor Valley, by the local community college (which covets her banjo), but her favorite pastime and major achievement is dancing. She is loath to miss a Saturday night performance at the Carter store (Janette’s husband Jack Kelly picks her up and drives her home every Saturday) and, that night, she didn’t miss a single fiddle tune. On a few occasions, when the diminutive dance floor was too crowded, she simply stood up and danced in the aisle next to the coal stove with Esker Harper, a huge loose-jointed hearty who is a decade or two her junior and who plays the raunchiest French harp in Poor Valley.
Well, old Esker got his turn performing on stage, as well as just about everyone else there who wanted to pick or sing. A local group called the Home Folks played, featuring Beecher Smith on the fiddle (Beecher carries with him a 1940s postcard showing the Carter family posed in publicity-conscious rows—all of them); a young guitarist who came to Poor Valley with the Office of Economic Opportunity and decided to move in for good; and his wife who is not much more than four and a half feet tall but has a voice big enough to split a Civil War cannon. The evening thundered on, and the A.P. Carter store filled up like a bowl with music and motion and laughter and occasional tears.
One of the performers, a semiregular from East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, was Richard Blaustein. A folklorist and no mean fiddler, he runs a program in conjunction with Broadside Video which, with funding from the national Endowment for the Arts, is devoted to videotaping and otherwise recording the music, the lore, and the ways of life of the mountain people of Appalachia. How important was all this business, I asked him a bit stiffly, the significance-seeking journalist.
“Well, Janette is doing as much as anyone to hold on to traditions here,” he said. “Some of it may be unwitting. For example, people really feel at home here, playing and listening, partly because it’s a grocery store. It was in grocery stores where these mountain folks always used to get together to play. I don’t think she did that consciously, but it works. What’s important is that it’s fun. Man, listen to that guy play the fiddle, will you?”
And one of the Red Clay Ramblers, a former philosophy student at the University of North Carolina and, everyone there agreed, as good a fiddler as you’ll ever hear, said. “It was O.K. playing on Broadway, but I’d rather play in this place. The pay isn’t much, but the people are real here. It’s a privilege.”
Eventually the kaleidoscope of entertainment came to an end. The Red Clay Ramblers started packing up their instruments and the mountain people began to amble out into the rain. But in the back of the store next to the Pepsi machine, a few people hung around in the shadows and a couple of the Ramblers drifted over to join them. A man in a neatly brushed fedora and a windbreaker began to sing hymns and the others joined in. “That’s Bill McCall,” Janette told me. “He delivers Pepsi hereabouts and he’s a Sunday school teacher. He really knows his Bible.” The hymns went on for another half-hour, but finally everyone left and the lights in the store, reluctantly it seemed, went out.
The next morning we sat around Janette’s house and she and her brother Joe sang and told stories about Johnny Cash, their cousin-in-law, and Nashville and how, except for some of Cash’s songs, the new music has just passed them by.
“Sing ‘Call of the Wild,’ Joe,” said Janette. Turning to me, she said, “Joe wrote that one for Johnny Cash. It’s on his children’s album. But Joe sings it better.”
Maybe he does. I came to A.P. Carter’s store a total neophyte in such matters. But I listened to the nasal harmonies and watched the human harmonies, and the tough, honest, sexy voices got under my skin. These people refuse to modulate their voices the way a well-trained singer does. Instead, they force the music, insisting on the high notes until their voices crack. Their lyrics are those of grief and humor, the two modes of response open to any people throughout time who have had to submit. But the music is defiant: don’t tread on me, it says. You don’t get that kind of music out of an amplifier.
Never mind Nashville. Never mind electronics. Never mind commercial success. This is our music, they are saying at A.P. Carter’s store, and this is where we play it best.