December 2019 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Pick 5: Not-So-Traditional Christmas Songs for Traditional Christmas

Christmas Day is over, and all of the traditional Christmas songs have also gone away – for the past month (and sometimes into November), you couldn’t go to any public place with a sound system without hearing these yuletide tunes on repeat. I’ve never been one for traditional Christmas music; I blame my parents for playing Josh Groban’s Christmas album Noel over and over during the holiday season when I was younger. However, it is still officially Christmas, the 12 days of Christmas, in fact. And so, I’ve gathered a list of some alternative Christmas songs that I’ve grown to love and appreciate over the years to carry us through to the end of the season on January 6.

“Hard Candy Christmas,” Dolly Parton

This Dolly Parton classic wasn’t conceived as a Christmas tune. Originally written by Carol Hall for the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, “Hard Candy Christmas” became a bona fide Christmas song once Dolly put it on her collaborative album with Kenny Rogers, Once Upon A Christmas, and after she performed the song on Bob Hope’s Christmas special in 1988. I love this song because it starts off so sad. And then there’s so much possibility and hope for the future with every ‘maybe’ Dolly croons – life and the holiday season may be hard, but we have the opportunity to make of it what we will. Dolly lets us know that it will all be fine.

“I Just Wanted to Say,” My Morning Jacket

My Morning Jacket, one of those quintessential early aughts indie bands, released a Christmas EP entitled My Morning Jacket Does Xmas Fiasco Style in 2000, which was very early in their career. And, with artists like Nick Cave listed in the composer credits the EP is anything but a fiasco. My favorite song of the bunch is “I Just Wanted to Say.” The song has a sad indie sound with some alt-country guitar twang, but it’s actually a very endearing and sweet song lyrically – Jim James just wants to be a little part of your cheer.

“River,” Joni Mitchell

“River” is another song that was not meant to become a part of the Christmas song canon, instead being merely written with the temporal setting of the Christmas season. The song borrows melodies from classic Christmas songs that give it that Christmas feel, but the melancholic and nostalgic lines and winter imagery by the Queen of sad and thoughtful lyrics are what really make this a spectacular Christmas song for me.

“Christmas in Harlem,” Kanye West, CyHi da Prynce, Teyana Taylor

Anyone who knows me knows I love and am fascinated by Kanye West, and I try to find any excuse to talk about him. And so, of course, his Christmas song would be on my list! “Christmas in Harlem” was released in 2010 as a part of his GOOD Fridays free music giveaway series. Like most of the other songs on this list, the lyrics speak to the sadder side of Christmas like not being able to be with family and the disillusionment with the consumerist culture surrounding the season.

“It’s Christmas! Let’s Be Glad!,” Sufjan Stevens

This is definitely the happiest track from my list! The song comes from a box set of five different Christmas and Christmas-related EPs the singer Sufjan Stevens released between 2001 and 2006. Sufjan is known for his haunting lyrics and unique banjo playing, and what this Christmas song lacks in haunting lyrics, it more than makes up for in unique and wonderful banjo sounds! I picked this song out of the long track list just because I thought you all deserved at least one genuinely happy sounding Christmas song – and who doesn’t love a banjo-filled Christmas?

The True Spirit of Christmas at Farm and Fun Time!

The warmth of the holiday season was all around us as festive bluegrass music filled the air at Farm and Fun Time on December 13! Thanks to our sponsor Eastman Credit Union, Radio Bristol was able to bring Farm and Fun Time to not only those in the audience or tuned in to WBCM-LP, but to viewers far and wide via Facebook Live. Be sure to like WBCM – Radio Bristol on Facebook to tune in every month!

Left: The full band of Bill and the Belles sing on the Farm and Fun Time stage, with a small vintage Christmas tree front and center with the mic. Center: A close up of Louise Bouton singing. Right: Bill and the Belles in front of the full Performance Theater.
Bill and the Belles were joined in spreading holiday cheer by Louise Bouton, who performed on WCYB’s Farm and Fun Time in the 1950s. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Host band Bill and the Belles started the show off with some Christmas favorites, including Louise Bouton joining them on stage for a moving rendition of “Blue Christmas.” Louise performed on WCYB’s original Farm and Fun Time and can still sing with the best of them. Once a star, always a star! This month’s “Heirloom Recipe” segment was presented by Judy “Butterfly” Farlow, a gifted storyteller and ventriloquist who has performed for audiences far and wide, including as Mrs. Claus at the White House. Judy recalled a childhood memory of when she baked a batch of biscuits with some, shall we say, “well-loved” dough she had been playing with for weeks. Though we didn’t get the recipe for these biscuits, Judy told the crowd all about Christmas jelly, and Bill and the Belles “jammed” on a jingle to celebrate this festive spread.

Judy "Butterfly" Farlow in front of the Christmas mic sharing her story of childhood biscuits.
Judy “Butterfly” Farlow delivering the “Heirloom Recipe” segment about how *NOT* to bake biscuits… © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Our first musical guest of the evening was the McLain Family Band. Having performed together for over 50 years, the McLain Family is a favorite with bluegrass audiences across the globe. Though McLains have been performing together for decades, each member is a highly acclaimed bluegrass musician in their own right. While you might turn up your nose at the idea of a set of the same old tired Christmas music, the McLains could have grown the heart of any musical Grinch several sizes with their performance filled with original Christmas songs. With their astounding musicianship and high-spirited positivity, the McLain Family Band’s holiday cheer was certainly a high point of the season for all in attendance, in-person and over the air. 

Left: The full McLain Family Band. Center: A close up of the McLain guitar player. Right: A close up of the McLain mandolin and bass players.
The McLain Family Band wowing the audience with 50 years of experience. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

This month’s “Radio Bristol Farm Report” went back in time at Rocky Mount State Historic Park. Rocky Mount’s Candlelight Christmas lets visitors experience the holiday season as it would have been for settlers on the East Tennessee Frontier in 1791. Here’s a video from our visit:

Concluding the set was Rebel Records recording artists High Fidelity. A favorite at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, High Fidelity captures the spirit of the artists who defined bluegrass as a genre while carrying those sounds into the future. Though drawing heavily from many sources, including Jesse McReynolds, a Southwest Virginia legend with whom Jeremy Stephens and Corrina Rose Logston both perform, this evening’s show featured music from Don Reno and Red Smiley’s  “The True Meaning of Christmas,” in addition to favorites from High Fidelity’s two albums. Stephens and Logston were joined by Daniel Amick, one of the 2019 IBMA Momentum Instrumentalists of the Year, and Brad Benge. Featuring high-energy bluegrass music, featuring twin-banjos (!), High Fidelity is not to be missed when they play near you!

Top left: A close up of the bass player. Top right: The full High Fidelity band.
Bottom left: A close up of the fiddle and banjo players.
Bottom right: A close up of the High Fidelity guitarist.
High Fidelity channeling sounds from the early days of bluegrass in a special festive set.
© Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Thanks to everyone who came out and shared in this wonderful evening of music! We hope you all have the happiest of holidays and the best in the new decade. Tickets are on sale for January’s show featuring C.W. Stoneking, Vaden Landers Band, and host band Bill and the Belles, but they’re going fast. We hope to see you there!

Two festive props from December's Farm and Fun Time: a vintage Santa and a garland bedecked bass.
© Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Not All Who Wander Are Lost: Celebrating A. P. Carter on His Birthday

Today is the anniversary of A.P. Carter’s birth – he was born on December 15, 1891 in Maces Spring, Virginia. A.P. was the driving force behind The Carter Family, and his place in music history is strong and true. Numerous books and articles chronicle the Carters’ musical journey and their legacy and impact – my personal favorites are Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg’s Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone and David Lasky and Frank Young’s graphic novel The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song. Their story has also been told through television, radio and film – from Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary series to The Winding Stream by Beth Harrington.

A blog post does not seem sufficient to explore the full life of A.P. Carter, but we wanted to celebrate this special day and so I’ve instead pulled together five interesting details from A. P.’s story.

Lightning Strike

A.P. was full of quirks – from his daydreaming to his wandering ways to the tremor he carried with him his whole life. A.P.’s mother Molly Bays Carter attributed her firstborn son’s shaking to a thunderstorm she encountered one day when she was pregnant with him. She was standing under an apple tree when lightning struck, the energy traveling down to the ground and all around her – as Zwonitzer and Hirshberg report, Molly always said that this lightning strike “shot such a bolt of fright into her swollen belly that the baby inside would be afflicted with that very nervous energy for each and all of his days.” The tremor that affected A.P.’s body also came through in his voice, which carried a bit of a quaver when talking and singing. And the nervous energy seemed to push A.P. to always be on the move, hitting the road for days on end, and keeping his mind busy and turned inward.

Black-and-white photograph of A. P. Carter sitting in a chair outside, looking straight at the camera. Two women can be seen in the background behind him though they are not the subjects of the picture.
A rare moment when A.P. was sitting still. Courtesy of Dale Jett

All in a Day’s Work

While A.P.’s dream was to make money from music – a dream that he, with Sara and Maybelle, fulfilled – that wasn’t the only work he did. As with so many people during the early part of the 20th century, working hard, and doing a multitude of jobs, was a necessity to take care of family. When A.P. met Sara for the very first time, he was a traveling fruit tree salesman. (Incidentally, he was so struck by Sara – and her singing voice – on this first meeting that he bought from her rather than the other way around; he went home with an order for a set of dishes.) He also farmed his land and worked sawmills at various times, and then after his music career came to an end, he set up a grocery store in Maces Spring, though from all accounts he didn’t keep regular hours and his business wasn’t as brisk as he would probably like. However, his store served as a gathering place, and one imagines a place where music was made, perhaps leading him on to his dream of a permanent home for music-making, fulfilled in his daughter Janette’s establishment of the Carter Family Fold after A.P.’s passing.

Frontal view of the A.P. Carter Grocery Store, now The Carter Family Museum. It is a small white building with two peaked eaves at each end.

A.P. Carter’s grocery store, now a museum devoted to The Carter Family. © Southern Foodways Alliance

A Way with Words

A.P.’s penchant for wandering in his search for new (old) songs is well known – a habit referred to as “songcatching.” Along the way, A.P. went back into the hills of Appalachia and into the factories in the urban areas, always on the hunt for a song he hadn’t heard before. He didn’t always go on this search on his own, and his songcatching travels with African American musician Lesley Riddle are also a familiar element of the Carter history. A.P. met Lesley, also known as “Esley,” in Kingsport, Tennessee – initially as a source of good songs to learn. Soon they were traveling together, which must have been challenging as they passed down the roads and into the towns of a segregated South. Often A.P. had to find a separate place for Lesley to stay and eat, either with friends, family, or others who didn’t discriminate based on the color of his skin. Lesley had a head for remembering the tunes and lyrics of the songs they heard, acting like a “human recorder” in some ways, and they spent a lot time going over the songs they brought home and working them up with Sara and Maybelle. Lesley noted that there were times when he’d have to get up and walk away just to have a break from that intense focus. But all that songcatching led the Carters to a wonderfully huge and varied repertoire, including songs A.P. wrote himself, a discography that is one of the most influential in country music history.

A.P.’s Guitar

The museum was fortunate to have a piece of A.P.’s musical career on display a few years ago at our first special exhibit, The Carter Family: Lives and Legacies. On loan from his grandson Dale Jett, A.P.’s 1936 Martin 000-28 style guitar had a story to tell. A.P. bought this guitar in a pawn shop in San Antonio or Del Rio, Texas for $65–$75 dollars. In the 1930s, Martins were being made out of the best materials with the best craftspeople – all handmade rather than by machines, and this guitar’s top was made from spruce found in the Appalachians and considered the best tone wood. While A.P. isn’t really known for his guitar playing and he certainly didn’t play an instrument too often for The Carter Family performances or recordings, he did play this Martin on border radio from time to time, and it can be seen in a promotional Christmas card from this period that featured the musical family. The guitar is still played today by Jett.

Left: A.P. Carter's guitar on display in a case at the museum -- behind the guitar is a pink-shaded panel with a quote from Dale Jett about the guitar. Right: Dale Jett, Wayne Henderson playing the A.P. Carter guitar, and a member of staff at the museum, on stage in the Performance Theater.
A.P. Carter’s guitar on display at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum; Dale Jett and Wayne Henderson play and discuss A.P.’s guitar at a museum program. Left: © Birthplace of Country Music; Right: Courtesy of Tom Netherland

1941

So much of life is down to the vagaries of chance, and A.P.’s story is no different. The Carters’ place in country music – indeed, in American music as a whole and beyond – is significant. But their story still has a “what if” element, and that comes from the Life Magazine photo shoot that happened in the fall of 1941. Focusing on the original Carter Family and their children, the photo shoot took place in Virginia with the intention of a story about the Carters and their music appearing in the magazine later that year. However, the photo spread never appeared as it was pushed off the pages by the bigger news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The photographer Eric Schaal did keep one of the images – a portrait of himself with A.P. – framed in his home, later saying that A.P. “was the most exotic subject he’d ever photographed.” And so the question remains: What would have happened to the Carters, and to A.P., if that spread and their story had been published to the wide and varied audience found in the readership of Life?

Screenshot of Dust-to-Digital's tweet on A.P.'s birthday in 2018, noting the Life photoshoot and with a black-and-white photograph of A.P. from that shoot. He sits holding his guitar in a room with flowered wallpaper.
Portrait of A.P. Carter taken for Life Magazine photo shoot in 1941. From Dust-to-Digital’s Twitter feed

Radio Bristol Book Club: Serena

Welcome to Radio Bristol Book Club! Readers from BCM and the Bristol Public Library are coming together each month to celebrate and explore one book inspired by our region’s rich Appalachian cultural and musical heritage. We invite you to read along and then listen to Radio Bristol on the fourth Thursday of each month at 11:00am when we will dig deep into the feelings and questions raised by the books, learn more about the authors, and celebrate the joys of being a bookworm!

Greed, corruption, obsession, and murder. This is the story you get with December’s book club pick: Ron Rash’s Serena.

Four Serena covers bearing different images: an archive image of timber production in the mountains' a split image showing the back of a woman and a train passing through a rural landscape; a more graphic image showing the dark silhouette of a woman in the woods; and the movie tie-in cover showing the two stars, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper.
Cover images for Ron Rash’s Serena, reprinted numerous times over the years including a cover to mark the making of the book into a major Hollywood movie.

Set in 1930s North Carolina, Serena is the tale of George and Serena Pemberton, newlyweds who move from Boston to North Carolina to start a timber company. George, who had already been living there at the logging camp, had fathered an illegitimate son, Jacob, with a local woman named Rachel.

It does not take long for Serena to show her strength, and she soon reveals a great knack for running the company and that she can do anything the men can do. She and George are soon living large and vanquishing anyone who dares to get in their way. When Serena finds that she cannot have children, Rachel and Jacob become targets of her jealous rage. However, Serena soon realizes that they have someone she does not expect on their side.

A black-and-white portrait of the author Ron Rash, looking grizzled and contemplative.
Ron Rash’s portrait from his Harper Collins author page.

In addition to Serena, award-winning author Ron Rash has written numerous novels, poem collections and short stories, including Burning Bright, which won the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and Chemistry and Other Stories, which was a finalist for the 2007 PEN/Faulkner Award. In addition to his writing, Rash is also the Parris Distinguished Professor in Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University.

This month we will be meeting on the third Thursday of the month – one week earlier than normal due to Christmas – so make plans to join us on Thursday, December 19 at 11:00am! You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app. The book is available at the Bristol Public Library so be sure to pick up a copy and read it ahead of time. The librarians will be happy to help you find the book. We look forward to sharing our thoughts on this deep and engaging novel.

And keep an eye out for our full list of 2020 Radio Bristol Book Club picks – they will be up on our website soon!