Appalachia: Cradle of Music

Rep. Morgan GriffithA recent award ceremony including a Southwest Virginian at the Library of Congress reminded me of our region’s rich musical heritage. The course of American music was shaped by traditions, people, and places found within the borders of Virginia’s Ninth District.

The Southwest Virginian honored in Washington is Eddie Bond of Fries, among the foremost practitioners of old-time fiddling. In June of this year, the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) announced that he won a National Heritage Fellowship. The NEA bestows this award for great artists engaged in our country’s traditional and folk arts, and they recognized this year’s recipients at a September 26 ceremony at which I was honored to give brief remarks.

Eddie comes from a musical family, and he has truly devoted his life to the art of old-time fiddling. The National Heritage Fellowship is only the latest recognition of his talent and hard work. I encourage you to check out the NEA’s website, which features more on his background as well as some of his recordings.

In 1984, another Southwest Virginia native earned the National Heritage Fellowship. The legendary Ralph Stanley was notable for his unique voice, banjo playing, and prodigious output (1,300 recorded songs). He was born in Dickenson County, an origin reflected in the name of the group he performed in alongside his brother Carter, the Clinch Mountain Boys.

Ralph and Carter helped pioneer the genre of bluegrass music. After Carter died at the age of 41 in 1966, Ralph continued his musical career while introducing more old-time elements into his work. After receiving an honorary degree from Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee, he was often called “Dr. Ralph Stanley.” Dr. Ralph’s place in the musical pantheon was secure when he died in 2016 at the age of 89.

Bluegrass owes much to the Stanley Brothers of Dickenson County. If you leave Dickenson and head to State Street in Bristol, you’ll find where another genre of music can claim deep roots. The 1927 “Bristol sessions” are now remembered as the formative event of country music. During the summer of that year, record producer Ralph Peer stepped off a train on the Virginia side of the street and set up recording equipment in the Taylor-Christian Hat and Glove Company on the Tennessee side.

From July 25 to August 5, local artists came to record. The first was Ernest Stoneman, a native of Monarat in Carroll County. Stoneman had already made successful recordings, in some cases joined by his wife Hattie and her siblings as well as others. They came to Bristol to record more. Stoneman’s financial success made the local papers, acting as a lure for other artists.

Among them was a family from Maces Spring in Scott County. They were A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and Sara’s sister Maybelle Addington. The Carter family’s recordings from the Bristol sessions made them stars and launched a musical dynasty (A.P. and Sara’s daughter Janette won a National Heritage Fellowship in 2005).

In all, nineteen acts recorded 76 songs. In the words of Johnny Cash, who as we all remember married into a later generation of the Carter family, the Bristol Sessions were “the most important event in the history of country music.”

You can still hear the legacy of these musical traditions echoing in our hills. Drive “The Crooked Road,” a trail connecting venues throughout Southwest Virginia where traditional music is played. Hear the performers competing for cash prizes at the annual Old Fiddlers’ Convention in Galax around the second weekend of each August. Visit the Birthplace of Country Music Museum at 520 Birthplace of Country Music Way in Bristol, just a stone’s throw from where it all began.

I was glad to see these legacies honored in Washington by the National Endowment of the Arts this year. Eddie Bond is only the most recent Ninth District native to earn a National Heritage Fellowship; in addition to him, Ralph Stanley, and Janette Carter, Wayne Henderson of Mouth of Wilson won in 1995 and Frank Newsome of Haysi won in 2011.

Through the years, the music of Appalachia has entertained, worshipped, mourned, and fulfilled innumerable other meanings. It has brought together communities and even families, as seen in the stories of the artists written of here. Our music, the music of Appalachia, is as much a part of America as the mountains themselves.

If you have questions, concerns, or comments, feel free to contact my office. You can call my Abingdon office at 276-525-1405 or my Christiansburg office at 540-381-5671. To reach my office via email, please visit my website at www.morgangriffith.house.gov. Also on my website is the latest material from my office, including information on votes recently taken on the floor of the House of Representatives.