As we drove past sheared-off mountain faces and a towering coal-fired power plant, Smith played recordings of Frank Newsome, a former miner many consider the greatest line-singer of all. While Newsome worked the somber lyrics, we heard in the background ecstatic yips from women in his congregation—taken by the spirit, they were “getting happy,” as it’s called. Newsome’s voice was melancholy and rough, a bit like Stanley’s with the showbiz stripped out of it. It was a voice dredged up from someplace deep, like coal itself.
The coalfields are a transporting destination, because the old music is still a living part of the contemporary culture. In other parts of America, “people look forward,” Smith says. “If you live here, they look back. The changes are coming and have been coming for a long time, but they come here slower. The people who stay here, that’s how they like it.”
Yet change they must, as the coal industry wanes and more jobs vanish. There are signs that tourism could be a saving grace: local jams assemble almost every night, except Sundays and Wednesdays (when many churches hold Bible study), and a winery recently opened near Wise, its vintages—Jawbone, Pardee, Imboden—named after regional coal seams. (“Strip mines turn out to be perfect for growing grapes,” Smith says. “Who knew?”) But vacant streets are a heart-wrenching commonplace in many little towns. High schools are closing, ending epic football rivalries. The fate of the music cannot be certain when the communities’ futures are in doubt. Not even Frank Newsome sings as he once did. He suffers from black lung.
After the beauty and pathos of the coalfields, I wanted a dose of good country cheer before heading home. We doubled back to the little Blue Ridge city of Galax, arriving just in time to hear the opening blessing and national anthem (played, naturally, on an acoustic guitar) of the 75th Old Fiddler’s Convention.
One early competitor, Carson Peters, ambled onstage and coolly regarded a crowd of about 1,000. Carson was not an old fiddler. He was 6 and had started first grade that very day. But he was feeling cocky. “Hello, Galax!” he squeaked into the microphone, poising his bow. I braced myself—plugged into a monster sound system, 6-year-olds with string instruments can commit aural atrocities.
But Carson—from Piney Flats, Tennessee, right across the Virginia border—was a savage little professional, sawing away at the old-time tune “Half Past Four” and even dancing a jig as the crowd roared.
“You’ll see some real ankle biters playing the heck out of the fiddle,” Joe Wilson had promised when I mentioned I was attending Youth Night at the longest-running and toughest mountain music showdown in Virginia. From toddlers to teenagers, in cowboy boots, Converse sneakers and flip-flops, they came with steel in their eyes and Silly Bandz on their wrists, some bent double beneath the guitars on their backs. Behind dark sunglasses, they bowed “Whiskey Before Breakfast” and a million versions of “Old Joe Clark.”
Galax was much changed since we’d last driven through. A sizable second city of RVs had popped up, and the old-time pilgrims clearly intended to stay awhile—they had planted plastic flamingos in front of their vehicles and hung framed paintings from nearby trees. I had heard that some of the best music happens when the weeklong competition pauses for the night, and musicians—longtime bandmates or total strangers—gather in tight circles around campfires, trading licks.
But the hard-fought stage battles are legendary too. “When I was a kid, winning a ribbon there was so important that it would keep me practicing all year,” said guitarist and luthier Wayne Henderson, once described to me as “Stradivarius in blue jeans,” who’d famously kept Eric Clapton waiting a decade for one of his handmade guitars. Henderson, of Rugby, Virginia, still keeps his ribbons—reams of them, at this point—in a box beneath his bed.
Fifteen years ago or so, many old-time festival musicians feared that youthful interest was waning. But today it seems that there are more participants than ever, including some from Galax’s burgeoning community of Latino immigrants, who came here to work in the town’s furniture factories. (The town now hosts powerful mariachi performances as well as fiddle jams, and one wonders what fresh musical infusions will come from this latest crop of mountaineers.)