- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Anyone who ever doubted that life imitates art — instead of the other way around — should consider the ties that bind the future of Clintwood, Va., with Homer’s ancient tale, “The Odyssey.”

Clintwood, an unpretentious town poking through the kudzu of southwest Virginia’s Dickenson County, kicks off a two-day festival tomorrow with a bluegrass concert featuring Grammy-winning songwriter Jim Lauderdale and the Canadian pre-teen bluegrass gospel performers, the Abrams Brothers.

This is not just another autumn bluegrass concert in another Appalachian town. This is a festival to celebrate the opening of the Ralph Stanley Museum & Traditional Mountain Music Center, in a place where few outsiders come passing through.

Mr. Stanley — reverently called “Doctor Stanley” in deference to his 1976 honorary arts degree from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn. — will also appear at the event with his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys. Some former members of the band are also expected to attend. The concert will be held in the Jettie Baker Center, a stunning 350-seat theater across the street from the shiny new museum.

Two Grammy-winners on one stage: It’s a big deal in a town of less than 2,000. And the town’s mayor, Donald Baker, sees it all as just part of a master plan for breathing new life into Clintwood, Dickenson’s county seat, founded in 1894.



“We hope it’s going to provide a real economic boost,” says Mr. Baker, who formerly managed a family-owned coal business and has been mayor for 16 years.

Mr. Baker’s aunt, Jettie Baker, formerly owned the rundown movie house on main street whose first film, “Peck’s Bad Boy,” was screened in 1911. In 1999, the building, which had been vacant for 10 years, was gutted and a veritable showplace took its place, with Internet links for long-distance learning, a state-of-the-art sound system and green rooms and backstage accommodations more welcoming than those in some nationally known performance halls.

Mr. Baker, 66, says his aunt, whose portrait hangs in the lobby, has a seat in the front row and doesn’t miss a show on the Jettie Baker Center stage.

The town also owns the Chase House — opening Saturday as the Stanley Museum. It was the county’s first brick house, built by attorney Roland E. Chase in 1904 next door to the county courthouse.

The house, which later served as a boarding house and cafeteria and then, for a time, a funeral home, had fallen into disrepair. County officials were looking over the property for parking lot potential when the town stepped in with plans to revitalize it.

Here’s where Homer’s “Odyssey” comes in.

Joel and Ethan Coen spun the ancient tale into the storyline for their film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” set in the Depression-era South with a bluegrass gospel soundtrack produced by T-Bone Burnett. Mr. Burnett used Ralph Stanley’s high tenor voice in the soundtrack album, along with performances from Dan Tyminski, Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris. It won five Grammys, two Country Music Association awards and sold 5 million copies.

The 2000 film and its music brought Mr. Stanley, 77, a measure of fame that had eluded him through more than five decades as a bluegrass entertainer. He won his first Grammy and was tapped for membership in the Grand Ole Opry that year. The movie also spawned spin-off tours of traditional mountain music, the third of which, the “Great High Mountain Tour,” took the stage at Wolf Trap early this past summer. Mr. Stanley and Miss Krauss were headliners.

“That movie sort of put the icing on the cake,” says Mr. Stanley, who is now regarded as something of a patriarch in bluegrass circles. The movie “helped all the people in this type of music, and I’m proud to be part of it.”

Along came grants from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development and the Appalachian Regional Commission, and with them the idea to assemble material for a Ralph Stanley museum and to link it with a half dozen other southwestern Virginia sites known for traditional music into “The Crooked Road: Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail.”

Money for the museum also came from the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority and the Virginia Tobacco Commission — all told, it’s about a $2 million project, Mr. Baker says.

And just outside the new museum’s gift shop, in a small display area decorated to resemble a Primitive Baptist Church, enclosed in glass, are some “artifacts” from the film: a couple of prop “Dapper Dan” pomade cans used by actor George Clooney along with a Grammy award for the soundtrack and other memorabilia, some on loan from Miss Welch.

• • •

It was another kind of odyssey for Mr. Stanley himself, who came out of the logging village of McClure, just a dozen miles from the museum where his life and achievements are documented.

Mr. Stanley’s father, Lee, operated a sawmill in the town. The family attended the McClure Primitive Baptist Church, where a lot of emphasis was placed on gospel singing. Musical instruments were not allowed in the church.

But Mr. Stanley and his brother, Carter, took the sound of mountain harmony they had learned in church and added banjo and guitar accompaniment. The Stanley brothers were also influenced by the Carter Family — A.P., Sara and Maybelle — the Monroe brothers, Charlie and Bill, as well as Monticello, Ky., blind balladeer Dick Burnett, credited by some with writing “Man of Constant Sorrow,” the single from “O Brother” that peaked at No. 38 on the Hot Country Singles and Tracks chart. The Stanleys eked out a living performing in regional backwoods venues such as schools or drive-ins.

When the Stanleys signed with Columbia Records in 1949, Bill Monroe quit the label. He considered them imitators of his sound and he reasoned the label didn’t have room for two mountain bands. The Stanley brothers changed to the Mercury label from 1953 to 1958.

As Mr. Monroe came to know the Stanleys, though, they became friends. When Carter Stanley died of a liver ailment in 1966, Mr. Monroe sang at his funeral. When Mr. Monroe died in 1996, Ralph Stanley sang “Amazing Grace” at his service.

Mr. Stanley says his late brother “deserves a part of” the museum.

“Carter did a lot back in his time,” he says. “He wrote some of the greatest songs, I think, that was ever written in this style.”

• • •

The Stanley story is told through artifacts in illuminated glass cases, professionally produced panels of text and clever wooden displays that mimic banjos and fiddles on a large scale.

Mr. Stanley says he considers the museum “a great honor for me.”

Most visitors will pay $12. The charge for Dickenson County residents, students with valid ID and seniors 55 and older is $10. They will be given headphones that they can plug into various displays to hear parts of the Ralph Stanley story. Flat-panel video displays will depict performances and oral histories.

They’ll get to see an old Unidyne radio microphone and instruments used by the Stanleys, as well as documents including recording contracts, vinyl records and LP covers, clothing worn during performances, and awards, including the keys to eight different cities presented to Mr. Stanley over the years.

There’s a memorial to Carter Stanley, too, and a section devoted to Ralph Stanley’s annual bluegrass festival at the Hills of Home Park, sometimes called “the old home place,” between McClure and Coeburn, held each Memorial Day weekend and now in its 34th year.

“We consider this, and I’m sure other people do, as the crowning jewel of the Crooked Road,” says Ginger Morelock, director and curator of the museum.

• • •

Plans are to use the museum as a launching site for studies in mountain music, says Miss Morelock, 30, who holds a master of arts in folk studies from Western Kentucky University. She left a position at Roanoke Island Festival Park in Manteo, N.C., to come to Clintwood.

“What’s really exciting about this museum is that Dr. Stanley is still with us,” Miss Morelock says. “If we have questions, we can go back to him. He’s really a part of the museum. I just love that a visitor might pop in and he would be here. You never know when.”

What excites Mr. Baker, though, is the opportunity the museum represents to Clintwood.

“We’re hoping people will have an interest in building a nice motel here,” the mayor says. “With Ralph’s notoriety, the following he has, I can’t help but believe it will bring a lot of tourism activity.”

Mr. Stanley agrees: “I think it’s going to do a lot for Dickenson County and Clintwood, that Crooked Road.”

• • •

It can’t come soon enough. Dickenson County consistently ranks first or second in Virginia in terms of unemployment, typically in double digits. Dickenson’s median household income in 2000 was $23,431, roughly half the state median of $46,677.

Automation in the coal industry has cost the region a lot of jobs since the 1960s, but when Clintwood lured Travelocity to its industrial park in 2001, some folks considered it a success story in the technological age. Others were — and still are — critical of the money forked over in incentives and training to convince the company to bring its call center to Clintwood.

In February, Travelocity announced it would move the operation to India, costing some 250 jobs and Clintwood the sole tenant in its industrial park. Despite having some of the lowest labor costs in the nation, rural southwest Virginia can’t compete with the Third World.

“We’re searching for a new tenant,” says Mr. Baker. “Something will turn up, I’m pretty sure. At least, we’re hoping for it, anyway.”

The company was “a good employer for a lot of people,” the mayor says. “I guess competition is what took ‘em away.”

But Mr. Baker is a man of vision. He hopes the Stanley museum and the $1.7 million Jettie Baker Center will work hand-in-glove, attracting music fans to view the artifacts in the museum and to watch performances in the theater.

They’re going to need a place to eat, though, unless they’re content with burgers or pizza. The White Star Cafe on Main Street shut down in February when its owner, John Branham, took ill. The restaurant, with its pressed tin ceiling, five booths, two tables and eight counter stools, was opened in 1936 by Mr. Branham’s parents. It features country cooking with dishes and prices that harken back to a simpler time.

Mr. Branham, who was just hanging around inside, behind the closed sign, says he hopes to reopen soon.

“He’s been good for the community,” says Mr. Baker, speaking for the bashful, soft-spoken Mr. Branham. “Everybody wants him to get back in business.”

• • •

Meanwhile, plans are taking shape for the town’s first chain sit-down restaurant, a Huddle House, to be built next to Clintwood High School on a lot owned by the town. The site is now filled with the rubble of an old independent motel. The restaurant story made page one of the latest issue of The Dickenson Star/Cumberland Times, Clintwood’s weekly paper.

The paper’s lead story concerns a coming job fair for the 80-member staff at the new Southwest Virginia Regional Jail in the nearby town of Haysi. The job fair will be held at the Jettie Baker Center — the only place, the mayor notes, where more than 100 people can gather in Clintwood.

Paula Davis, the paper’s editor, says she’s “been covering the museum since it was a funeral home.”

“In one respect,” she says, the Stanley Museum “means we finally are getting recognition for something positive. Poor, backwoods, hillbilly people — we get that kind of coverage. But now we get a chance to be recognized for something good. It’s kind of a hope. We’ve had tough times here for many years. It’s not easy to stay here. It’s a hope for us that we’re going to be able to profit off who we are …. It’s just a wonderful opportunity to showcase what we have.”

“The museum is not going to employ many people,” she says. “We hope we’ll benefit from the people coming here. They need places to eat and places to stay.”

Joining the Carter Family Fold

The grass parking lot at the Carter Family Fold starts to fill up an hour before showtime. Folks pay their $5 admission and mill around the CD table, or get nachos at the snack bar, where a cup of coffee costs 50 cents and a soda is a buck.

Many patrons click across the concrete floor in boots or shoes outfitted with taps. They’ve come to dance.

Here, every Saturday night for 30 years, is where you’d find A.P. and Sara Carter’s daughter, Janette Carter. Although slowed by knee surgery, she performs on autoharp, accompanying her brother, Joe Carter, and her son, guitarist Dale Jett, in singing songs popularized by her parents.

The Carter Family’s first recordings in Bristol, Va., in 1927, are considered to be the origins of what would come to be American country music. Along with Jimmie Rogers, the Carters were the first commercially viable “hillbilly” musicians and are without question the first family of traditional American music.

Miss Carter greets the audience, accepts the applause like a gracious performer, bursts into “Lonesome Valley,” and concludes the song by saying that she was praying for some Carter Fold patrons who are ailing.

“I might not know all of your names,” she says, “but I know your faces.”

The trio continues with “I’d Like to Have Been With Him There” and “50 Miles of Elbow Room.”

Then it’s time for the main attraction — the Wolfe Bros., an old-time string band from Elk Creek, Va., “a place so far back in the sticks,” jokes guitarist Casey Hash, “that even the Methodists are snake handlers there.”

Church-based humor goes over well with this crowd.

And so does the fiddle. The dance floor fills immediately with folks flat-footing and clogging. The sound echoes through the barnlike theater, and out into the night through propped-up openings in the corrugated metal walls. Ceiling fans rock in circles overhead, hanging above hand-hewn beams and rough-cut supports.

But the place has new seats and a new backdrop of Carter family portraits, thanks to some of the $273,583 in funding from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development and Appalachian Regional Commission.

The Carter Family Fold is one of the attractions on Virginia’s new Heritage Music Trail, the Crooked Road. It’s about an hour and a half from the trail’s western terminus at Clintwood, Va.

A.P. Carter’s birthplace, a modest log cabin, has been moved from its inaccessible location in Poor Valley and restored as a historic landmark next to the Carter Family Museum. Both are next door to the auditorium.

For 50 cents admission, folks can look over Carter family artifacts — photos, A.P. Carter’s work clothes and a photo of him wearing them, strings from Maybelle Carter’s guitar and her worn Gibson pick, even the outfits that Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash wore to visit the Nixons in the White House in 1970. There are newspaper and magazine clippings, old radios and record players and album covers.

And in the small cabin a short walk away are rocking chairs donated by the late Johnny and June Carter Cash. Mrs. Cash, Maybelle Carter’s daughter and Janette’s cousin, died May 15, 2003 at age 73. Mr. Cash died Sept. 12, 2003, at age 71.

Also there are some household items from A.P. Carter’s family and some more fragile artifacts in a glass case made by musician Tom T. Hall from scraps of the original cabin.

Miss Carter has held court on the stage through the first set and through intermission. Tourists hand off cameras and take pictures with the Carters.

Then it’s showtime again. She introduces her son Dale Jett, who brings on Emily Spencer and the Albert Hash Memorial Band, the band from the Mount Rogers Combined School in the village of Whitetop, Va. Before the Wolfe Bros. reappear, Mr. Jett introduces “Uncle Joe,” who regales the crowd with humorous barnyard noises.

Johnny and June Carter Cash’s only child, John Carter Cash, also comes onstage, guitar in hand, with his wife Laura Cash and their small daughter, Anna Maybelle Cash. They sing “Life is Like a Mountain Railway” and “Diamonds in the Rough.”

During each song, Little Anna touches the microphone, and like a budding star, tries to adjust it so she can sing along. Then she giggles and runs back to the waiting arms of her Aunt Janette.

“We were just coming out for a visit,” John Carter Cash says. “But it’s hard to come out here and not sing.”

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