Travel: Music and mountains in Tennessee

03/30/2014 12:00 AM

03/26/2014 5:43 PM

Even if all you play is a radio, at an Appalachian Mountain jam session you’re as welcome as a long-lost friend.

That’s what I’m looking for in Blountville, Tenn. In the late 1700s, this town was a bustling stagecoach stop on the state’s oldest wagon road. This evening, it’s so quiet, you can hear the stars twinkle. I pass the recently restored Old Deery Inn, a two-story trading post/tavern/wayfarers lodge dating to 1785. It’s now a museum, but the inn’s past guests included presidents, a king of France and ghosts – some of whom, folks say, never checked out. Adding contrast to the white Dutch clapboard building are red doors and an incredible salvage score: late-1800s cast-iron gates that graced the Smithsonian Institution before its 1910 remodel.

Eventually, plucked and strummed notes lead to my destination: a two-story log cabin built in 1792. A side door creaks opens on an old-time jam session that has filled Anderson Townhouse every Friday night for 19 years.

Players sit in tight circles in every room. On warmer evenings, they also fill the porch. The dining room pickers include “CanJoe” John VanArsdall on fiddle. He helps run the Traditional Appalachian Musical Heritage Association, which hosts the weekly jam. He also teaches music, does Civil War re-enactments (playing musicians) and makes a novelty instrument from cans and strings called the “canjo.” He has even played it at the Grand Ole Opry.

But this is no place for canjos.

The log house swirls with rambles through “Ragtime Annie” and other Appalachian standards. Whoever starts the picking picks the song, says Ricky Quinn, a local musician. If someone doesn’t know it, they learn fast. Quinn’s hanging at the doorway. “I’m waiting for a higher grade of pickers,” he says.

Novices arrive early to pick up licks from masters. As the evening progresses, seasoned pickers regroup – then the jams really cook.

No telling what the music will sound like, or who will show, or how many. Sometimes there’s hardly breathing room. Ages? Whippersnapper on up. “The 88-year-old next to me, Bill McCall, still picks and sings like nobody’s business,” says CanJoe John. And this is no men’s club. Frequent players include Nina Ketron, a superb upright bass picker.

It’s not a locals thing either. Taking highways and back roads, pickers and listeners come from all over the northeast Tennessee/southwest Virginia border region, nicknamed the Mountain Empire.

TAMHA’s jams were started by Ralph Blizard, a Blountville-based legend who first hit the stages and the airwaves as a teenager in the early 1930s. “Ralph was the finest old-time Appalachian fiddler,” says CanJoe John. “Won first place at every major fiddlers convention and competition he ever attended.” Blizard liked to quip that he “never played a tune the same way once.” His band, the New Southern Ramblers, somehow kept up with his roller coaster rides of musical improvisation.

Blizard (fittingly pronounced like the storm) earned the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship and Tennessee Folklife Heritage Award shortly before he died in 2004. Another historic building on Great Stage Road is being turned into a bluegrass museum named for him.

In the townhouse parlor, three players rollick through “Whiskey Before Breakfast” on banjo, fiddle and guitar. How old is this Irish jig? “Even older than him,” says fiddler/lead talker Ken Williams, tilting his chin at 70-something guitarist Uncle Joe Thompson.

The banjo player, Alex Richey, visited from Illinois and never left. “The mountains and music and people – there’s no better place to play,” he says.

In the Appalachians, music’s an element equal to air, earth, water and fire. To play songs of their Irish, Scottish and English homelands, settlers made string instruments of wood from local forests. Their music picked up influences from African American players in the 1800s, then came to the nation’s attention in 1927 through recordings made in Bristol, a town split between Virginia and Tennessee that’s a pretty 15-minute drive east from Blountville.

The state border runs down the center of State Street, the main drag that, despite recent revitalization, has a yesteryear vibe. Warm weather brings musicians onto the sidewalks, especially for Friday “Border Bash” play-offs.

A walking-tour map guides me around historic streets and shops, theaters and bars housed in buildings from the 1800s. I pass an Italian restaurant, an Irish pub, a country grill and a sushi bistro, all of which have stages occupied most nights by area bands. Plenty play traditional bluegrass and old-time, confirms O’Mainnin’s bartender.

History’s told on street markers: The 1927 Bristol Sessions were recorded for Victor Talking Machine Co. by Ralph Peer, who figured that the town’s train station would enable performers to come and audition. As the first nationally distributed country records, the sessions made stars of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.

The locals have worked to preserve their old-time and bluegrass heritage, scoring big with a 1998 congressional resolution declaring Bristol “the birthplace of country music.” Another boost: Johnny Cash called the sessions “the single most important event in country music.”

Workers are readying a 1920s building to reopen this summer as the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate with sense-surround displays. But other heritage stops are open now, and they’re free.

The Mountain Music Museum recently moved from a shopping center to a renovated 1892 building on State Street. Run by the Appalachian Cultural Music Association, the museum displays landmark records, handcrafted instruments and costumes glitzy to goofy. A country store porch replica doubles as a stage for impromptu jams among instrument-toting visitors. Curator Suzy Gobble effervesces with back stories; for example, Sara Carter hated touring so much that she left her Carter Family band mates, including her husband.

Later, I climb a gleaming wooden staircase to the Pickin’ Porch. The cold weather’s forgotten as the pickers trade licks, heating the cavernous exposed-brick digs with spitfire standards like Flatt and Scruggs’s “Salty Dog Blues.”

Outside, State Street’s downtown center glows beneath another starry night. By spring, the crowds will be as thick as flies on a berry pie.

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