UP 23

Pulled an all night drive a couple days ago, from Asheville up I-26 to just below Bristol, then backtracking back to 23 on 421, up through eastern Tennessee and eastern Kentucky to Portsmouth, Ohio, to Circleville and ending in Fredericktown. As I drove, I kept passing the birthplaces and homes of my musical heroes, one after another. Fiddlers and bluesmen, singers of the old love songs, all lived along this road, and still do. I felt as though I was recapitulating some core history, bouncing through the dark, guested by ghosts.

I left Asheville around seven. Asheville is home to the Asheville Folk and Dance Contest, which the native folklorist Bascom Lamar Lunsford created out of a flower show in 1928. In the ensuing ninety years, fiddle tunes have become one of Asheville’s main exports. I was headed here, to Kim and John Walsh’s place. They are supporters of old time music, their community and its traditions, and of me. I am a perpetual student of this music, and through the whole drive I felt surrounded by it.

North of Asheville is Madison County, where Sheila Kay Adams lives. She is a living example of  continuity in tradition, descended from half a dozen of Cecil Sharpe’s and Maude Karpeles’ World War I era informants, cousin to many locally well-thought-of musicians living and dead, and a key teacher and singer of those ballads her own self.

A few miles north brings you Johnson City, Tennessee, which fiddler Clarence Horton Greene immortalized in his ‘Johnson City Blues’ back in 1928, not long after Cecil and Maude went home to England to write up their findings. The Down Home Pickin’ Parlor is there, owned and run by Ed Snodderly, himself the nephew of one of North Carolina’s best ‘hornpipe’ fiddlers, Mack Snodderly. It was also the home of Bud’s Gyp Joint, but that’s  a whole ‘nuther story for another time.

John called me just as I was crossing the Tennessee-Virginia border to redirect me away from I-81, as up-and-down a road as exists in this country, back west to US 23, the Hillbilly Highway. Good move. A lot shorter, and a lot flatter. I pulled onto 421 and headed west toward Kingsport, where Leslie Riddle had lived. Mr. Riddle, a black guitar player of some local note, was friends with the Carter Family and also with Brownie McGhee. Brownie had wanted to go on the road together with him; their guitar styles were nearly identical. Leslie opted to stay home, to go collecting instead with A. P. Carter. Living at the Carter Fold for months at a time, I think it is likely he had something to do with Mother Maybelle’s famous ‘Carter Scratch’ style. But who knows? Nevertheless, his knowledge of blues flowed into the Carter style, and his help with A.P.’s collecting likely helped prepare the Carters for their ensuing career on radio and in shows.

I wound my way west to US 23 — 421 is pretty snaky — and headed north. About twenty miles from where 421 and 23 split lies Big Stone Gap, Virginia. The Martin Family lived and played music there. Carl Martin, late of the group Martin, Bogan and Armstrong, learned to play guitar, mandolin and fiddle from his blind older brother in their family band. Later, out on his own, he took up with Bogan and Armstrong as the Tennessee Chocolate Drops. He recorded some 78s, the best of which is his twelve bar version of Crow Jane (most versions are eight bars). Not only was the picking as good as it gets, but his gimmick of snapping his fingers into the mic at propitious moments in the song made him one of the elite guitarists of the day.

Onward and northward to Salyerville, off 23 on 114 a bit to the west of my route. This isolated area was home to a concentration of highly regarded fiddlers and banjo players. John Salyer — farmer, soldier, fiddler of crooked tunes, teacher, judge — lived near that town. Following a three year stint in the Philippines that ended in 1904, he took the long way home by ship. After developing a hefty reputation as both a hoedown and a solo fiddler, Salyer was approached by a local recording rep whom he famously turned down flat. Luckily some ninety of his fiddle tunes, solo and otherwise, were preserved on home recorded 78s. The area was also home to Snake Chapman, Paul David Smith, and scores of other musicians.

Eastern Kentucky and southern Ohio are thick with fiddlers. Portsmouth, at the pointed southern tip of Ohio on the Ohio River, was home to any number of them, but among the best was Buddy Thomas. He died in his sleep at the age of thirty nine, from the cumulative effects of the poverty he was born into. His Rounder recording, ‘Kitty Puss,’ full of crooked Kentucky fiddle tunes done long-bow style, stands tall, maybe by itself,  in that literature.

Not half an hour from Portsmouth is Circleville. Tony Ellis lives there. He is Steve Martin’s favorite banjo player, lyrical and intelligent. Both his playing and his conversation are articulate. Tony played banjo for Bill Monroe back in the early fifties and, when he got off the road, married and raised a family in Ohio. His son Bill, my best buddy, was named for Bill Monroe. Bill now teaches music at St. Michael’s in Vermont, but his basal musical education came from backing up Tony. When Bill and I became buds, it was over the music of Reverend Gary Davis, the blind genius who taught half the rock and rollers of the sixties how to get around on their instruments. Bill’s dissertation on Davis is the best such work to date.

US 23 bumps into I- 270,  Ohio’s belly button. It contains, among other things, a high concentration of  old time musicians my age and younger who are continuing the old repertoires and creating new music on their own. Ohio is the recipient of streams of musicians from all directions; you can dance there every night of the year if you’re plugged in enough. Another forty-five minutes brought the dawn and my arrival to a needed bed. I fell into a short and exhausted sleep thinking about how I was linked to history, fiddle tunes, blues numbers, all the different forms of Southern music that form the bedrock of most of the world’s music now. These are the people that made it what it is in all its glorious rhythm, intensity and eccentricity.

These musicians are like distant family to me and all of my own kin and contemporaries. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the matrix in which I find myself. I’ve futzed with the fiddle for more than four decades now, and at seventy I find I’m just about getting the hang of it. I am truly blessed to be thus embedded.

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