Spencer Family & Friends: Greetings from Whitetop

Greetings from Whitetop Cover Property of VFH
Greetings from Whitetop Cover Property of VFH
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Deep in the most rugged mountains of southwestern Virginia, on the slopes and in the hollows of Mt. Rogers and Whitetop Mountain, a rich tradition of old-time music has endured through many decades of changes. As the popularity of bluegrass, rock, and rap flooded the country, and as the popularity of old-time music came and went, and arose again throughout the Appalachians, the old-time musicians of the Whitetop area maintained their pure, rich musical heritage like burning embers in a banked fire.

Among the most important of the many musical families in the area is the Spencer family: Thornton Spencer, a fabulous and versatile fiddle and guitar player and brother-in-law of the late Albert Hash, his wife, Emily, a brilliant clawhammer banjo player and vocalist, their son Kilby, a skilful and original fiddle player in his own right, and their daughter Martha, who bowls over audiences everywhere with the joyous intensity of her singing, dancing, and playing on fiddle, banjo, and guitar.

Individually, their talents and versatility have kept them in great demand throughout the area. Thornton and Emily played with the late Albert Hash in the Whitetop Mountain Band, a band that continues today with the addition of Martha Spencer, Spencer Pennington, and Michelle Lyle. Martha and Kilby have played, and still play, in other groups including the Crooked Road Band that performed in 2005 at the National Folklife Festival in Richmond, Virginia. On Friday nights, the family performs as the Whitetop Mountain Band for the “Alleghany Jubilee” in Sparta, NC, where local families come in to dance. Until late at night, dancers from pre-school age to the very elderly shuffle through square dances, two-steps, and waltzes to many of the tunes and songs heard on this CD. At the Jubilee, as they do everywhere, the Spencers and their friends bring joy and fun with them.

The Whitetop area has always been blessed with fine musicians, and the music the Spencers play has been fed by the traditional streams flowing through such fiddle players of past generations as Howard Wyatt, Corbit Stamper, and Albert Hash, and the banjo players Lee Weaver and Jont Blevins. These musical streams are now flowing outward into a new generation of musicians through Emily Spencer’s “Mt. Rogers School Band” – a hotbed of burgeoning talent composed of young banjo, fiddle, and guitar players from her music classes. Many of her former students are now accomplished musicians, each with his or her own unique personal style. Jacob Bowen, a phenomenal fiddle player who can be heard on this CD, studied initially with Emily, and now learns tunes from Thornton. The other musicians heard on the CD include Dr. Mark Handy from Ennis, NC, Debbie Bramer from Fancy Gap, VA, and Michelle Lyle and Spencer Pennington from Ashe County, NC, all of whom have benefited from the encouragement and generosity of Thornton and Emily Spencer.

As evidenced by the repertoire on this CD, the Spencers play music from a variety of sources. Songs such as Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow, and East Virginia Blues, both popularized by the Carter family alternate with older traditional tunes originating from as long ago as the Civil War (Johnson Boys) and further back (Leather Britches – an ancient Scottish tune still played as Lord MacDonald’s Reel in Scotland). Even more recent songs with origins in bluegrass (Rank Stranger), western swing (Faded Love), southern gospel music (Have a Little Talk with Jesus) appear in their repertoire – transformed into their ecstatic, clawhammer-driven Whitetop Mountain style.

This CD of the Spencers and their friends was recorded around one microphone, without the use of multi-tracking or heavy editing, usually in one “take” per song. The result is close to what one might hear at one of the weekly jam sessions down at the Mt. Rogers School, or during an evening of music in the Spencer’s living room, as these multitalented musicians trade instruments back and forth, try out various instrumental combinations, and play and sing a variety of old-time songs. As is true of all their performances, their talent, versatility, and deep love of old-time music shine through every song.

Mark Sanderford

  1. MEDLEY: LEE HIGHWAY BLUES, FLORIDA BLUES, LOST JOHN (Traditional)
    Thornton, fiddle
    Emily, banjo
    Martha, guitar
    Michelle, bass
  2. BURY ME BENEATH THE WILLOW (Traditional)
    Emily, banjo, lead vocal
    Martha, guitar
    Thornton, fiddle
    Spencer, guitar, vocal
    Michelle, bass, vocal
  3. JOHNSON BOYS (Traditional)
    Thornton, fiddle
    Emily, banjo
  4. RABBIT UP A GUM STUMP (Traditional)
    Thornton, fiddle
    Jacob, fiddle
    Debbie, bass
    Martha, guitar
    Emily, banjo
  5. NO HIDING PLACE (Traditional)
    Martha, banjo, lead vocal
    Emily, guitar, vocal
    Spencer, guitar, vocal
    Michelle, bass
  6. LOST INDIAN (Traditional)
    Martha,
    fiddle
    Emily, banjo
    Spencer, guitar
    Debbie, bass
  7. RANK STRANGER (Albert E. Brumley)
    Emily, banjo, vocal
    Martha, guitar, vocal
  8. SALLY WAS A POOR GIRL (Traditional)
    Martha, fiddle
    Mark, banjo
    Spencer, guitar
    Debbie, bass
  9. SOUL NEVER DIES (William M. Goldman)
    Emily, guitar, vocal
    Martha, banjo, vocal
    Thornton, fiddle
    Michelle, bass
  10. MEDLEY: FLY AROUND MY PRETTY LITTLE MISS, RACHEL, CHICKEN REEL (Traditional)
    Thornton, fiddle
    Emily, banjo
    Martha, guitar
    Michelle, bass
  11. FADED LOVE (B. Wills/ J. Wills)
    Martha, lead vocal
    Thornton, fiddle
    Emily, banjo, vocal
    Spencer, guitar, vocal
    Michelle, bass, vocal
  12. LEATHER BRITCHES (Traditional)
    Thornton, fiddle
    Jacob, fiddle
    Emily, banjo
    Martha, guitar
    Debbie, bass
  13. HAVE A LITTLE TALK WITH JESUS (Traditional)
    Martha, vocal
    Emily, vocal
    Spencer, vocal
    Michelle, vocal
  14. OLD TIME SALLY ANNE (Traditional)
    Thornton, fiddle
    Emily, banjo
  15. CUMBERLAND GAP (Traditional)
    Thornton, fiddle, vocal
    Mark, banjo, vocal
    Martha, guitar
    Spencer, guitar
    Debbie, bass
  16. RUBY (Kenny Price)
    Martha, guitar, vocal
    Emily, banjo
    Thornton, fiddle
    Spencer, guitar
    Michelle, bass
  17. KATY HILL (Traditional)
    Thornton,
    fiddle
    Jacob, fiddle
    Emily, banjo
    Martha, guitar
    Debbie, bass
  18. EAST VIRGINIA BLUES (Traditional)
    Spencer, lead vocal
    Emily, banjo, vocal
    Martha, guitar
    Thornton, fiddle
    Michelle, bass, vocal