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.

New 12" Releases at Amoeba Hollywood 4/16 - Miles, Virginia, Alexander Lewis, Carlos Nilmmns, Desolate, Zed Bias and more!

Posted by Oliver / Matt / Jordan, April 17, 2013 03:14pm | Post a Comment

Miles - Fainted HeartedMiles

Faint Hearted

Modern Love

Expansive debut full-length statement from Miles (aka MLZ, half of Demdike Stare and Pendle Coven). This album builds on Miles Whittaker's dub techno pedigree, but also pulls liberally from jungle, corroded big room techno and all manner of experiment esoterica. Opener "Lebensform" pits dub atmospheres against a massive breakbeat recalling a more blown-out version of Pan Sonic's transportative music. By contrast, the meditative "Sense Data" is a drone in search of a drop that eventually comes not with drums, but dubby, plaintive chords. While "Rejoice" recalls AFX's lucid ambient work, "Queuing" takes the beatless formula down into the dungeon, it's reverbed darkness blackened  by sheet metal samples. "Loran Dreams" takes things out on a positive, new-age note, its pristine arpeggios recalling Steve Moore or Ricardo Donoso. For travellers.

Buy Faint Hearted


Virginia - Loch and HillVirginia

Loch and Hill

Ostgut Ton

Continue reading...

Ch-ch-changes: thoughts on music, election Day '08

Posted by Kells, November 8, 2008 01:19pm | Post a Comment

Tuesday was tough. I woke up early, voted without having to wait in line (my polling place has always been quiet) and spent the bulk of the day thereafter feeling like I had been physically rendered into ragged shreds of mixed emotions that mainly resembled a patchwork of grief. Being confined to the registers at work, restless, while polls across the country closed at their designated times, the ague that wracked my body and mind increased as the day sank heavily into night. On my dinner break things started looking up; I spent the hour with a politically like-minded coworker (and dear friend) at a local sports bar so decorated with festive balloons, streamers and flat-screen televisions that the effort needed to focus on what might really constitute "news" distracted my mind away from any results I didn't want to see, but nevertheless felt somewhat prepared to receive. When it was projected that my home state of Virginia was going to "go red," as red as a Virginia cardinal, my nerves slackened into an uncomfortable numbness.

Given the option to leave work early, I fled and hopped a bus to meet up with some friends at a bar I'd never been to or heard of. Trying to find a place unknown on such a night was absolutely frustrating and just when I was knitting my brow in consternation, bent over my cellphone feverishly texting queries to inebriated friends, a girl at the front of the bus began to squeal like a steam leak. Suddenly strangers were hugging, kissing and high-fiving me, dancing and falling all over each other on a crowded, careening Haight street bus with a horn-happy driver at the wheel. Images alike to those photos taken during the block parties that erupted at the end of World War II flashed to life in front of me and, maybe for the first time in my life, I felt the news. Everyone here would remember this night, the night the streets of San Francisco went wild for Barack Obama's victory and the end of eight years of  George W. Bush.

Later at the bar I learned from some fellow Virginians that my home state had, in the end, gone blue (!) and that, duh, Illinois senator Barack Obama had indeed won the presidential race. I sipped at my freshly drawn pint, feeling like a crumpled ball of unraveling strain while tears welled and fell freely over smiling cheeks on so many faces in the place. More hugs, kisses and high-fives were exchanged by all. After the silence that settled the rowdy throng of patrons during Obama's speech had lifted, the first thing my friends and I discussed, naturally, was music, or more specifically, the absence of it. We had noticed that the celebration for Obama in Chicago did not include any specific song, as in a campaign song or a victory song. Though plenty of chants were taken up by the exuberant crowd, no song nor soundtrack enhanced the event save for a sort of generic theme composed of sweeping yet soothing symphonic, vaguely patriotic sounding string-scapes that served to bookend the commercial breaks. Lame. Granted, no song need follow such a punctuating speech, a speech so signifying the end of weeks of high tension and sleeplessness for many Americans regardless of their respective preferred candidates. Nevertheless, for me and my friends, the absence of a song, any song, the song was sorely felt.

This musical missing piece turned our discussion from the recent used (some would say abused) campaign songs (like Obama's "Better Way" by Ben Harper and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours" by Stevie Wonder and John McCain's choice of "Take A Chance On Me" by ABBA after John Mellencamp asked the McCain camp to stop using his song "Our Country") to our infinite possible suggestions for songs that for whatever reason were not used by the candidates. My immediate go-to song choice for Obama would have been David Bowie's "Changes," but then a mental run down of the lyrics the comprise the meat of the song had me searching for something more appropriate. Maybe the Pointer Sisters' "Yes We Can Can" would be a better fit, as it goes right along with the repetitive phrasing of Obama's landmark speech, but maybe a little too down tempo to inspire fist pumping, or know, victory daps. For McCain, who is just about the same age as my Dad, I gravitate towards songs I tend to associate with my Dad's taste in music. For example, my Dad really likes Kenny Rogers so why not play "The Gambler" at McCain rallies? It carries almost the same message as Abba's "Take A Chance On Me" besides the fact that it sounds a helluva lot better and strikes a chord with card players across America -- and that's basically everyone. A friend of mine in Michigan suggested that maybe "Money" by Pink Floyd might've been a good one to throw in the mix given our current economic conundrum as well as Li'l Kim's "Can't F*ck With Queen Bee" for Sarah "Barracuda" Palin. I know it's too late for such suggestions, but it's fun to play.
And speaking of Sarah Barracuda, anyone catch that song played at the close of the Republican National Convention a while back? Heart's 1977 hit "Barracuda" pounded over the loud speakers and into a mess of trouble, causing Heart's Ann and Nancy Wilson to issue a statement condemning the use of their song along with the addition of a cease-and-desist notice sent from Universal Music Publishing and sony BMG. The ladies' statement read:

"Sarah Palin's views and values in NO WAY represent us as American women. We ask that our song 'Barracuda' no longer be used to promote her image. The song 'Barracuda' was written in the late 70's as a scathing rant against the soulless, corporate nature of the music business, particularly for women. (The 'barracuda' represented the business.) While Heart did not and would not authorize the use of their song at the RNC, there's irony in Republican strategists' choice to make use of it there."

And I always thought the song was about burning witches or something like the Salem witch trials -- a somewhat fitting theme for Palin depending on your political point of view. Though the song was meant to refer to Palin's nickname earned during her high school years for being skilled at basketball, really, could there be any better song than one that states, "if the real thing don't do the trick/better make up something quick?" I think not, especially now that everything's said and done and Palin critics have grown increasingly pointed in their harsh remarks and egregious commentary.

One friend of mine mentioned at Tuesday night's election party that if any musical genre stand to lose from Obama's victory it has to be punk rock. Of course punk thrives on political gaffs, governmental abuse of power, and war, war, war but, let's face it, it also thrives on bad fashion, general malaise, apathetic grimaces and beer, beer, beer. I agree that American punkers might have a more difficult time gnashing their teeth at Obama than they've had with Bush, but there is enough decay, injustice and tyranny in the world yet to provide for at least a dozen other punk bands as good as, say, The Subhumans, who once asked their liberty-hawked bretheren, "are you prepared to die for your beliefs or just to dye your hair?" Punk's not going anywhere, but maybe reggae is, thanks to Obama supporter Papa Michigan:

Has the problematic playlist for the historic McCain/Palin campaign been pushed aside to make way for a new wave of upbeat, Obama-centric dance mixes? Part of me hopes not because I personally like to keep my politics and my kinetics separate. That song sure is catchy though and other Obama inspired tracks are soon to follow in the footsteps of artists like Papa Michigan and Will.I.Am, who is ready to release his third song about Obama which sounds like it'll be titled "It's A New Day." One can only hope that the political changes that occur within next four years will have minimal effect on the music industry not to mention the overall quality of music made during the impending Obama administration (read Brad Schelden's Amoeblog for his take on this issue). I, for one, am hopeful and look forward to seeing what form the next four years will take musically and politically. Like Bowie says, "Turn and face the strain/Ch-ch-changes/don't wanna be a richer man...I'm gonna have to be a different man," nice words from a man who once penned a song called "I'm Afraid of Americans." It would seem that many Americans are afraid of Americans these days despite what any English musician like Bowie or Morrissey might say. No matter, our differences, however vast, are united through the music we make as we are, all of us, beings who express themselves via sound, song and music-making. That's a simple fact that puts us right out there in the wild we came from with the howling wolves, the singing whales and the sonic mimicry of the Australian Lyre bird (the ultimate rip-off artist). That said, given all this talk of politics and music, no misappropriation of song use is worse than the absence of joyful music at an event that clearly called for it. And thanks to that oversight I've got "Changes" in my head again.