Our Blue Ridge Mountains aren’t as serene as they appear. They’re hard at work up there, composting leaf mold, plants, deadwood, and animals into life-giving humus. When the floods come,
They’re hard at work up there, composting leaf mold, plants, deadwood, and animals into life-giving humus.
When the floods come, and they always do, the nutrient-loaded topsoil runs off the mountains and pours into the Foothills. From that avalanche of grace, the valleys give forth their vast harvest of fruit and vegetables, all sweeter to the tooth for the humus.
In the early 1900s, the Foothills received another kind of runoff. It began in the mid-1700s, with immigration to the land of the Cherokee by the Scots-Irish, English, and Germans.
They settled in the coves and hollers, arriving in a flood of their own, bringing music, dance, stories, and superstitions from the old country. And because of altitude and inaccessibility, these folk treasures were well preserved. The Barb’ry Allen ballad that echoed off the banks of a bold Carolina river in the 1700s was pretty near the “Barbara Allen” that was field-recorded at Boyd’s Cove in 1936.
As strangers in a strange land, these newcomers were good, back then, at entertaining themselves. Thirsting for whiskey, they made it. Hankering for a smoke, they planted a hill of tobacco. Needing music, they called in the neighbors. They knew how to get along, though most people looked 60 by the time they turned 40. It was the price they paid for living free and breathing clean air.
Trouble was, there was hardly any work in the mountains, save what they made for themselves. Take whiskey: It was work to build a still and keep it “hid,” then run the ’shine down the mountain in the fenders of a bone-shaker automobile with a souped-up engine.
Toward the beginning of the 20th century, the runoff of mountain labor began flowing into the flatlands — into the textile mills and furniture factories. Families streamed into the unfamiliar territory of small towns, with much of the early dialect intact and plenty of music untroubled by urban influence.
The music they’d carried across the pond now courted and married into the music of the Foothills and became a brand-new kind of song. Like a high-pitched whistle that only canines can hear, that fresh sound summoned a talent pool unrivaled by any other state at any other time.
Earl Scruggs, Flint Hill.
Frank Proffitt, Pick Britches.
Elizabeth Cotten, Carrboro.
Charlie Poole, Randolph County.
Etta Baker, Caldwell County.
Many of these musicians showed up with inborn charisma, most with an impeccable ear, and all with a hunger to tell their story — a story of broken hearts, high hopes, and big dreams, just like the old ballads, except different now.
These were the path-makers for Doc Watson and his gifted son, Merle, who, for a long span of time, made the Brushy Mountains the music center of the universe.
Meanwhile, a kid named Junior Johnson, of Ulster-Scots descent and the son of a lifelong ’shine maker, was beating another kind of path.
Junior had done a good bit of plowing behind a mule up in Wilkes County, but what he really loved was honing his liquor-hauling finesse. Speeding around the coves and hollers was his playbook for a first win at the Hickory Motor Speedway — followed by a stunning career of 50 NASCAR victories. That said, he may be more fabled for his 1966 Ford Galaxie, called in one report “the most outrageous, bodacious, and flagrantly illegal car ever to compete in a NASCAR event.”
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Some of us may wonder if anything is left of the old ways. And I’d say yes. Among the gifts of my Irish/English birthright is an ear for native dialect. If you really listen, you can occasionally hear the singsong lilt that came over with my Irish ancestors in 1735. And once in a while, in as rare a circumstance as a robin feeding from the palm of your hand, you can still hear “hain’t” and “fixin’ to go” and “tote” and “I swan.”
Pretty amazing that a founding culture like ours can, in time, help produce the second-largest financial center in the country. I remember when Charlotte was all about pizza pie and the Ferris wheel on Albemarle Road. And how is it that Hickory and other Foothills towns can take the economic hit of losing textiles and furniture and come back with thriving cultural scenes and decent jobs?
That’s what we do in the Foothills — if we go down, we get back up. A trait that just maybe emerges from a succotash of mountain ballads, hard times, and Junior Johnson at the wheel of a 1966 Ford.
Read more about the Foothills & Brushy Mountains:
Where Spirits Rise