The circle is unbroken
By Ralph Berrier Jr.
Part 6 of a six-part series
Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times
||On her 82nd birthday, Janette Carter (A.P. and Sara's daughter) holds the hand of a young fan, Selena Nickles, 5, at the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, Va. Janette fell earlier in the evening and was in the hospital most of the night. She arrived, in a wheelchair and her arm in a sling, just as the night's music was ending, enough time to sing "Will the Circle be Unbroken" and have a piece of birthday cake.
HILTONS Everybody was waiting for Janette Carter. By the time we arrived at the Carter Family Fold 90 minutes before showtime, more than 100 people occupied the new folding seats that replaced the old benches and rail ties that were as colorful as they were uncomfortable.
Photographer Kyle Green, videojournalist Seth Gitner and I had delayed our trip to the old-time music palace a couple of times because of scheduling conflicts. When we arrived on a steamy Saturday evening in early July and saw the four huge sheet cakes, we couldn't believe our good luck. Of all the nights to pick, we had shown up smack on Janette Carter's 82nd birthday. Yee-haw!
Little did we know then that the birthday cake would not be the sweetest memory we'd take with us from this night. Not even close.
Carter is one of the last direct links to Southwest Virginia's greatest musical legacy. Her parents, Sarah and Alvin Pleasant Carter, and her aunt, Maybelle Carter, are considered one of the first families of country music.
On a sultry day 78 years ago this week , the trio traveled the rutted roads from the long-gone community of Maces Springs to Bristol, on the Virginia-Tennessee line, to make recorded music history.
*High-speed connection recommended
That's why Bristol calls itself the "Birthplace of Country Music" and celebrates its heritage with a museum unceremoniously located in a shopping mall (they're close to moving it to an old building downtown, not far from the spot where the Carters' recordings were made). That's why Joe Carter, Janette's brother, built this rustic theater called the Carter Fold to provide real mountain music. Now that Joe's gone, people come not only to hear bluegrass and old-time tunes, but also to meet Janette and to hear her sing and play her autoharp the way her mother played in the old days.
Only Janette Carter is not here.
Janette's son, Dale Jett, takes the stage with his friend Oscar Harris to open the show. Jett looks more laborer than musician in his cowboy boots and camouflage hat, with a ring of keys dangling over the left hip of his workman's jeans. He cradles an autoharp like an infant. He tells the packed house of nearly 600 fans the bad news.
"We've had a little birthday surprise," said Jett. "Mama fell again this evening. We took her to the emergency room, to the hospital. She hurt her shoulder. I think she's more scared than anything, so we took her to the hospital. Hopefully, she'll be here before the evening's out. It's not a good way to spend your birthday."
Jett and Harris perform "Sea of Galilee," a song Jett learned from his mother, who learned it from her mother. His voice warbles with a trace of his grandpa's famous tremolo. The chain of music is unbroken.
The crowd is sorry to hear Janette is hurt, but heartened that her injury doesn't sound serious. Now, a sense of drama mingles with the humidity: Will Janette make it back in time to celebrate her birthday?
Janette has had a rough go of it recently. Joe, her brother, died March 2, leaving her as Sara and A.P.'s last living child. Then, later in the spring, Janette fell and broke her leg and has been getting around primarily in a wheelchair . Two years ago, she lost her first cousin and good friend, June Carter Cash. Four months later, June's husband, the great Johnny Cash, died.
Cash made his last public performance at the Fold on July 5, 2003, in an unannounced concert. A Carroll County band called Bluegrass Tradition was on the bill and the group's mandolin player, Greg Jones, got to sing baritone harmony with Cash on one song. I grew up with Jones back in Cana, a rural community where musical traditions are passed from one generation to the next like religious affiliation and eye color.
My brothers and I got our musical genes mostly from my mother's side. Her father, Clayton Hall, was a bluegrass player of some note many years ago in Roanoke. He taught my brother Ricky to play guitar and showed me a few fiddle licks before he died . He's buried in Franklin County, not far from where The Crooked Road begins.
The Carter Fold resembles an old tractor shed or a barn, a wooden structure built into a hillside and covered by a metal roof. The building's wooden sides were opened outward and propped up . If a cow had stuck her head through one of the openings, she wouldn't have looked out of place.
Though not a barn at all, the rustic building is a stable of sorts. Joe Carter built it to present and preserve his family's legacy.
Joe Carter was five months old when his parents toted him to Bristol that pivotal first week of August in 1927. The Carters, the Stonemans from Grayson County and yodeling vocalist Jimmy Rodgers from Mississippi recorded traditional songs for Ralph Peer, a New York executive from the RCA Victor record company.
Peer had come to the mountains at Ernest Stoneman's invitation to find and record authentic rural talent. The recordings he made on State Street in Bristol, Tenn., shaped what would become modern country music and made stars of the Carters.
Joe Carter was the last survivor who was at those sessions.
At the Carter Fold on this evening, the Warrior River Boys launch into a mean set of traditional bluegrass, heavy on up-tempo numbers and old instrumentals, including "Sally Goodin" and "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." Dancers sit anxiously on the front rows of the Fold like basketball players waiting to come off the bench and get into the game. When fiddler Owen Sanders launches into "Sally Goodin," George and Chickie Renfro seize the moment. The Renfros, from Piney Flats, Tenn., have been coming to the Fold for 25 years and love to dance. Chickie, 71, gets up to flatfoot. George, 87, gets up haltingly and shuffles his feet slowly, dancing as if he's wiping field mud off the bottom of his shoes.
More than 20 dancers make a ruckus on the concrete floor, taps chattering. The good dancers are joined by the hippie-kid neophytes who try to fake their way through. Hundreds of people stay seated, fanning themselves vigorously with commemorative Carter Fold hand fans and guzzling gallons of the sweetest iced tea this side of Bristol (Virginia or Tennessee).
Rita Forrester home-brews the tea and makes the ham salad sandwiches, tonight's concession stand special. Forrester is Janette's daughter and Dale Jett's sister, and she, too, tends the Carter legacy. She marvels at the number of young people who come to the Fold. She credits the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" movie soundtrack with introducing music of the Carters to a new generation.
"The Kingsport News-Times did a poll and asked young people where they liked to hang out, and most of them said 'The Carter Fold,' " Forrester said during an interview next door in a family museum housed in A.P. Carter's old general store. "I'm still shocked. For years, young people [from the mountains] were made to feel ashamed about where they came from. Now they can look at it with pride."
Forrester is dog-tired from running around all evening. She just heard her mother will probably be leaving the emergency room soon.
The evening wears on and some in the crowd drift away while others wait for Janette. The band takes a break, then a local group plays a set of dance music.
The Warrior River Boys return for a final set, not knowing that 50 yards away, a Cadillac has just arrived at the Fold with Janette Carter in the front passenger seat.
Friends and relatives assist her to a wheelchair. Her purple blouse is covered with a sling holding her left arm. The band whips through the old-time scorcher "Katy Hill" as Carter is rolled into the Fold. Spectators start to see her and begin to applaud as Janette is rolled across the dance floor and up a ramp to the stage. She is parked right behind the band, directly in front of a mural of Sara and A.P. Somebody hands her a can of Coke with a straw, and a sly grin unfolds across her face.
She waves with her right hand as the crowd serenades her with "Happy Birthday." Dozens of people snap photos. Warrior River Boys bandleader Dave Davis congratulates her on recently winning a prestigious National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. She tells the crowd in a familiar deep voice, "I'm going to be all right ... and you all come again ... all of you."
Then, the evening breaks up the only way it can. Davis asks the crowd to sing along with Janette on the Carter Family's best-loved song, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." Janette wheels up to the microphone and mumbles a bit over the first verse.
I was standing by my window, on one cold and cloudy day
When I saw the hearse come rollin' , for to carry my mother away
Then, with the crowd:
Will the circle be unbroken, by and by Lord, by and by
There's a better, home awaitin', in the sky, Lord, in the sky
Photographer Kyle Green shoots a picture of Janette wiping away a tear. As the crowd launches into the chorus again, the truth is clear. The circle is indeed unbroken. The circle is music. People and places separated by hundreds of miles and formidable mountains are united by music. People who have never met can connect themselves musically through a few degrees of separation. Music rolls like a spinning wheel, gathering individual threads of people, places and songs and weaving the whole cloth of a proud region.
This whole trip hasn't been about a crooked road at all. It's about a jagged circle.
I sit here singing a chorus just a few feet from Janette Carter, who is stationed where Johnny Cash performed his last concert. Cash sang that night with my friend Greg Jones, who I saw in Galax playing in a band led by banjoist Steve Barr,
who is the son of musician Tom Barr,
who played in the Whitetop Mountain Band with Albert Hash,
who taught the art of instrument-making to Wayne Henderson,
who has been captured in numerous pencil portraits by the musician and artist Willard Gayheart,
who has drawn chilling likenesses of the Carter and the Stoneman families,
whose daughter, Roni Stoneman, has been showing up in Floyd and at the Rex Theater in Galax,
where I recently saw a concert by the Lonesome River Band,
which once boasted a singer named Dan Tyminski,
who sang on the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack,
which won a Grammy for Ralph Stanley,
who has a song on a CD produced by the Blue Ridge Institute in Ferrum,
which sells a CD featuring my grandfather,
who is buried a few miles away in Franklin County,
and I am standing at my grandfather's grave. A summer storm is gathering in the west beyond the Blue Ridge.