In the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, the people of
the small Tennessee town of Pigeon Forge are sitting in wait. Hundreds of them
are gathered by the roadside, and the weather is warm despite the waning
evening sunshine. A couple in a matching pair of folding chairs sip from
ice-cold cans of cola while a father guides his kids under the shade of a giant
restaurant sign that offers ‘45 types of breakfast’. There is an air of
anticipation, and those with cameras hold them at the ready. A parade is about
Uniformed police on Harley-Davidson motorbikes appear,
weaving in and out with their lights flashing, clearing the road and becoming
part of the show as they do. A school marching band wearing outfits of festive
red and yellow is behind them, its members looking equal parts nervous and
bored as their cymbals crash, tubas boom and batons twirl.
Their instruments announce the real reason that everyone’s
here – the band are playing 9 to 5, one of the signature songs of the Great
Smoky Mountains’ most famous daughter. Perched on top of the wings of a yellow
biplane mounted on a truck and wearing a sort of countrified version of a
Biggles costume – leather jacket and fringed white scarf teamed with cowboy
boots – is the self-styled ‘Queen of Country’ herself, Dolly Parton.
‘We love you, Dolly!’ shout a group of women in chorus.
‘I’ll take a hug, Dolly,’ hollers a man close by. She responds with relentless
and enthusiastic waves of her extravagantly manicured fingers, her smile
implacable. It is still there hours later, as she sits, perky and unfazed,
among a crowd of fans and journalists. After making my way through the clamour,
I am lucky enough to meet her in person. ‘I love coming home and I love these
mountains,’ she enthuses. ‘This area is in my DNA, and this part of Tennessee
is one of the most beautiful in the country.’
It’s a stretch to describe Pigeon Forge – its main drag a
collection of diners, motels and year-round Christmas shops – as beautiful, but
it is lovably kitsch. The town is the gateway to Dolly Parton’s family theme
park, Dollywood – an eccentric combination of funfair rides, local crafts and
A half hour’s drive to the south of Pigeon Forge, Dolly’s
praise for the beauty of rural Tennessee begins to ring true. Townsend lies on
the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – 1,300 square miles of
protected land and home to deer, wild hogs and black bears. Meadows with
rickety barns and roadside barbecue stalls give way to forested green hills
hugged with the morning haze that gives the park its name.
This is America’s most-visited National Park, but it doesn’t
feel that way. On a morning walk along some of its 800 miles of marked paths I
pass only one other person – an angler stood patiently by a mountain stream.
Aside from the whir of his fishing line, the sounds are of rushing water, birds
hidden high above in the treetops and the crunch of leaves underfoot.
It doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to picture
those who walked these lands before – indigenous Cherokee Indians, Ulstermen
and German Mennonite settlers who came from Pennsylvania in the 1700s, the
English who trekked from the coast, and runaway slaves. Over time, their
different instruments and ballads began to blend, evolving into the gospel,
‘old-time’, Appalachian and bluegrass music styles – which together gave birth
Music is still what brings people together in Townsend. I
arrive to find the Old Timer’s Day festival, one of two annual events, in full
swing. There’s no sign but, following the sound of banjos, I find 200 or so
people crowded into the front yard of a house by the main street. The banjos on
the veranda are joined by the low boom of a double bass and jaunty pitch of a
fiddle and guitar, the audience nodding along to the beat.
A rhythmic clack-clackety-clack summons me to the back of
the house. Here, young and old take turns tap-dancing, or ‘flat-footing’.
Behind them, people wait in line at food stalls selling barbecued meat, burgers
and candy floss. Nearby, music fans in baseball caps listen to the band on the
main stage. Sat in their camping chairs, members of the audience are impassive
save for a bouncing foot or a thigh-slapping hand.
The music here is predominantly bluegrass, first given
mainstream attention by Bill Monroe’s band, the Blue Grass Boys, around the
time of World War II. With Celtic roots and African-American influences, it is
defined by the way one or more instruments take turn playing a melody as others
provide accompaniment. ‘Bluegrass is the history of ’round here,’ says
20-year-old banjo player Tyler Smith. He is dressed in dungarees, plaid shirt
and brown felt hat, and his accent is molassesthick. ‘It binds people together
and pulls us back to our roots. Older fellas pass on their tradition. I’m
playing the same stuff my great grandpa did. It’s who we are.’
From Townsend, the road crawls in a scenic loop through
local beauty spot Cade’s Cove. At one point the modest traffic is brought to a
standstill by a black bear ambling nonchalantly out of a copse. Further along
our route is an old whiteboard Baptist church, its welltended graveyard full of
English-surnamed headstones – Brown, Abbott, Lawson. Inside is another reminder
of early settlers; when they built the church, the sweat on their hands reacted
with tree sap in the wood, leaving handprints on the ceiling.
If the Smokies are where country music bubbles up, then
Nashville, 200 miles to the west along highway I-40, is where it comes roaring
down the valley and thunders over the cliff. Tennessee’s state capital, ‘Music
City USA’ is home to the Country Music Hall of Fame, where it is possible to
organise a tour of celebrated recording studio RCA Studio B. Elvis Presley, the
Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison and Jim Reeves all made music here.
The Grand Ole Opry House is another place of pilgrimage for
country fans. Every week, thousands of people fill this huge hall for concerts
highlighting old-time performers, up-and-coming acts and big-name stars. As
they have been since 1925, shows are broadcast live on WSM Radio, a station
heard all over America.
Originally, the Opry was held downtown in the Ryman
Auditorium, built in the 1890s as the Union Gospel Tabernacle. Still a concert
venue today, the auditorium is close to the neon strip of Broadway, where
honky-tonk bars and stores selling cowboy boots compete for space. There are
pairs made from stingray, ostrich and alligator; $1,000 (£600) buys beaver or
At night, Broadway comes alive. In Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge,
just past Jack’s BAR-B-Q, the raucous crowd is pressed together as the band
rocks the stage. ‘Raise your glass and say “Hell yeah!”’ the lead singer
commands. Everyone obeys as the musicians morph from a twanging country ballad
into Kid Rock’s All Summer Long. Down the street at Layla’s Bluegrass,
Hillbilly and Country Inn, the Blackfoot Gypsies are belting out a performance
that would wake the dead. Lead singer Matthew Paige, a Jarvis Cocker
doppelganger in a gaudy polyester suit, roars about the ‘Cocaine… all around my
brain’ before he collapses in a drunken heap on a barstool.
Intoxication – usually drunkenness – has long been a theme
of country music. Dealing with poverty, love, work, prison and family, these
were candid songs about real life and all its hardships. Yet equally present in
the music is the American landscape itself. ‘When the sun came shining, And I
was strolling, and the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling. A voice
was chanting, as the fog was lifting. This land was made for you and me,’ sang
country hero Woody Guthrie in 1944’s This Land Is Your Land.
Heading east along the I-81, I catch fleeting glimpses of
familiar country music scenes: countless fluttering Stars and Stripes flags,
pick-up trucks outside shabby roadhouses. Eventually the road leads to Bristol,
the self-proclaimed ‘birthplace of country music’ sat squarely on the
Tennessee-Virginia border. In 1927 Ralph Peer, a producer with The Victor
Talking Machine Company, set up a recording studio on its main drag, State
Street, and by the end of that year he had recorded 19 performers. The most
successful of his Bristol Sessions – considered country’s Big Bang – were those
made by the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.
These days it’s the 175mph Nascar racing at the local
speedway track that draws the biggest crowds, but music is still ingrained in
Bristol’s cultural life, with live performances easy to find any night of the
week. At Capo’s Music Store, its walls hung with guitars, banjos and fiddles, I
stumble upon an informal jam session. ‘You can’t throw a rock around here
without hitting someone who plays music,’ says Vinny Ringrose, a local law
enforcement officer who helps prisoners overcome substance abuse. ‘It runs in
the family like a wooden leg. And that music is growing. It’s not nostalgia,
‘The fiddle was considered the devil’s instrument when I was
a boy,’ chimes up 86-year-old Bill McCall with a deep chuckle. ‘You never saw a
Christian with a dancin’ knee.’
From Bristol, a state-designated music trail known as the Crooked
Road zigzags through the wooded hillsides and meadows of South Virginia, past
white picket fences and trout-filled creeks along the North Carolina border.
Following signs marked with a banjo, I pass the evocatively-named Great Dismal
Swamp, a national wildlife refuge. After a rollercoaster of twists and turns,
the road flattens out to reveal small towns like Damascus and Galax, the latter
home to a weekly bluegrass night. Further along is Floyd, where yuppie meets
hippy meets redneck and everyone seems to get along. Most of the village’s 500
or so residents pass each other daily on sleepy Main Street, a strip of wooden
terraced homes and shops with 1950s-style signs.
In the basement of his family’s grocery store, John-William
Houston makes and sells handcrafted fiddles. By trade, John- William is a
farmer, growing Christmas trees and organic cider apples. Yet now he sits at a
workbench, gently scraping back pieces of curly maple and spruce. ‘I wanted to
have a good instrument to play,’ he says, ‘but I’ve never been given a lot of
money, so I decided to make my own.’ He shows me one of the finished products,
which he hopes to sell for around $2,000. Tucking the fiddle under his chin, he
plays Bach and bluegrass to an audience of lathes, wood chips and empty egg
The highlight of John-William’s week, as with everyone here
in Floyd, is the jamboree held every Friday in the village’s Country Store. The
crowd hand over $5 a piece before picking their way past shelves stacked with
coffee and fridges full of ice cream towards the stage at the back. Huge, angry
storm clouds have gathered outside and the air is oppressively humid. The
evening begins with the Down Home Gospel Band, their voices clinging to the
lyrics ‘It took your blood, to set me free’ sung in perfect harmony.
Just as the music switches to bluegrass courtesy of the
Friday Night Oldtime Band, rain begins to hammer on the windows. The
pitter-patter is drowned out as people take to the dancefloor, twirling and
flat-footing in a sweaty, happy mass. At 9pm the Jug Busters Band start their
set, keeping Floyd stomping and whirling until gone midnight.
Watching happily from a chair is 87-year-old Arthur Connor.
‘I’ve got gout, prostate cancer and Lyme disease,’ he tells me without a trace
of self-pity. ‘It’s the music that keeps me going.’ A woman escapes the
dancefloor momentarily to insist that I join in. ‘It don’t matter how good you
are, so long as y’all having fun.’
And with that, I am swept away.
The article 'America’s country music heartland' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.