Saturday, October 23, 2010

From The Sunny Side of Appalachia, Bluegrass from the Grassroots
by Betty Dotson-Lewis (B. L. Dotson-Lewis)

My Near Brush with Bluegrass
by B. L. Dotson-Lewis

I can’t remember when bluegrass music was not a part of my life. This acoustic music came with living in the Appalachian Mountains, part of our roots the way I understand it, but I was never confronted head on with this music until my father took it up.

My family moved west while I was still in high school and it didn't seem a big deal that I would stay behind with my sister and finish school in West Virginia. I was around 15. Like most teenagers I was heavy into listening to popular rock n roll.

When my father moved from West Virginia to the west coast he refused to give up his citizenship to Appalachia. His roots were in Buchanan County, Virginia, Jim Fork and later, Nicholas County, West Virginia. I have heard my father say that he wasn't looking for a western culture, he loved Appalachia. What the west could provide for him was taller mountains, bigger game and a closer relationship with nature. My father was born and raised in Southwest Virginia and his love for everything Appalachian, including mountain music, especially bluegrass never left his veins.

The way I see it, this romantic attachment to our unique culture makes my father totally responsible for my near brush with bluegrass.

You see, I was visiting my parents the summer between my senior year in high school and going off to Berea College. There, I would engage in a life of studying fine arts, foreign languages, and my entertainment would be symphonic concerts on the greens of a renowned institution of higher learning. I was seeking a liberal arts college degree. My father’s formal education went up to the 8th grade but he had common sense and a flare for writing.

Early on that summer shortly after my arrival at my western home, my father traded one of his hunting dogs for an old fiddle. He decided to take up playing bluegrass. The fiddle was his instrument of choice. No, he didn't read music.

The fiddle came in an old worn-out, banged up black case. The latch was broken on the case so a piece of hay baling twine was wound around and . . . (read moe in my book)
The Sunny Side of Appalachia, Bluegrass from the Grassroots (book)
by Betty Dotson-Lewis (B. L. Dotson-Lewis)


Dear God,

How are Y'all? Good, I hope. Do you have a minute for me?

I wanted to tell you about my new book on Appalachia. This book covers the history of bluegrass music from the grassroots. I am using oral history interviews, photos, and stories about this music to tell the story which is so much a part of the cultural heritage of the Appalachian Mountains.
God, do you like bluegrass? Well, if Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, date of death, September 9, 1996; Carter Stanley, Ralph's brother, date of death, December 1, 1966; and, Maybelle Carter, date of death, October 23, 1978, made it passed St. Pete and through the Pearly Gates, I don't have to tell you about bluegrass music, you've got the best band around. Harps may be the instrument of choice on the bluegrass stage in Heaven, I don't know.
The title of my new book is "The Sunny Side of Appalachia: Bluegrass History from the Grassroots." Don't you love the title?
Just as my first two books came about, nothing was pre-arranged. I didn't know I would be doing this book, but you hold the plan for each of us in your hands. The urgency to write this book hit me in June on the Saturday prior to the opening day of "Music In The Mountains" Bluegrass Festival which is held here in Summersville, West Virginia where I live. Here's how it happened.
I was mowing my backyard. It was mid-afternoon and a pleasant day for working outside when suddenly, I realized a historical event was about to take place less than 4 miles from where I live. I needed to document this important history as it occurred. I dropped the handle of my John Deere, self-propelled mower on the spot as if I had been hit in the head by a faith healer such as Ernest Angsley. I grabbed a notepad, a pen, and keys to my Jeep, tied a bandana around my head to keep the sweat out of my eyes, and headed for the music park. I didn't even bother to change clothes, wash the grass off my arms and legs, or change from my lawn mowing shoes. An important mission lay ahead, or so it appeared.
I pulled into the music park; a cows' pasture transformed overnight into a bluegrass music venue. I parked, got out, and walked over to where the gate keepers, Burl Willis, his wife, Linda, and daughter Abby, were ushering hundreds of campers in for a week long diet of bluegrass music. The gatekeepers were locals, I knew.
I told them I wanted to do a book on bluegrass as part of my series on Appalachia's culture and traditions preservation. Our roots. I asked them how they thought it would go over with the new owners of the Bluegrass Festival. The Nazarene Church people who had purchased the campground, Bluegrass Festival, lock, stock and barrel, the previous summer. Burl, Linda and Abby got so excited. They told me they thought it was a great idea. I told them I wanted them to be part of my book. They said the next step would be to talk to Cindy.
Burl jumped on his golf-cart and took off to find Cindy, the new festival commander-in-chief. Shortly, they both returned and I met Cindy Pourbaix for the first time. I told her the same thing I had told the others, that I needed to do this book on bluegrass to help preserve this regional and local history of the mountain people. She agreed it was of utmost importance.
She asked me how I planned on doing the book and I said, "I would bring a hand held, battery operated recorder and a camera. I told her I would walk around the campground and ask fans of bluegrass for an interview. I told her I would ask musicians for interviews and people from the Nazarene Church. Just a random collection to represent the history of the music and its connection with Summersville, West Virginia, our bluegrass town.
She told me to come and go as I wished and get whatever information I could for this book which, she agreed would entertain, document, and educate.
So, that's how it all began. I am working very hard. It is so exciting. God, you have the most exciting plans for us.

God, thank you for the privilege of growing up here in these rugged, remote, beautiful mountains of Appalachia. Thank you for my heritage.

Take care,
B. L. Dotson-Lewis
Summersville, West Virginia

P.S. I thank you when I remember you.
(Paul from the Bible)
Interview with Mrs. Jesse McReynolds (Joy McReynolds) found in The Sunny Side of Appalachia, Bluegrass from the Grassroots

Jesse McReynolds & The Virginia Boys

Dear Betty,
Thanks so much for your interest in our Pick Inn. We did an interview recently, and here it is. As you can see, Jesse is a man of few words. I, on the other hand, could go on about the Pick Inn all day!

Feel free to use what you like, or ask more questions, and thanks again so much. Joy & Jesse
From Jesse--

1. Why did you decide to establish a bluegrass-themed bed & breakfast, at this point in your career?

After traveling on the road for 60 years, I want to slow down on touring but still have a place to play my music.

2. Are you still planning to tour some and play dates on the road?

Yes, I will be doing some touring on some special dates in 2008.

3. Can you tell me more about the kinds of shows you will be hosting in the dinner theater?

What can visitors expect to see and hear? The dinner theater is something that we plan to do in the future. It will be a family-type show with me and my band and special guests. And we will be booking other bands on different occasions. We want to feature traditional bluegrass and gospel music.

From Joy--
4. If folks come and spend some vacation time at the Pick Inn, they will get to to meet you, as well as Jesse. Could you tell the bluegrass fans reading this column a little about yourself, and your connection to the music?

I think of myself as a farm girl, raised in the pretty countryside around Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My first recollection of bluegrass music was as a little girl, around the late 50's or early 60's. I was sitting in the back seat of our car with my sisters, and heard the most wonderful sound come on over the radio. I asked our Dad what that music was, and he said it was "Campbell's Corners". I wanted to go there in the worst way! Dad also told us about a place called "Sunset Park" which was right close by. We never did get there as a family, but I never forgot that music.

It wasn't until 30+ years later, after I became a music reporter, that I finally got to Sunset Park. It felt like coming home. By this time my parents had passed on, but I took the rest of my family with me and we all fell in love with it. When the park closed down a few years back, it was like losing a friend. That was the one and only music park I ever visited, and it is a treasured memory. But perhaps more of a loss than the music, I really miss sitting at the picnic tables with my sisters during the supper break, under those big old shade trees. I hope we can provide that kind of experience at our Pick Inn. A feeling of "this is our home in the country where I can bring my family, or just come by myself and be with people that feel like family, and enjoy good music".

Jesse and I married in May of 1996. I really believe that a finer man has never walked the earth. So kind and gentle, while at the same time a dynamo in perpetual motion. You need a lot of energy to keep up with Jesse. I love it. He keeps me young!

Jesse has lived on this beautiful property in Gallatin, Tennessee since he and his brother Jim bought the 90 acre farm back in 1964. They split it up and lived side by side all their lives. Jesse gave his children a few acres, and the Pick Inn is on the 10 acre parcel he and his first wife, Darlene, gave their oldest son, Keith, back in the 1970's. Keith loved this particular property for it's serenity and view of Old Hickory Lake. He called it "Meditation Hill".

Jesse helped Keith build the log cabin at the Pick Inn. Keith and wife, Debbie, had two lovely children, Amanda Lynne (Jesse named her!) and Garrett. Keith was a wonderful man, musician, father, and man of great faith. Keith got his religious foundation from Jesse and Darlene, who sadly passed away in 1993. Then, after a long bout with MS, Keith passed away back in 2000. Over the last few years, Garrett and Amanda started joining Jesse on his shows, and we could see how special that was, and we appreciated how the kids showed so much respect and enthusiasm for singing & playing music with Jesse.

Last November of 2006, it was decided to sell their childhood home at an auction, and Jesse and I didn't think we had much of a chance to buy it because we thought it would be too expensive. But Jesse sent me and Garrett up to the auction and he said he was staying home to pray. Talk about the prayers of a righteous man availing much! I thought Garrett and I would just be bystanders watching it sell, but the bidding stopped, and Garrett turned to me and asked, "How about a thousand more?" Well, who could look into such a sweet face and say no? Not I! So little by little, we acquired the property back (after we made an emergency phone call to Jesse, who said, "Go for it!").

I look at the Pick Inn as a gift from God. I almost feel like we don't even own it. We are stewards of what God has given us, and we give God all the glory. I just hope we can be good stewards of it. I guess, in a way, we all own it, and need to care for it so it will be here, along with the music of our heritage, so our kids and grandkids can pass it down to their kids. We sure can't take it with us when we leave this earth, and there can be no greater pleasure for me than what God has made at the Pick Inn and worked through all who come there. Everyone seems to leave a touch of themselves behind, and we love that. We all own the place, as far as I am concerned.

I am so thrilled that Jesse has plans to construct an old-time brush arbors church and we plan to have revivals, youth camps, spiritual retreats, and possibly baptisms in Old Hickory Lake. We are especially blessed with the presence of our own "Fiddlin' Preacher". There is talk of a live radio show and many more wonderful ideas.

Well, as you can see, I could write a novel about the Pick Inn. To make a long story short, I love this old place. If I went on a vacation, I'd want to stay here, so why not share that blessing with everyone? I've walked my dogs on these trails for years, marveling at the birds, butterflies, wildflowers, pretty views, wildlife, and serenity. I don't think it pleases God to only make this kind of blessing available to a few.

There was one other childhood experience that made a huge impression on me as far as my love of nature. As Girl Scouts, we took a field trip to a place called the Tyler Arboretum. There, we learned how all the things that grow in the wild are important for wildlife to survive. So when you come and walk the trails at the Pick Inn, you won't see a golfcourse-type lawn everywhere. I have purposely left the wildflowers for the butterflies, birds and the bees to survive on. There are walking trails through wildflowers over 5 feet tall! I'd love to let teachers bring their classrooms in and see how important it is to preserve nature for the wildlife, and appreciate that these things that may look like weeds are important for the survival of many forms of life.

5. What are you looking forward to, specifically, about being a bluegrass innkeeper? I see how happy people are when they get to meet Jesse. He is a blessing to so many. This will give folks a chance to come and see him at home. I think it is a very nice way to say "thank you" to the fans, as well as a nice way for the fans to come and meet a hero they think may never get a chance otherwise to meet. I think this will be the greatest pleasure of all for me... to see people get to meet Jesse and find out he's a regular, down-to-earth person who just happens to be a musical wizard!

As far as the B&B, we are not yet classified as a Bed & Breakfast. We will be seeking approvals to do that in the near future, and I do look forward to that very much. Right now it already gives me great joy to see our visitors come and enjoy the countryside and the music. This will be a dream come true for many musicians who think it is the ultimate thrill to play music with a bluegrass legend like Jesse. We are looking forward to having teaching camps for all the bluegrass instruments. For me, the Pick Inn is a labor of love. The best compliment I've gotten so far is "it feels like coming home to Grandma's".

But, more than anything, I love Jesse. This is a dream of his. If I can help make this dream happen, nothing could make me happier. ~ Joy McR.

Jesse & Joy McReynolds
The Pick Inn
Jesse McReynolds & the Virginia Boys