Where there’s no depression: Carter Fold treasures the tradition of country music’s First Family
The Carter Family Fold lies tucked away within a rumple of the earth in the far southwestern tip of Virginia. Located in Scott County’s Poor Valley, a narrow crease of land that runs between the massive Clinch Mountain ridge to the west and nubbly Pine Knob to the east, the Fold is a place out of time. And it’s a rarity in these times to come across a place like the Fold that, quietly, unpretentiously, goes about the business of making music.
Consisting of a separate museum and music pavilion, it’s a monument of sorts to the memories of the valley’s most famous former residents: Sara, Maybelle, and A.P. — The Carter Family. Of course there’s a traditional granite monument, but it’s located 22 miles to the east in Bristol, on the Tennessee side of State Street, near the site of the historic 1927 recordings made by Victor Talking Machine Co. talent scout Ralph Peer that are often considered the birth of country music. The Fold, however, is a living, breathing, working organization, run by the current generation of Carters and devoted to the preservation of traditional old-time and bluegrass music.
In many ways, this part of Virginia hearkens more to Tennessee than it does to the Old Dominion. The North Fork of the Holston River, meandering through the valley, is part of the upper Tennessee River drainage, which is linked to the Cumberland River drainage of eastern Kentucky, all of which eventually empties into the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. The cultural geography looks to the Volunteer State as well: Kingsport, Tenn., is but 17 miles south, and Knoxville is the regional big city. Nashville is a good 70 miles closer than Richmond.
Yet it’s the mountain culture of the southern Appalachians that really defines this area. In that respect, Poor Valley, with its three main towns of Hiltons (pop. 30), Maces Springs (pop. 50) and Mendota (pop. 173), turns out to be fertile ground for those who wish to explore the roots of country music and the Carter Family’s place in that tradition.
The nonprofit Carter Family Memorial Music Center (the Fold’s official name) was founded in 1979 by Janette Carter, youngest daughter of A.P. and Sara. Five years before that, she had begun presenting music shows in the general store built by her father in 1945. By 1976, though, the weekend get-togethers had outgrown the one-room store and it became necessary to build a bigger space. The Fold was designed by Janette’s younger brother, Joe, who also coined its distinctive, Biblical-sounding name. (“Fold” in this context seems to draw upon all three definitions of the noun form of the word noted by Webster’s: “1. a pen in which to keep sheep; 2. sheep kept together; flock of sheep; 3. a group or organization with common interests, aims, faith, etc. as a church” — and perhaps even the British usage of “fold” to describe a small valley.)
With the help of family, friends, and musicians, the Fold, a 1,000-seat music shed, went up right next door to the general store. A loan from Janette and Joe’s mother and a benefit concert by Johnny Cash and the Carter Family (Maybelle’s daughters, June, Helen, and Anita) helped fund the Fold’s construction. It has presented live music every Saturday night since 1979.
The general store, a Virginia Historic landmark, now houses a museum of Carter Family memorabilia with enough cozy clutter to keep even the hardest-core fan enthralled for hours. Sara Carter’s handmade autoharp stand holds a prominent place in the museum, but the room is dominated by full-length wall displays of the family’s performing clothes: a sober black suit for A.P., beautiful pastel dresses for the women. Photographs and snapshots are spread out over two large tables; awards, citations and honors cover the walls. Original 78 rpm recordings, album covers, and magazine and newspaper stories are carefully preserved and displayed. There’s even room for the ten-penny nails that held up A.P.’s suspenders. Leaning up against a chair is the most recent acquisition: A framed declaration from the Governor of Virginia declaring August 1, 1997 “Carter Family Day” in honor of the 70th anniversary of the Bristol recordings.
It was a gray but mild November Saturday when I left the interstate at Bristol and headed west on a curvy two-lane to the Carter Fold. At every other turnoff, deer hunters lolled by their trucks telling lies and waiting for dusk. This is tobacco country, so most of the farms sport a shed or two where this primary cash crop is hung out to cure. Reaching Hiltons, at the head of Poor Valley, I turned off onto Route 614, now known as the A.P. Carter Highway. Maces Springs is about three miles away. I was met in the Fold’s parking lot by Flo Wolfe, A.P. and Sara’s granddaughter by their oldest daughter, Gladys. Since it was lunchtime, I was whisked off (without complaint on my part) to Janette’s small but comfortable house just up the hill. There I was treated to a splendid country repast of baked chicken, sweet potatoes, green beans, baked beans, meatloaf and cornbread, with plenty of sweet tea to wash it all down, topped off with ice cream and cake for dessert.
Afterward, Flo and I left Janette to prepare the Fold for the evening’s show. She took me on a tour of the valley, stopping first at the graves of A.P. and Sara in the Mount Vernon Methodist Church cemetery. The plots are at the far end of the sloping grounds, three graves apart, in the midst of other Carter kinfolk. A.P., who died in 1960, and Sara, who died in 1979, were divorced, but in death they are not far from each other. Maybelle, who died in 1978, is buried in Hendersonville, Tenn.
We passed by Maybelle’s house, now owned by June Carter and Johnny Cash, and circled around the knob where, far up a muddy road, the cabin where A.P. was born still stands, albeit precariously. The one-room schoolhouse he attended is in better shape, although it is now used as a tobacco barn. Our route was completed as we passed the house he owned with Sara, just down the road from the Fold.