I have lived in the mountains of Southwest Virginia for thirteen years now. For much of that time, I have dabbled in both festival promotion and music writing, and a significant part of my focus in both has been on Appalachian folk music and bluegrass.
So, you can imagine my shame when, as I was chatting with Rita Forrester, the granddaughter of A.P. Carter, best known as the patriarch of country music, that I confessed to never having been to the Carter Family Fold.
Located in Hiltons, Virginia, less than an hour from my house and only minutes from Maces Spring, the ancestral home of A.P. Carter, the Carter Family Fold is, arguably, the epicenter of Appalachian music. The groundwork for the Fold was laid in 1974 by Janette Carter, daughter of A.P. and Sara of the Carter Family, and the Fold began with a simple, but incredible, purpose – to honor the contributions of The Carter Family to American musical culture and to preserve the musical traditions of the Appalachian Mountains.
Now run by Rita, Janette’s daughter, the Fold hosts bluegrass and old time concerts each weekend. I recently caught up with Rita to chat about The Carter Family Fold, her role in maintaining its legacy, and all the fine music and food visitors can partake of every weekend.
BRO – I know you spent a lot of time with your grandfather in your childhood. He had retired by then, but do you have any memories of him singing?
RF – I did spend time with my Papaw, as he lived with us in the years prior to his death. As I was only six when he died, my memories are mostly of him as my grandfather. A.P. wasn’t in the best of health when I was born. Having retired from music, he was running the little one-room country store he built, the A.P. Carter Grocery. When family members visited, though, there was singing. We’d all get together. There would be lots of good food, catching up with all that was going on with those we hadn’t seen regularly, and usually singing at the end of the get together. I remember lots of people – fifty to a hundred or more, normally. Those get-togethers brought my Papaw great joy.
BRO – When you think of the many shows you have experienced at the Fold, is there one memory or moment that jumps out at you that is particularly incredble?
RF – There have been so many iconic, historic performances at the Fold that it’s difficult to pick just one that stands out. One of my favorites was the 50th anniversary of the Bristol Sessions in 1977. My grandmother, Sara, and my great aunt Maybelle attended. All of their children were there, as was Johnny Cash. My grandfather died in 1960, so he was the most notable missing family member. As it turned out, it was Maybelle and Sara’s last performance together. Maybelle died in the fall of 1978, and my grandmother passed in January of 1979. They had the honor of being the first two women inducted into The Country Music Hall of Fame, along with my grandfather, of course, as the original Carter Family. All of Johnny Cash’s performances, especially his last ones, would rank at the top. Those were done after June’s death and just prior to his death. Marty Stuart and Tom T. Hall have presented memorable performances, as did Grandpa Jones and Waylon Jennings. We even had John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin on our stage one night.
BRO – Where do you see The Carter Family Fold in the musical legacy of Southwest Virginia?
RF – The Carter Fold is so unique that it’s actually worth describing how it all came about. My mother, Janette, started music shows in her father’s old grocery. A.P. had started music shows in what he called the park in the early 1950s. Just prior to his death, he asked my mother to see that his musical legacy lived on after he was gone. Starting the weekly music shows in 1974 was her way of fulfilling that promise. The shows quickly outgrew the grocery, and the Fold was built in 1976. The grocery was converted to the Carter Family Museum. Later, A.P.’s birthplace cabin was moved and restored on the grounds. My mother established a rural, nonprofit arts organization at a time when virtually none existed, creating a museum and reconstructing her father’s birthplace home – both historic landmarks. Never having finished high school, she accomplished all of this and went on to receive the Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, their most prestigious award. I believe the Fold will go down in history as having given an honorable and respectful home to old time and bluegrass music. The Fold’s contributions to preserving not just our Appalachian musical heritage, but the wonderful and often unseen beauty of the culture of Appalachia, are immeasurable.
BRO – Carson Peters returns to the Fold this weekend. Is it fair that a kid that young has a talent that big?
RF – I fell in love with Carson and his family when we met. They personify all that’s good in our music and the very essence of the beautiful place we are so fortunate to call home. Steadfast Christians, they truly are some of the best people I have ever met. Carson will be the first person to tell you that his talent is God-given, and it truly is. He doesn’t take it for granted; he embraces it. If all kids Carson’s age had the wisdom, respect, and love for his fellow man that Carson does, what a great difference it would make in the world we live. Carson has worked very hard to get where he is, and his parents, family, and friends have been behind him 100%. It’s more than fair that he has the tremendous talent he does. He’s deserving of it, respectful of it, and appreciates all that comes with it. Yet, he still finds time to just be a kid. He’s simply amazing. You have to see him to believe just how great he is. I’m one of his biggest fans, and I feel like he’s my own child or grandchild. That’s how much I love him and how proud I am of him and what he’s accomplished. I cry just thinking about how much he and his family mean to me.
BRO – I hear you are still top chef, so to speak, at the Fold, and I hear that the food is always awesome. Got any recipes you can share with us?
RF – I am still the person who cooks the bulk of the food at the Fold. Working full time makes preparing all the good food a challenge. I often cook until 2 or 3 A.M. on Saturday mornings. Most of the recipes were my mom’s. She was the best cook ever, so I can only hope my cooking is a fraction as good as her cooking was. She was especially proud of the homemade chili for the hot dogs, and it’s still prepared the way she did it. The egg salad we have every week is from her recipe. We always have a special. Sometimes it’s soup beans and cornbread. Last week we had Amish soup and vegetables, from one of June’s recipes. We have served ham biscuits, my Aunt Nancy’s homemade chicken salad, and many other mountain dishes. I can’t take credit for the desserts. Various volunteers bring the wonderful cakes we have each week. Southern Food Ways came to the Fold to highlight the food we serve on Saturdays and at our festivals and events. You can find recipes for our hot dog chili, soup beans and cornbread, and chicken salad on their website. Rachel Ray has even featured our food in her magazine. Mom always wanted the food we serve to be part of the experience of a night at the Fold, like a little taste of Appalachia. She actually wanted folks who come to the Fold to feel like they were visiting her home. Her house was always warm and welcoming and full of love and good food. Hopefully, the Fold and what all the folks experience there is just the same.
As is the custom, the coming weeks feature a bevy of old time and bluegrass performers at the Fold. This week, as mentioned, sees Carson Peters & Iron Mountain returning to the stage. Scheduled performances for March and April include, among others, JP Mathes & Fiddlin’ Leona, Jeff Little Trio, and Whitetop Mountain Band. For more information on the show schedule, or just to learn a bit more about this national treasure, be sure to check out the Carter Family Fold’s website.
If you are going to be in the area and want to get to the Fold this weekend – say, Saturday night – take a shot at our trivia question down below. In conjunction with the Fold and Heart of Appalachia, Trail Mix is happy to be offering up two tickets to see Carson Peters & Iron Mountain on Saturday. A winner of the two passes will be chosen from all correct responses sent to firstname.lastname@example.org by noon on Friday, March 24th.
Question . . . . Carson Peters appeared on what NBC show hosted by comedian Steve Harvey?
Remember . . . . email your answers in! Don’t post them here!