Tennessee Mountain Stories

Learnin' Music

Ruthie with Fiddle.jpg

Music is a huge part of our mountain history.  It came with us from the old country and the sounds of Ireland and Scotland can still be heard in it.  It’s a subject I’ve visited here before (more than once actually) and no doubt I’ll light on it again somewhere down the road.  I’m not particularly musical although I’ve always longed to be able to make music as my ancestors did.  Childhood piano lessons have served a few congregations who were hard-up for a piano-player and my squeaky fiddle is a joy to me if no one else.  Still I am determined.  So I’m going to teach my children – or rather have them taught.

Ruthie kept asking to play my fiddle so a tiny instrument was under the Christmas tree this year.  Caleb got his guitar last Christmas and we’ve been making a little progress on it. 

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T.E. Hixson was my Great-Great-Grandfather and he made instruments and taught and played with his children and grandchildren.  In fact, my grandmother remembers having child-sized instruments and hearing that with each birth he would declare what instrument the child would play and immediately begin making it for him or her.  These precious toys were so commonplace in their home and family that when they moved out of the house they left them behind. 

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Grandpa Hixson’s children all played – in fact none of us knew my Great Grandmother (and his eldest child) could play until she was an old woman and I pulled out one of his fiddles.  She took it in her hands and said, “I don’t know if I can even pick out a tune anymore.”

As we embark on this journey of teaching and learning, practicing and improving I’m thrilled every time I hear them pick up their instruments and make their own little music.  And I can’t help but wonder what the Hixson home sounded like all those years ago.  As the day’s work wrapped up and a calm moment could be found, did different ones go back to their guitar, mandolin and fiddle?  Did one hear a few notes picked out and immediately want to join in?  Can’t you see the living room with one young son on his guitar and a sister comes trotting in, fiddle in hand?

Yet I know that they were not immediately proficient at the art.  There would have been years and years of missed notes, squeaky licks and slow improvement.  Were Grandma and Grandpa excited to hear their little musicians trying and trying?  Or did they grow tired of the noise and long to listen just to the birds or the crickets?   I imagine it was a little of both.  And how many times did Grandpa join in with the children?  Was he more often the instigator of their family-jam-sessions?

Of course their day without televisions and tablets, phones ringing or texts dinging surely made it easier to appreciate the efforts their children were putting into music.  It’s harder these days with so many things vying for our attention – not just the children’s attention but mine as well.  And it’s harder still because we have to find a teacher and get to him at the appointed hour.  How beautiful it is to imagine a father just slowly and quietly teaching his children, and teaching by example as he played each instrument.

I already know we’ll soon revisit the music of the mountains for I have a friend who has fiddles her grandfather handmade.  I’m really looking forward to getting that great story and sharing it with you!

The Enduring Music of the Mountains

Last Saturday I had the opportunity to join my friends and neighbors at the 1st Annual Bluegrass Saturday Night On the Road in Jamestown, Tennessee.  Now, we’ve talked here before about the timeless music that we now call Bluegrass.  It came with our ancestors from Ireland and Scotland, and we still enjoy it today.  Well the gathering Saturday night certainly reminds me that this musical tradition lives on.

Jamestown’s country music radio station, WDEB, airs a weekly show of bluegrass music known as Bluegrass Saturday Night and hosted by “Country John B.” Mullinix.  This week they did a live, remote show at the American Legion building inviting several bands to play and all the community to come out and enjoy good music, grilled burgers and hotdogs and great fellowship.

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They honored all of the veterans in attendance, especially those who fought in World War II.  They played the national anthem and everyone stood with hat in hand.  We prayed.  Then we clapped and tapped our toes, laughed, chatted and maybe even sang along a little bit.

Cody Hull Band at Bluegrass Saturday Night.jpg

How exciting it is to get up a show like this and have almost all the talent be local.  And young – several of the groups had 20-somethings playing with them and I didn’t see anyone needing a cane to get up on stage.  Surely this is a sign that our music is not just surviving but thriving in our hectic twenty-first century.  There’s no question that one of the keys to the preservation of music that originated in the old country was the remoteness of our mountain home for a couple of centuries.  But today the world is at our doorstep with planes, interstate highways and the world wide web.  Still, we are drawn to these old sounds, many of the songs are familiar and the strains of the modern bluegrass songs are often as comfortable as the traditional ones.

It’s always fun to get out and see neighbors you don’t often get to talk to.  And this past Saturday evening was a pleasant time on the mountain with the rain clearing out in plenty of time for parking and setting up – probably in answer to Mr. Mullinix’ prayers.  Add in the talented picking and familiar tunes and you’ve got the best kind of Saturday night.