From my house, we traveled up Highway 23 to Moccasin Gap, and turned off on the Bristol highway, traveling up to the little community of Hiltons. From there, you crossed the railroad and got on the Mendota Road where you traveled up to Maces Springs. There you found a little country store which had one time belonged to A. P. Carter. Mr. Carter and his family, Sarah, and Maybelle, composed the famous Carter Family of Country Music fame. They had appeared in Bristol when some music people had come down to record some folk music from the mountains. The “Bristol Sessions” as they are referred to are highly celebrated as the start of the Country Music genre in commercial American Music.
In the aftermath of the Carter Family’s fame and fortune, they decided to build a shelter on a hillside next to the store to host some old time music on Saturday nights. The Carter Fold has become a cultural institution in Scott County, Virginia.
The first thing you do is look for a parking place. Parking is in fields, along the country road, anywhere but on pavement. You enter on either side of the wooden structure, and find yourself in a building with seats placed up the hillside, a concrete dance floor at the base of the hill, and a roomy stage in the center of the front of the building. A concession stand to one side and ticket booth on the other. Before the Commonwealth of Virginia gave money to renovate the building, seats on the hillside were hand hewn logs, covered in patchy carpet. It wasn’t comfortable, but accommodated you when you weren’t flat-footing it down on the dance floor.
Miss Janette would come out and in Scott County flattened-vowel dialect, pronounce the beginning of the program: “We want to welcome everybody to the Carter Fold tonight. It sure is good to see you. We’ve got a good group tonight, and we’re so proud to have them here.” She would have her autoharp strapped around her neck, and after intoning her welcome that included noticing who was present from the furthest away, she and “Uncle Joe” her brother, would play a song or two, to warm up the crowd. Joe Carter would sometimes do his animal impressions: a donkey, some pigs, etc. I still remember him singing about his “girl from Mendota.”
When the band came out the show was in full swing. A lilting old time fiddle tune would elicit dancers to come forth from the audience who would cover the dance floor with flat-footing. I never mastered this, but I did try it a few times. I liked to watch the folks who would dance. They were authentic mountain people. All ages from about 4 to 84, they would step to the music, sometimes in groups, often individually, keeping time with the rhythm of the fiddle, and stopping only when the music stopped. They would only take a break during slow songs, and even then some of them would waltz a little.
The band would break for intermission, and Janette and Joe would come back out. Prizes would be awarded as ticket numbers would be called out. You might win a free admission to another show, or a record or T-shirt. The Carters might sing another song, or a local artist or two might be featured, then the band would come out again for the remainder of the show. Dancers would work out again, and little by little the audience would depart, having listened and stepped to the music.
I was there once when Janette announced “June Carter Cash is in the valley tonight, she might come over after awhile.” I perked to attention. Soon, Mrs. Johnny Cash appeared and just sauntered in like any Scott Countian would. She took the microphone and sang a number or two. She even danced a little.
Once a year the fold would have their Memorial Festival, usually in August. Different guests would appear on stage. Tom T. Hall, Marty Stewart, Johnny Cash, others were there at different times. Then in the Christmas season one show would be offered for free with a covered dish meal as the spirit of Christmas was shared in the community.
Many people have visited, many have sung, and many have danced at Carter Family Fold. A. P. Carter’s Store continues to house items of interest in this family’s music career. I can still hear “Wildwood Flower,” “I’ll Pawn You this Gold Watch and Chain,” “The Storms are On the Ocean,” and many more. And I can still hear Uncle Joe making animal sounds, much to the chagrin of Janette!
Even though Janette and Joe have passed on to glory, along with their older Carter kin, A. P., Sarah, and Mother Maybelle, the fold continues to operate. You might see me there some Saturday night. It’s part of our souls in the Clinch Mountains.