On Saturday, Sydney and I rode with her family to the Carter Family Memorial Festival at the Carter Fold in Hiltons, Va.
The Carter Fold is an 800-seat music pavilion built into a hillside a few yards from the cabin where A.P. Carter was born and the general store that Carter ran in his later years, long after the original Carter Family musical group had broken up. Old-time, bluegrass and country musicians, mostly local and regional, perform at the Fold every Saturday night, and once a year dozens of them converge on the place for the festival.
Both the Fold and the festival were started in the 1970s by Janette Carter, daughter of A.P. and Sara. It was A.P.'s dying wish that the Carter Family's music, and the music that inspired them, would not be forgotten in the valley the Carters have called home for generations.
This was the first festival without Janette, who died in January at age 82, but her work is being carried on by her children, Dale and Rita. For this year's festival, Rita even made the pinto beans and cornbread, just as her mother did for so many years.
Anyone interested in old-time music should make the pilgrimage to the Fold at least once. Even today, Hiltons is a fair approximation of what my parents used to call the Back of Beyond, i.e. proverbially remote. It's a 40-minute drive from the interstate, along a dauntingly twisty two-lane highway. With the exception of a couple of houses, the Fold pretty much has that part of the Clinch Valley all to itself. How much more isolated the homestead must have been in 1927, when A.P., Sara and Maybelle braved the death-defying, daylong drive to Bristol to audition for Ralph Peer!
This year's festival lineup included the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band, the Old Dominion Cloggers, the Eastern Tennessee State University Bluegrass Band (which boasts a young Japanese woman on fiddle), and my favorite band name in some time, Fescue. The pavilion was packed, and hundreds more people milled around outside, slurping ice cream cones (Pet is still the brand of choice, as it was at A.P.'s store), listening to impromptu jam sessions, and exploring the general store and cabin, both of which are Carter Family museums now.
Some of the most celebrated artifacts are elsewhere -- Sara's autoharp, for example, is in the (excellent) Country Music Hall of Fame museum in Nashville -- but there's plenty of neat stuff to look at in Hiltons. Sydney was most impressed by a couple of June Carter Cash's dresses ("She was so tiny!"), while I gravitated to A.P.'s upright piano and his Underwood typewriter. When no docent was looking, I reached out and lightly depressed the "D" key -- not enough to tap the roller; just enough to feel the key, for a moment, push back. I learned to type on a Royal, myself.
I would post photos, had I remembered to take the camera!
An essential book on the Carters, and on much else besides, is Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?: The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music, by Mark Zwonitzer with Charles Hirshberg. Read it; heed it; and meet us at the Fold sometime, y'hear?