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Saturday Night at the Carter Family Fold

Posted by Kells, May 30, 2015 08:20pm | Post a Comment

Deep in the hollows of Southwestern Virginia, near the Tennessee border and about thirty miles or so from any kind of reliable cellular signal, you'll find a low wooden structure pitched into a sloping hillside that faces an unbroken wood, settled at the end of endlessly snaking mountain back-roads that, depending upon your approach, terminate in two right turns around a rusted out passenger railcar resembling a forsaken submarine (what with it's porthole-like windows) swamped by high country grasses. This is Hiltons, Virginia and the venue is the Carter Family Fold, or the Carter Fold, or the fully realized results of local efforts to preserve and present bluegrass and old time country music in honor of traditional American folk pioneers, The Carter Family (specifically A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and her sister/his brother's wife Maybelle). You'll know you've arrived when clusters of casually parked cars come into view, for that's how I found out for myself last Saturday night, after nearly an hours' passage through pastoral outlands and more than one are we there yet? Here follows a bit of a personal narrative of that night, garnished with a few of the photos I managed to capture.


Before stetting foot into the Fold itself, the frantic meter of "Cotton Eye Joe" became more discernible with every step I took, the muffled twangs and drawls of banjo and fiddle battling for supremacy in the space between verse and chorus only just audible behind the front entrance. Once through the door, another sound altogether becomes jarringly apparent: the arrhythmic clatter of untold multitudes of tap shoes scuffing up a hard surface like lazy rain drizzling hot fryolator oil. The cacophony is hypnotizing. Inside, at the ticket booth, my father proceeds to pay the price of admission for all us kin and then some, and brooks no refusals as usual. I pay a smidge extra for a Carter Family placard fan for good measure - no telling what the weather's like all the way inside.

As it happens the atmosphere beyond is less balmy than I had imagined for the hall itself is a great deal bigger than it appears from the street. In fact, it is a covered amphitheater with ample stadium seating, cleverly designed to follow the natural incline of the hillside, featuring roller shutters that open up the sides of the structure for extra breathing and pine tree supports roughly half-shaved of their bark, running smooth up to a height reachable by the outstretched hands of only the very tallest of adults. Between the seats and the stage lies concrete dance floor ensuring maximum tappage for even the most idle shufflers, upon which a goodly number are a-shuffling. The stage itself is low but amply spacious and bedecked on all sides with a bevy of Carter Family portraits and other miscellaneous memorabilia, like proud great-grandmother's sitting room. Centered along the rear of the stage there is a long church pew and, from time to time, even during the height of the live show, an older lady and a young woman, presumably Carter family members, come to sit and enjoy the performance onstage, looking for all the world like the living likeness of the many relatives pictured in the photos and depicted in the murals around them. Also, large and lumbering straw-colored dog wanders across the stage from time to time. The mostly-barefoot bluegrass band pay no mind to the living room effects onstage, but played each their own instrument in to a single ribbon microphone, moving to and fro, distancing themselves accordingly to live-mix the fruits of their labor. Their swaying effort held my attentions fixed for a time, as I kept looking for wires for sound and, aside from the mic, found only one.


Later on in the evening I learned that no electric instruments are allowed at the Fold, unless you're Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash's husband and by far the family's most famous in-law (fun fact: he played his last live show at the Fold in July of 2003). Smoking and drinking are also prohibited, a reminder that this here is a family-friendly establishment espoused in family-founded musical tradition reinforcing the magnitude of the family funtimes that are all kinds of afoot. As the band plays on, furiously picking from barn-burner to murder ballad and back again, I clock my nine year old niece watching the dancers keenly. Without exchanging as much as a knowing glance, I realize that we are similarly entranced by the scene and both eager to join in the fun, but too shy to make a spectacle of ourselves, being outsiders without proper taps or bottlecaps. That's when Carter Fold regular, Chickie, steps in and saved the day.

I watch Chickie lead my niece from her seat to the dance floor where she proceeds to lay down an introductory lesson: Flat Footin' 101. The dance itself is deceptively simple, a slack shuffle kick forward with the right foot and then a rocking-step back and forth, right-left-right, and then repeat leading with the left foot. Chickie, in turn, teaches me the same moves while my niece continues to shuffle-step awkwardly beside us (she's totally wearing the wrong shoes for this, they kick off much too easily and soon after she gives up trying to keep her shoes on and goes bare flat footin'). I am enjoying myself, asking Chickie all kinds of questions and carrying on, but I can't help turning my gaze to the other dancers scooting around our little session. They seem to be either engaged in some kind of choreographed Appalachian pas de deux with their partners, or riffing infinitely along with or perhaps in spite of the live music, like static conveyors of transcendent kinetic restraint, bringing to mind the talents of D. Ray and Jesco White (do yourself a favor and watch both the Talking Feet and Dancing Outlaw documentaries if you haven't already). Altogether the spectacle seems a fascinating free-for-all, but there is a wrong way to flat foot, or so learned my niece when one of the best dancers there, a man in the twilight of his years, took her aside to advise, "yuh steppin' too whide, girl. Brang yuh steps tuhgethuh."


When you get hungry, there's a concession stand offering hot dogs, chili cheese fries, and square cuts of chocolate and coconut cake firmly saran-wrapped to paper plates located just to the right of the dance floor. A little farther to the right, next to the concession stand but completely unrelated to the concession stand for some reason (I was informed of this fact more than once without asking), there is an older gentleman selling popcorn made by a cool-looking old fashioned popcorn maker for a dollar a bag. The popcorn monger says nothing whatsoever to me when I approach and ask him kindly for "one please," but he magically manages to subject me to a continuous stream of dad-jokes via comedic gesture and next-level extrasensory perception which was as annoying as it was impressive. There was also another table vending snacks to the left of the stage. Those snacks being, specifically, a slew of 24oz. mason jars filled with shelled peanuts. More fuel for flat footin' I suppose.


Between sets, while the band takes a break, volunteers from the Fold open up the adjacent Carter Family Museum and the restored 1880s cabin where A. P. Carter was born, next door. The museum is housed in a building that was formerly the Carter Store, built in the 1940s by A.P. Carter and friends, now serving as an impressive showcase for Carter Family memorabilia. Upon entering the museum, a tall older man wearing overalls with the bib clear up to his chin promptly singles me out and asks me if I have a computer. Almost before I can utter an affirmative answer, he directs me to follow him to a Victrola cabinet where he has stowed a crumpled printout of a webpage which he uses to explain to me how I can access the Carter family tree and complete database of songs, pointing to the parts of the page I would click on if the paper wasn't paper. I'd include the link here, but everything that came after this initial interaction prevented me from retaining this information, for, kind of like the popcorn vendor (save of the silent treatment), he laid down humorous, quip-filled banter that, combined with the enthralling lilt of his local accent, found me living for every second of the moment. One of those moments being an episode involving another visitor who wanted to get a more detailed look at the outfits June and Johnny Cash wore to perform at the White House (pictured left and above, on the far right) and asked for permission to climb up on the display to see them closer. He didn't say no, but he advised her against it saying something like, "those clothes been to thuh White House so I reckon yuh'd not wanna get too close. Yuh don't wanna get any'uh thayt on yuh."


Moving from the Carter Store to the remarkably precious old cabin, I stumbled upon a heated conversation in progress between locals and visitors alike concerning the advent of air conditioning and the way things were taking place in the conveniently climate-controlled confines of the main room (or, the room with the fireplace and the AC unit). I poke around for a while, hoping that I look like I'm not listening too closely when in fact I am mentally bookmarking some of the things said as the topic turned toward climate change beliefs, until my niece interrupted my eavesdropping to inform me that the band has started again and that she is also concerned about the authenticity of the eggs displayed in the cabin's kitchen. We leave the mystery of the eggs unsolved and opt to head back to the clackery of the dance floor which seems to have cooled off substantially meantime. I notice that some of the rolling shutters have been closed against the unseasonably chilly night air and that a good number of the dancers have taken seats in the front row, as yet unstirred by the rapid tempos and dexterous instrumentation of bluegrass five-piece the Hillbilly Gypsies, the evening's sole act that was just then digging into their second set. My niece waited as long as she could, seemingly put off by the diminished crowd, but within the span of a song she was up and stepping again, sans footwear, all the while working the ruffles of the knee-length peasant skirt she wore especially for the occasion. I smile to think of her now, dancing so hard to every song thereafter that she blistered and bruised up her feet real good.

This was last Saturday night at the Carter Family Fold and it's happening again as I type this. It seems a world away from the "cultured" urban setting I call home, but I am pleased to have known such a corner of the country so dedicated to kith and kin and the "old time" simple pleasures that comes of making porch music of an evening and feeling your feet flow freely beneath you. I look forward to the next time I find myself in the Fold, hopefully with proper footwear.

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Johnny Cash (25), The Carter Family (1), Country (20), Bluegrass (5), Carter Family Fold (1), Virginia (3), June Carter Cash (1)