“Welcome to the Fold!”
Rita Forrester, the granddaughter of founding Carter Family member Sara Carter, stood center stage at the Carter Family Fold in the Appalachian mountains of Hiltons, Virginia, reading a list of all the places people had come from to get here. There were neighboring states but much to everyone’s surprise, she named countries of Switzerland and New Zealand at which point a smiling couple from overseas appeared.
Nearly one hundred years ago the Carter Family recorded with Jimmie Rodgers as part of the Bristol Sessions. Johnny Cash, who would marry Maybelle Carter’s daughter June, once described it as “the Big Bang of country music.” Now Forrester stood onstage in a building first erected by her mother Janette and has for the past 44 years, provided Saturday night entertainment been a mecca of sorts for country music lovers.
When I made the turn on route 614, I got goosebumps when I saw signs I was driving on the A.P. Carter Highway. I made my turn where Lunsford Mill road and Wildwood Flower Drive intersect. I parked my car on the grassy incline between the relocated cabin of A.P. Carter’s youth and the grocery store he once operated that is now a Carter Family museum. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Jim Lauderdale sitting alone against the back door of the museum, picking out chords and the distinct melancholy of his voice working through the words of the Carter Family standard “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone.” Inside the museum filled with historical timelines, memorabilia and stage clothes, you can lift a telephone receiver and hear the original Carter Family sides from the Bristol Sessions. Standing closer to the back door and hearing Lauderdale’s voice drifting in, it was like experiencing the continuum of two centuries being bridged.
“Virginia is for music lovers,” the neon lights emitted from the stage, the walls swathed in images of A.P., Sara and their cousin Maybelle. It felt like a cross between an extension of the museum and the Grand Ole Opry. In front of the stage, a concrete dance floor separated the front seats, providing room for dancing and a path to the concession stand where you could get delicious chili dogs.
Lauderdale began the show billed as “Appalachia Rising,” with a short set, kicking things off with “I Feel Like Singing Today,” a bluegrass song he wrote for a local Virginian by the name of Ralph Stanley. Lauderdale’s guitar was made by several Virginia luthiers who he said were present. Lauderdale then sang a song “Forgive and Forget” he wrote and sang for his would-be debut album with Roland White nearly forty years ago. Thought to be lost, the tapes recently surfaced and will be released as Jim Lauderdale & Roland White on Yep Roc Records in August. Lauderdale then sang acapella on “Like Him,” gospel song he wrote for Stanley. Describing it as a magical experience, his deep voice was worthy of being in the pulpit.
Lauderdale acknowledged the upcoming bluegrass festival in nearby McClure, Virginia being run by his son Ralph II. He then introduced the Church Sisters, a duo from Danville that he saw five years ago, When singers Savannah and Sarah Church kicked off “Gentle On My Mind,” people headed to the dance floor, the distinct rhythm of their dance feet clogging. They sang “The Little I Got” from their new album A Night at The Opry and gave a shout out to their parents for making it all possible.
As Lauderdale watched admiringly from the audience, the sisters provided a direct link to the Carter Family, trading verses and harmonizing on “Where We’ll Never Grow Old,” a song they reprised from Orthophonic Joy, the album commemorating the songs the Carter Family recorded at the original Bristol Sessions. Later in the set they re-enacted the melancholy of traditional mountain music in the Carters’ “Bury Me Beneath The Willow Tree.”
“Y’all wanna dance or are you too hot?” Savannah asked adding it wouldn’t be right if they didn’t do a Johnny Cash song. Cash played his last shows here at the Fold, has his rocking chair as a permanent part of the A.P. Carter cabin. They launched into “Folsom Prison Blues” and the syncopated clogging of feet tapping reached a rhythmic crescendo.
After an intermission, Lauderdale came back to his emcee duties, befitting of being host of the weekly Music City Roots and the annual Americana Music Awards whose nominees had just been announced. He kicked off the second set with the revenge song “Old Time Angels.” As he played, he summoned the rain gods. Suddenly thunderous skies could be heard opening and the cool breeze of rain felt blowing through the openings. Staff scrambled to pull down the rolling metal covers to enclose the theater.
Enter one Junior Sisk and his band of bluegrass merry men, Ramblers Choice. The confident front man seemed genuinely struck by how far the Fold had come since he first came here elven years ago. Nodding in admiration to Forrester, he reminded the audience that Virginia is for bluegrass lovers.
Sisk invoked bluegrass dogma covering a song by Ralph Stanley’s brother Carter called “Darling Do You Know Who Loves You.” For “That’s The Truth Right There,” a song he learned from Red Allen but discovered later was done by Jimmy Martin. We delighted in rediscovering the lost Flatt and Scruggs song “Lonesome and Blue.” Sisk personalized his set dedicating “Walking In The Blue Ridge Mountains” to his wife Susan.
“Do you remember the Marshall Family?” he asked before invoking beautiful three-part harmony with “Lowest Valley.” The timeless song seemed poignant in a world that, as its lyrics state, seems to be getting more cruel. By the time the band closed with “Cotton Eyed Joe,” it felt like the heart of a Saturday night with Jamie Harper’s ferocious fiddle and the sounds of dance heels ricocheting and amplifying the band’s rhythm.
Like Rambler’s Choice, Nashville’s Hogslop String Band is centered around the ferocity of fiddle, mandolin, banjo acoustic guitar and washtub bass. “We’re going to have a party,” guitarist Gabriel Kelley proclaimed. “It’s Saturday night.” They had the dance floor swinging and threatened to tear the house down with staples such as “Make Some Moonshine,” “Reuben’s Train” and “Crow’s Black Chicken.” No electric instruments were allowed but none were required. Acknowledging they are an old square dance band which likes their rock and roll every now and then, the band played Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven,” a front porch stop that sounded like ancient folk music.
The band, which had been hanging out with Lauderdale all day, thanked Marty Stuart at one point. “They both have great hair,” Kelley said in obvious self-amusement. Lauderdale returned a barb when he returned to the stage mentioning that when he first met the group, he thought they were a classic string quartet.
The entire night’s bill re-assembled for “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” Bringing it all back home, the singers repeated the verses that have been the bedrock of country music for the past century. It took a while for things to get started, with everyone patiently waiting to see who would sing first. Lauderdale acting as coach, motioned to the Church Sisters who took a verse followed by Sisk and later Kelley. Forrester swayed with Lauderdale in a truly transcendent moment.
By nights end, all the performers headed for the merch table to mingle, take selfies and sign autographs. For Lauderdale it was back to the future. His lost album with Roland White wouldn’t be out until August 2 but on this balmy Saturday night, it could be yours.