The Carter Family Fold is on a long, straight, valley-wrapped road in the middle of tiny Hiltons, VA, a town known for not much more than its mountainous surroundings and proximity to the Tri-Cities region.
Approaching the Fold from the Tri-Cities drops you off with the Fold to your left, parking available along the road on the right or in small gravel parking lots connected to the historic Carter cabins and buildings adjoining the Fold itself.
An old timer in an orange Carter Family Fold t-shirt directed us into the correct parking area, chatting for a minute about the truck we drove and comparing it to a Chevy truck he bought for a good deal recently.
We parked alongside one of the cabins, a wooden rail fence separating us from the road that seemed deserted except for Saturday Fold goers.
The Carter Family Fold building is named after the original musical Carter Family–A.P., Sara, and Maybelle, three of the earliest recording artist figures in country music roots–and graced by musical legends such as Johnny Cash himself. Its country heritage is reflected in the architecture–it is set nostalgically against a grassy hillside, not looking like much from the outside but representative of the Appalachian mindset in which meaning and relationships matter more than an outward showy appearance.
Up wooden stairs and through a set of metal doors is a wood-sided hallway with bathrooms to the left and picture frames on the walls – on nearly every wall in the building are antique signs and picture frames of past guests or Carter family relatives. Through the hallway and to the right, through another set of worn metal doors, is the Carter Family Fold itself. A volunteer perched at a small table took my ten-dollar bill in exchange for a small red ticket, my voucher for the evening’s experience.
Once inside, the aura is practically timeless. Every walk of Appalachian life trickled into the roomy auditorium, bleacher seats set up on splattered concrete floors, sides left open to this evening’s September breezes, shaded by a sturdy metal roof. The stage is front and center, just above a cleared-out portion of floor that serves as a lobby for the comers and goers, mingling and greeting as they await the performance. “Homey” is the best one-word description of the décor – the stage consists of more wood siding, framed Carter pictures, a “Carter Fold, Hiltons, VA” sign, a long church pew, and a colorfully-muted carpet beneath the performers’ feet.
Tonight’s show began a little after 7:30 p.m., music opening with guest performer Don, who sang a piece he had written especially for Jack Carter before he died. Rita Forrester, A.P. Carter’s granddaughter and the Fold’s current master of ceremonies, introduced the singer and guitarist, telling the crowd that Jack was “a unique individual, like most of the Carters and Cashes are. But you couldn’t help but love him. He was a stinker, but he was our stinker.”
Don took the mic, perched on a stool with his guitar in hand, and sang “Ol’ Jack Carter,” a soulful song about Jack, the legendary man who “lived up on a hill” and “loved Merle Haggard songs.”
After the prelude’s completion, the show officially began with the evening’s guest band, distinctively known as “Uncle Shuffelo and His Haint Hollow Hootenanny.” The band’s music consisted of gospel, hillbilly, and fiddle tunes, melding the variety into a non-stop foot-tapping show, paused only by a brief intermission.
During the very first few pieces, the Fold’s signature dancing began on the floor in front of the stage. Appalachian buck dancing and clogging remained a constant the whole night, showcasing an Appalachian artful heritage mostly known by ol’ timers. An older man in a white polo shirt displayed his nimbleness all evening, twirling girls and grandmas and gawking children trying their hand at the footwork. Three older ladies in nearly matching outfits demonstrated their own set of steps, tapping and grape-vining in perfect unison. Pat Stilwell, the recently elected Mt. Carmel female mayor and a Fold-goer for decades, taught a young girl how to clog. Mothers with toddlers brought their babies down to the floor, rocking them back in forth in their arms while they shuffled to the music.
Uncle Shuffelo and His Haint Hollow Hootenanny perfectly fit the Fold’s culture, full of personality, uniqueness, Southern charm, and old-timey music.
“Uncle Shuffelo,” the band’s namesake and an effusively warm presence, explained his nickname, saying, “They sort of made fun of the way I played, and it became a unique spelling, and anyways, it just sort of evolved.”
The band name’s origin is equally unique.
“So Haint Hollow is the road that cuts through Rutherford and Bedford County and goes by our farm, and the story was that there were ‘haints’ in Haint Hollow, and they think it’s probably originated from swamp gases that rose up from the bottoms,” Uncle Shuffelo explained.
“We could have called it Uncle Shuffelo and His Swamp Gases,” another band member joked.
The band consists of two families from Bedford County, TN in Unionville, “about an hour south of Nashville, straight south.”
The families went to church together, and during a Bible school in which several of the daughters taught, Uncle Shuffelo suggested playing a little music while the kids were in class.
Brian, the bassist and father of band members, had initially declined attendance but showed up anyway, and they had a good time – enough of a good time to enter one music contest that was canceled and then try their hands at another.
“We did not win, we did not place, but we started something,” Uncle Shuffelo told me when I chatted with them before the show.
Their love for music and adhesion to one another through that love is a form of Appalachian community that seems a rarity these days.
“Certainly the way that it used to be, where, you know, two people in the family played something and wanted to make it a family affair and then everybody else learned to play something — that doesn’t really happen anymore,” Brian mused.
The band attributes their uniqueness to their musical credentials, noting the percussion of the washboard and “the fiddle playin’ out of Maestro [Austin] there, who’s just second to none. That makes us unique.” Their instrument selection is also distinct, and the band occasionally features a tuba and clarinet. They describe their music as “old time string band music, pretty much pre-1940s bluegrass music.”
Jean, a singer with a spectacularly rich and soothing voice and Uncle Shuffelo’s wife, said, “There’s a lot of us too — they refer to us as the big wall o’ sound sometimes, cause there’s a lot of us.”
Brian explained their mission, saying, “What we really want to do is cause people to have a break from the cares and concerns of life, especially now, even though not as many people are listening to us. You know, there’s so much stuff going on in the world that is a real downer, and we want to just lift their spirits just for a little while.”
And lift spirits they did! The whole evening exuded charming Appalachian liveliness, a love for down-home music, and the area’s distinctive culture, wrapped up inside of a metal-roofed, wooden-sided building in the middle of rural Virginia. If you happen to have a free Saturday night, come on out to the Carter Family Fold, a place that carries on a heritage of meaningful musicianship.