Bluegrass and Country Music Legends
The Legends from the Crooked Road are many. The following names are the most famous and have been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Grand Ole Opry, and/or the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Honor.
But some of the old-time musicians, such as the Mullins Family Singers, Henry Whittier and the other musicians from the Fries Mill could not be overlooked for this Legends list. And to list all the legends along the Crooked Road would take an encyclopedia of volumes, A-Z.
The music of The Crooked Road pretty much started commercially on Aug. 1, 1927, in Bristol, Va. That was the beginning of the Bristol Recording Sessions — known as "The Big Bang of Country Music"— by RCA led by Ralph Peer, who recorded the first six cuts of the Carter Family — A.P., his wife, Sara, and Sara's sister, Maybelle — and other legendary artists, Jimmie Rodgers and "Pop" Stoneman.
Sara and Maybelle sang and played guitar, and A.P sang bass. Their mountain music was later heard by radio listeners from coast to coast. They became world-famous, recording more than 250 songs together.
In 1943, the original members of the family went their separate ways. A.P. and Sara's children, Jeanette and Joe Carter, performed with their parents. And Mother Maybelle Carter, who married A.P.'s brother Ezra, formed a new group with her three daughters, June, Helen and Anita — Maybelle and the Carter Sisters.
In the 1950s, June Carter ventured out on her own, performing not only as a singer, but also as a comedian and actress. She married legendary singer, songwriter and guitarist, Johnny Cash, in 1967. She died in May 2003.
Her last album, Wildwood Flower, was released posthumously in 2003 and won two Grammys.
The Carter Family Fold was started by Jeanette Carter in 1974. She kept the Circle Unbroken. Today her children, Dale and Rita, carry on her legacy and the performances every Saturday night, unless Christmas falls on a Saturday.
The Stanley Brothers learned vocal harmony from their mother, a talented musician herself. Carter learned guitar, and Ralph learned banjo, playing it like his mother did, clawhammer-style, using one finger and thumb.
They began performing in Bristol and also performed on WCYB-Bristol for most of the 1950s. They played several concerts promoted by A.P. Carter, but times were tough for old-time music, especially with the advent of Rock and Roll.
Carter Stanley died in 1966, and it's been written that Ralph Stanley, the shy, quieter brother, might have turned his back on performing . . . but he didn't. And thankfully for the music, he and The Clinch Mountain Boys performed for more than 40 years. His soulful mountain sound resonated with Appalachian influence; his voice, pure and stark as the mountains themselves.
After the popular O, Brother, Where Art Thou? film featuring the Stanley Brothers' "Man of Constant Sorrow" and Ralph's powerful a cappella rendition of "O, Death," Ralph Stanley was regarded as a Living Legend, receiving the medal from the Library of Congress along with an honorary doctorate from Lincoln Memorial University. The country music world mourned his passing in 2016.
The Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center in Clintwood opened Oct. 16, 2004, which was 58 years to the day after Ralph made his first professional appearance singing with Carter on the radio in Norton.
Ernest "Pop" Stoneman was born in Monarat, Carroll County, Va., in 1893. He first learned harmonica and the jew's-harp as a child, then the banjo and autoharp in his teens. In 1924, Pop met music producer Ralph Peer — three years before the Carter Family did — and made some recordings for the Okeh label and toured around the country. He also recorded during the Bristol Recording Sessions of 1927, considered "The Big Bang of Country Music."
During the Great Depression in the early 1930s, Pop worked in a naval gun factory to support his wife, Hattie, and their family of 13 children! As the children grew up, they learned to play musical instruments and joined their parents in performing.
Some of the children started careers of their own, but at least six of them would perform as the Stoneman Family throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. Columbia Records signed the family to a recording contract, and the family even had their own "Stoneman Family TV Show" in the 1967-68 season. Pop died in June 1968 at age 75.
Singer and banjo player Moran L. "Dock" Boggs was born in Norton, Va., in 1898. He was named after the first physician in town and nicknamed "Dock."
He learned from a black musician how to play banjo using two fingers and thumb. He auditioned in Bristol for a contract with Brunswick Records, recording eight songs in the 1920s.
But that was that . . . the end of his music career for 41 years.
To please his wife, he worked in the coal mines and only played music for his own enjoyment. It wasn't until his retirement that he started making a name for himself outside the immediate region.
Dock started attending folk festivals in the mid-1950s and met folk singer Mike Seeger, who encouraged him to appear regularly on the folk-music circuit. By the 1960s, Dock was a star performer and recording his old-time songs on the Disc label.
Every year, the Dock Boggs Memorial Festival celebrates his legacy in Norton.
The longest active professional brother duet in the history of bluegrass and country music were Jim & Jesse McReynolds, who started playing old-time traditional mountain music together in Coeburn, Va., — Jim playing rhythm guitar, and Jesse playing mandolin.
Their grandfather, Charlie McReynolds, played fiddle at the Bristol Sessions of 1927, so musical talent ran in the family, like many a family along The Crooked Road.
The brothers started playing professionally in 1947 at WNVA in Norton, then went on to the "Kentucky Barn Dance" in 1952, followed by a recording contract with Capitol Records.
They toured extensively throughout the world and became members of WSM's Grand Ole Opry. In 1993, they were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association's Hall of Honor.
Although Jim passed away in 2002, Jesse still performs with The Virginia Boys Band and records with Pinecastle Records.
Ernest Jennings Ford was born in Bristol in 1919. His deep bass voice made him one of the most popular entertainers, first in country music, then in the overall entertainment market.
During high school, Ernie hung around the local radio station, where he got his first job as a staff announcer in 1937. In 1938, he studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, but returned to announcing from 1939-1941. After serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, he auditioned for Capitol Records and his music career took off fast.
He soon became a network radio figure with his own shows on CBS and ABC and continued to turn out Top 10 hits. His most popular hit, Sixteen Tons eclipsed all records previously recorded by him and contines to sell, even after his death in 1991.
Visit the Birthplace of Ernie Ford in Bristol.
Dock P. Mullins taught his children and grandchildren how to sing harmony back in the 1930s. Later, Dock's son, The Rev. Hie, formed the Mullins Family Singers with his wife, Frances, and their son Billy Gene in 1946. They performed every Sunday morning on WNVA in Norton and were soon performing at various churches in and around Dickenson County. Their music is rooted in the Church of the Brethren (German Baptists).
Their son, Billy Gene, was a hard-working coal miner. He wrote one of the family's most popular hymns down in a coal mine by the light of his headlamp — Amazing Grace, Oh What a Blessing — which especially speaks to the hard-working Appalachian people and to their faith.
Although the original Mullins Family have passed on, their legacy continues today under the leadership of Scott Mullins, grandson of the original family. The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities' Virginia Folklife Program produced "Let Your Light Shine Out: The Mullins Family Anthology" on CD, one of the Crooked Road CD series.
Henry Whittier was a Fries mill hand and is said to be "the most important in setting off the recording boom among Virginia artists" according to The Crooked Road Guide Book.
It seems that Whittier, a singer and guitar player, was bold enough to travel up to New York in 1923, first by himself, to record "somethin', anything." He had confidence in his music, but he had no producer, no studio money, no band, just him . . . but for some reason he made it!
Within a year, Whittier returned to New York with a group called the Virginia Breakdowners. This, then, set off the local string-band recording boom of the region!
Most notably , The Wreck of the Old 97, about at train wreck in Virginia's Pittsylvania County in 1903, was recorded by him and G.B. Grayson, a fiddle player from Whitetop.
Other Fries mill hands who made names for themselves in music include: Ernest "Pop" Stoneman (see above); John Rector, a banjoist, who brought his group, the "Hill Billies," with him to New York; and Kelly Harrell, who became a legendary balladeer during the 1920s, recording for Victor & Okeh.