The Privileged Life: Bluegrass Music

Jonah Riddle and Carolina Express performing at the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, Va.

“Let them praise His name with the dance; let them sing praises to Him with the timbrel and harp.” Psalm 149:3

For $10 on most Saturday nights in Hiltons, a sleepy little community tucked back in the mountain ridges of southwest Virginia, you can have the privilege of hearing homespun bluegrass music—a tradition that goes back decades and generations at a venue known as the Carter Family Fold.

We’re talking toe-tapping, finger-drumming, sing-along bluegrass—usually with five-string banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle, and upright bass, although an autoharp, dobro, hammer dulcimer, harmonica, and tambourine occasionally join the mix. Local bands and nationally-renowned performers show up here to put on a high-energy show that echoes through the hollers, while folks from around the globe flock in to listen.

Never heard of the Carter family? Maybe you’ve heard of Johnny Cash, though, and his wife June Carter Cash, whose aunt and uncle were A.P. and Sarah Carter. Together with June’s mom, Maybelle, the Carters helped popularize country-style music in the early 20th century.

Bluegrass and old-time music blend acoustic-only tunes with major chords and mournful lyrics, born from traditions handed down through Scots-Irish settlers in the Appalachians as well as from Southern blues songs. In any given evening, the songs tell stories about trains, lost love, jail time, moonshine, coal mining, murder, or all of the above. 

Also called roots music, this genre is popular around our mountain region where you can find festivals and venues all along the “Crooked Road.” East Tennessee State University even offers a degree in bluegrass performance.

At the Fold, you can join regulars and newcomers on the cement floor in front of the stage to enjoy some “clogging”…a heel-scuffing dance reminiscent of Celtic Riverdance style. Or, you can just sit back with a bag of popcorn and marvel at the speed of these talented strummers and pickers—it’s a whirlwind of sound.

No dancing is permitted, however, when the singers turn to gospel harmonies. When words about Jesus and His promise of heaven are shared with the audience, hats come off and folks listen respectfully. Oftentimes, the crowd joins in on popular favorites, like “I’ll Fly Away” or “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”

What makes this venue and its music unusual in this day and age is its family-friendly atmosphere. No cursing. No raunchy jokes…corny maybe, but kid-appropriate. And, beyond the haunting melodies and sad lyrics, there’s an undercurrent of joy. On many evenings, the name of Jesus is woven throughout the evening’s song selections.

Next time you’re feeling a bit down, find an online recording or video of a classic bluegrass tune, like “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” or “Orange Blossom Special.” Better yet, look for a gospel-centered piece like “I Know Who Holds Tomorrow,” “Wayfaring Stranger,” or “Are You Washed in the Blood?” 

I hope you’ll find a soul-stirring, soul-uplifting bluegrass tune that speaks about Jesus. It’s a privilege now available worldwide through the Internet!

Thank You, O God, for the gift of music—the daily accompaniment to our lives, the praise songs we lift up to honor You. Thank You for blessing us with Christian musicians who lift us up and inspire us to worship and applaud You. May we seek to listen, sift the good from the bad, and focus our minds on that which pleases You. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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About the Fold:

“I Know Who Holds Tomorrow”—Susan Cox and Alison Krauss:

“Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?”—Cox Family:

Some of my faves—Alison Krauss and Union Station performing “Cluck Old Hen”:

The original greats, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, performing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”:

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