For centuries and beyond, melodies and song have wafted over the ridges and through the ravines of the Cumberland Mountains, unfolding stories of the land and the people who lived there.
What: Cumberland Trail Suite: Music and Musicians of the Cumberland Mountains, which benefits the Friends of the Cumberland Trail
When: Friday, March 22, 7:30-10 p.m.
Where: Tivoli Theatre, 709 Broad St.
How much: $20 for general admission; $100 for VIP tickets, which includes a reception at Waterhouse Pavilion and up-front seating; purchase tickets here or by calling 423-757-5050
The region’s musical heritage—which includes the sawing sounds of the Appalachian fiddle, the twang of the banjo, heart-wrenching storytelling ballads, harmonic spirituals and hard-driving strings—is one of the most defining features of Appalachian culture today.
Centuries of music from the Cumberland Mountains will merge for one evening in Chattanooga during the Cumberland Trail Suite, a historic concert to take place on Friday, March 22 at the Tivoli Theatre. The event, which benefits the work of Friends of the Cumberland Trail, will gather regional musicians to present the diversity of music originating in the Cumberland Mountains: fiddle, bluegrass, new grass, sacred music, camp meeting-style singing, African-American music, Civil War ballads, blues, jazz, hot string band music and even opera.
The Cumberland Trail Suite is the work of a lifetime for event organizer Bob Fulcher, superintendent for the Cumberland Trail through Tennessee State Parks and a self-trained ethnomusicologist, with an interest in the cultural and historical aspects of music. Fulcher has been recording and preserving the music of the Cumberland Mountains since the mid-1970s and is a recipient of the American Folklore Society’s Benjamin A. Botkin Prize for outstanding work in public-sector folklore.
“Music is a great way to appreciate and understand the history of the Cumberland Mountain region,” Fulcher said. “Musicians in a region are historians, and their versions of history are often some of the most enduring.”
With the Cumberland Mountains as its backdrop, Chattanooga is perfectly fitted for celebrating the region’s musical heritage and bringing it to life in one venue, according to Fulcher.
“Chattanooga is the gateway to the Cumberland Mountains,” he said. “These mountains are part of Chattanooga’s personality and history in every aspect.”
The Cumberland Trail Suite will raise funds to support the Cumberland Trail, a scenic footpath that follows the eastern escarpment of the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee. Still a work in progress, approximately 190 miles of the Cumberland Trail are available for hiking throughout the eastern section of the state. Two Cumberland Trail segments are accessible in the Chattanooga area: the Rock Creek, Possum Creek, Soddy Creek and North Chickamauga segment in Hamilton County; and the Tennessee River Gorge segment in Prentice Cooper State Forest.
Cumberland Mountains musicians
Hosting and performing at the Cumberland Trail Suite will be Grammy Award winners Tim O’Brien and Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Performances will include Ed Brown, Earl T. Bridgeman, Fletcher Bright, Ed “Doc” Cullis, Clyde Davenport, Joseph Decosimo, Downer and Williams: The Old Time Travelers, Meredith Goins and the Chattanooga Choral Society for the Preservation of African-American Song.
Each Cumberland Trail Suite performance has some historical significance, Fulcher said, and even the performers tie into the region’s musical heritage.
“These musicians can burn it up, but they can also play music that is hundreds of years old,” he said.
One of the last-remaining solo Appalachian fiddlers raised in the tradition, Clyde Davenport, age 92, will fiddle the tune “Zollie’s Retreat” about the Civil War’s Battle of Mill Spring in 1862, in which Confederate Gen. Felix Zollicoffer was killed. Davenport’s grandfather, Frank Davenport, fought in the battle as a Union soldier and once fiddled the tune for his grandson.
“Where else in the world could you go and find someone whose grandfather was there in 1862?” Fulcher said. “It’s an opportunity for people to hear a direct connection to the music of that terrible war.”
Tim O’Brien will perform “The Cumberland Land,” a ballad that dates back to 1789 when Avery Trace Road was opened to settlers traveling from the Knoxville area to Nashville.
“This song fully describes the journey of traveling through the Cumberland Mountains and arriving in the Cumberland District, which is now Nashville,” Fulcher said. “This is the only American folk song that authentically witnesses to that frontier experience.”
Ed Brown will perform his 1960s piece “The Essence of Sequatchie County,” as well as a piece about an Anderson County, Tenn., coal mining disaster that occurred in 1902 based on letters that dying coal miners wrote to their families.
The Booker T. Scruggs Ensemble will perform the gospel piece “Just a Little Walk with Jesus,” which was composed by noted songwriter and Chattanooga pastor Cleavant Derricks and recorded by Elvis Presley, Jimmy Dean and others.
Fletcher Bright, Ed “Doc” Cullis and Tim O’Brien will play two fiddle tunes that were both composed by Cumberland Plateau fiddlers: “The Black Mountain Rag,” which was written in 1936 by a contest fiddler named Leslie Keith from outside Crossville, Tenn.; and “The Lee Highway Blues,” a fiddling standard that was written and recorded in 1928 by the McCarroll brothers’ father.
Rhiannon Giddens will perform an operatic piece in tribute to Grace Moore, an opera singer and film star from Jellico, Tenn., who was known as the Tennessee Nightingale in the 1930s.
The Cumberland Trail Suite will also serve as a release party for the record label of the Friends of the Cumberland Trail, Sandrock Recordings. Chris Ryan’s solo album “Uptown Gals” will be featured, as well as a new album from fiddler Charlie McCarroll.
“There will be lots of music for sale at the concert,” Fulcher said. “Many of the artists will bring music that cannot be purchased anywhere else.”
For more information about Cumberland Trail Suite performances, click here.
Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a freelance writer and naturalist living on Walden’s Ridge, whose writing interests include outdoor adventures, conservation and living history events. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.