Bluegrass In Brentsville, History Around Us & The Ghost of Jimmy Martin
On an October day in 1863 the Union and Confederate armies skirmished during the Battle of Bristoe in their first major encounter since Gettysburg in July. Frustrated in his attempts to bring on a decisive battle, Robert E. Lee plundered the Orange and Alexandria railroad in retreat from town just twelve miles from the site of the Battle of Bull run in nearby Manassas, Virginia. Lee, admonishing his commander A.P. Hill for the loss, is quoted as saying “General, bury these poor men and let us say no more about it.”
About three miles east of the battle site down present day Bristow Road is the town of Brentsville. Across the street from the Brentsville Courthouse, the Union Army used Hatcher’s Memorial Baptist Church for their stables. On this gorgeous hot sunny September day you can feel history surround you at Bluegrass In Brentsville, the annual tradition alongside the Courthouse steps that once functioned as the center of justice until it moved to Manassas in 1892. The Courthouse was once used as a teacher’s college at the turn of the century for both men and women with the women staying in dorms in the jail. Later it became a community center and dance hall in the 1940s. Grandpa Jones, a founding member of the cast of the television show Hee Haw, played here as did Clyde Moody, the man known as “The Hillbilly Waltz King.”
The jail is currently being rennovated and is located near the one room schoolhouse. The keys to the past dangle from the waist of historical Interpreter Amy Zitzmann who is giving tours of the Courthouse and school. Kids used to walk more than two miles to get to school here. Occasionally you can see one of the students who attended during the World War II years sitting on his front porch across the street.
The soundman is milling about trying to get the right volume to project to the picnic tables that form a perimeter around the Courthouse lawn. Bluegrass In Brenstville features three groups this afternoon. They include: Dark Hollow Bluegrass Band, Ed Schaeffer and Rattlesnake Hill and closer Monte Monteith and Skystone.
Big D’s Pony Rides and Amusements has set up an ice cream truck adjacent to an inflatable moon bounce. Today it’s a kinder gentler world than the grounds where justice used to be doled out on a whipping post in the Brentsville public lot. While Zitzmann says the most common sentences were fees or interment in the county jail, whippings or “lashing” were common outcomes of guilty verdicts. Citizens often attended public punishments, allowing themselves to show chagrin for the guilty. And as she told me, they were also painful reminders that law breakers would be punished.
Consider the fate of one Henry (alias Harry) in 1834, a slave who was guilty of simple larceny. His sentence is recorded in the Prince William County Minute Book of 1833-1836: “Therefore it is considered by the court that the said Slave Harry do receive on his bare back thirty nine lashes, well laid on at the public whipping post, and that the Sheriff do execute this Judgment forthwith.”
Today it’s all about the music. The makeshift stage is a wood plank with a plain white tailgate tent that’s only big enough to shade half of each band playing here today. But opening band Dark Hollow Bluegrass doesn’t seem much to mind. And overall it’s a good day’s work for their new mandolin player who is just sixteen.
“You always keep your ear open at festivals,” bandleader Larry Haynes tells me later. “You write down the phone numbers because you might need them in two years.”
After the show, Larry and Paul are outside their Econoline van parked behind the Courthouse talking about how they’ve put up with each other for fifteen years. If you turn your head and look behind the schoolhouse, you can see the shaded area where the gallows were set up that claimed thirteen people over a period of seventy-one years.
According to the gallows interpretive marker, “A prisoner being sentenced to die on the gallows was a rare occurrence in 19th-century America. But Zitzmann says people would come out to watch and it became a spectacle. In 1850 Agnes was a field slave of a Mr. Gerard Mason, a distant cousin of Constitutional Convention delegate George Mason. She was asked to bring in a hatchet to help split some wood for a fire in the upstairs of the house. In her testimony she states, “he looked at me like he did before he killed Katy.” Katy was a slave that Mr. Mason killed 30 years prior and he was taken to trial at Brentsville and acquitted. When he fell asleep later, she hit him upside the head with the hatchet and killed him. Agnes was sentenced to hang out at the gallows, claimed she was pregnant and that they couldn’t hang her yet. She waited two months in the jail and when it was determined she wasn’t pregnant, she was hanged out back.
Larry and Paul have been together for some fifteen years. Guitarist Bob Cook has been playing for nine years and is happy he didn’t have to drive too far from where he lives in Manassas. Tomorrow they’re excited they’ll be heading to a Sunday show at Madison County High School where they’ll open up for incoming Bluegrass Hall of Fame member Larry Sparks.
Paul has some news to share. There is a legend in the house sitting down in the shade behind them. The man who put his guitar case under the tree has an imposing presence. I took a peek at his case. It reads: “It’s not that I’m too old…it’s that your music sucks.”
His name is Monte Monteith. When he was a kid growing up in Washington, D.C., he once heard a street musician playing for coins named Elizabeth Cotton. Today he is playing her song “Freight Train” driven by Tommy Barlow on dobro.
I’d met Monte’s wife Debbie earlier as she came by on her motorized scooter and told me she thought I looked familiar. This is their fifth time playing at the event and she says they always have a good feeling being here. Forty-something years ago she was an army nurse about to be sent to Thailand. Then one night she and a girlfriend made their way to a dance hall near Ft. Belvoir up U.S. Route 1 where Monte was playing. Their lives changed forever.
Onstage Skystone are all dressed in matching yellow shirts. They’re supposed to be the headliner but half of Rattlesnake Hill is stuck in traffic. Holding court like the master of ceremonies he is listed on the program, there’s no doubt who is the bandleader of Skystone.
Monte does real-time coaching on the Jimmy Martin song “The Breaks.” “All the breaks are the same so you don’t have to get in all the details, Bob,” says Monteith to banjo player Bob Payne. Monte points out that there’s a mandolin player sitting behind the stage who has played over fifty years. His name is Bill Torbert. When the band comes offstage, I notice Monte doling out money to his band members, an age old ritual for the bluegrass bands that carry on the genre’s traditions at fairs, festivals and firehouses
When Torbert walks toward Big D’s truck, my curiosity gets the best of me and I head over. He, Big D and Monte are engaged in conversation. They’re talking about the time that George Jones was in Falls Church just outside D.C. and played four songs before smashing his guitar and locking himself in the bathroom. DJ legend, the late Tom “Cat” Redr of Warrenton down the Lee Highway of U.S. Route 29, begged him to come out.
“He was probably just pissed off at his band,” Torbert surmises of Jones, who he says was a crazy mother. His eyes get really big when he describes the night the Possum put twenty bullets in his tour bus. I couldn’t help but jump in the conversation and share my factoid from reading the Tammy Wynette biography Tragic Country Queen that she and Jones first consummated their relationship at a motel on US 1 in Woodbridge, a town about twenty minutes east of here along the I-95 corridor.
“I probably stayed at that motel,” laughs Monte who lived in Woodbridge at one point.
Torbert motions to the white of his knuckles and how his fingers don’t move like they used to. He says he’s died twice and apologized that it has affected his memory but is happy to be out with his friend for the first time in a few years. Monte and Torbert once played together at the Washington Coliseum the week before the Beatles played their first U.S. show in the same building. The two met in high school and became bandmates. When Monte’s job with the city’s bus system switched to night shift, he lost Torbert to Jimmy Martin, the “King of Bluegrass.”
Other members of his band split off to join Bill Monroe and the Country Gentlemen. Monte stayed with the DC Metrobus system and reitred as the general superintendant after 38 years
Torbert says despite what people might have said about Martin, the “King of Bluegrass,” he was always good to him during the years they played and “treated me like a son.” There was that one time when the band headed up U.S. Route One to the Philadelphia Folk Festival. They brought a bunch of records, hoping to sell them and keep the twenty per cent they were allotted. They didn’t sell any to the hippies there and the weight of the vinyl broke an axle. Bill remembers Martin, the man whose mouth kept him off the Grand Ole Opry, chewing out the band that night.
(L to r: Bill Emerson, Jimmy Martin, Bill Yates, Bill Torbert)
There’s something in Monte’s Suburban parked up against the Courthouse that he wants to show me. It’s a picture of Jimmy and Monte standing alongside the tombstone Jimmy had made for himself. He proceeds to tell me that Jimmy wanted to have his wife buried next to him with his girlfriends on either side. Six months after the picture was taken, he dropped dead of a heart attack. The tombstone is across from Roy Acuff’s grave in Spring Hill Cemetery in Madison, Tennessee.
Did it seem odd that Jimmy had written his own epitaph? Not at all, Torbert replies, adding that if you knew him you’d understand.
I can’t help but Monte about this. He just shakes his head, corroborating what Bill just told me with a wide grin. “Let me see, I think he put it ‘I don’t want no sonofabitch making up something about me after I’m dead and gone.’”
Monte proceeds to tell me about how Jimmy’s wife ran off with another guy and had two kids. When he left her for another woman, Jimmy took her back. It reminds me of something my college journalism professor used to say, that real-life was always stranger than fiction.
Right here in the courthouse they once held the Clark-Fewell Trial. The way Zitzmann tells the story, the young Miss Fanny Fewell and the married James Clark fell in love and planned to elope. Once they get to their destination in Baltimore, Clark left her to return to his wife and children in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Fanny befriends the train engineer to get her to Washington where she is reunited with her family. The Fewell’s then go after Clark and he is brought and housed in the jail (debtor’s cell) while awaiting trial. He is then put on trial for abduction and other charges. Fanny’s brother Lucien gets word of it and takes the train from Lynchburg to Bristoe Station. After a few libations in the tavern across the street, he walks across the street and shoots Clark who dies the next day. Fewell is then held in the maximum security cell he just shot Clark in and then taken to trial and acquitted.
Big D is talking about how this used to be the hillbilly capital. He’s got six trucks out today and says he doesn’t care if he doesn’t make money here. He brought his family out and wouldn’t miss the music. There’s a gleam in his eye when he talks about the old dance halls you could find in the area in days gone by. In Catlett out on Bristerberg Road, there’s an upholstery shop that is for sale. The site used to be a dance hall and there’s a plaque commemorating Loretta Lynn’s visit. There’s a gleam in his eye as he talks about the idea of bringing back the dance halls that used to flourish back in the day because today it seems like there aren’t that many places just to go out. If anyone could make it happen, his eyes say it might be him.
The second band finally gets through traffic and is all here. Rattlesnake Hill is now the headliner. I’m too immersed in all the stories but can’t help but turn my head when I hear “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” Then as event tradition calls, there is a raffle winner to be named.
Monte is looking at a ninety-mile drive back to Mineral, Virginia but before he leaves, he’s doing some reflecting on the good graces that have come his way. There’s a look on his face as he describes the first time he met Debbie, their 44 years of marriage and his friendship with Bill, unique he says in that there aren’t many people you meet in high school and get to stay friends for life. Monte tells me he’s played with some of the best pickers over the years from Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia. But, at the end of the day, it really comes down being with the people you like to be with.
As afternoon passes into the supper hour, in a few weeks it will soon be dark at this time. Summer is making its last stand and Fall looms. A flurry of activity awaits the change of seasons.
Soon they’ll be having weddings in the chapel a short walk from the schoolhouse. The original bible is still there provided by the good folks of Kentucky after the Union army burned everything in their path. Up the road they’ll soon be lighting over 2000 candles for every soldier who died during the Battle of Bristoe Station.
For historical interpreter Amy Zitzmann, there are more tours ahead. Last year she churned butter. This year she might be clearing pasture with a scythe on the county’s upcoming Farm Day. Come October, Court Days will take place putting visitors back in time as carpenters, tailors, and other tradespeople will be set up outside the courthouse like they used to two centuries ago. Soldiers will be drilling. The county will have women dressed in period dress in the Haislip-Hall farmhouse cooking and volunteers and members of the public participating in actual trials that took place here in the courthouse in the 1800s.
I learned that Haislip-Hill was a log cabin was moved from the area where my own house now sits in Bristow off of Linton Hall Road. Imagine Amy’s surprise when Hazel Marino, a 92-year-old woman once approached her and said she had lived in the house. She told Amy she was about five years old or so, the cabin was attached to a modern day house and used as the family’s summer kitchen. She could remember John Hall a Confederate Veteran (whom the family rented from) come by and sit by the fireplace in a rocking chair and visit.
Today was more than a day to savor summer’s last stand. Today there was history to be had, music to be heard and stories to be told.
(Skystone Concert Photo By Morgan Breeden)