By Tom Netherland
On the doorstep of the Great Smoky Mountains rests the tiny town of Norris, Tenn., population not quite 1,500. Cars speed nearby along Interstate 75 at rates seemingly without compare in Norris. For those who exit the interstate in search of the Museum of Appalachia, they find what amounts to an oasis within which folks can ease off the gas and soak in the mostly bygone ways of folks throughout the southern Appalachian region.
“It reminds me of how I was raised on the farm,” says bluegrass legend Melvin Goins, “with all the molasses making and barns and all.” Goins spoke moments before performing “Pistol Packin’ Mama” and “Body And Soul” during the 2009 Tennessee Fall Homecoming that ran October 8-11. Staged each second full weekend in October on the grounds of the Museum of Appalachia, the event features Appalachian bluegrass, gospel, country, and old-time string band music. The 2009 event attracted folks from almost all fifty states as well as Japan and England. Performers seemed to enjoy the event and environs as much as the fans. “We’re thrilled to be here,” says Steve Gulley of Grasstowne. “This is God’s country, East Tennessee.”
Museum of Appalachia
After leaving the interstate and a short drive along a four-lane highway, there emerges the wonderfully rustic grounds of the Museum of Appalachia. Turn into its winding gravel drive. Fences crisscross on either side while passing by barns and ample shade trees. Park, walk a short ways, and see an immense gristmill to the left, the museum to the right, and in between what appears like a farm, circa 1900 or so. Welcome to back to the future East Tennessee style.
Founded in 1969 by John Rice Irwin, the Museum of Appalachia encompasses about thirty buildings on about sixty-three acres of land about twenty miles north of Knoxville, Tenn. Inside the main building and beyond, the museum contains several hundred thousand artifacts relative to the history of southern Appalachia. “With the Museum of Appalachia and each October with the Tennessee Fall Homecoming, we are trying to preserve a way of life for people of this region,” says the museum’s executive director Elaine Meyer, daughter of John Rice Irwin. “We are a museum, but unlike most museums, we are a living museum.”
A cornucopia of culture Appalachian-style on display throughout the year awaits visitors. More impressive, its layout of barns and log cabins and corn cribs along with its hay and pumpkins and corn stalks are not recreations and thus exclusively for show. The museum’s barns house barnyard animals from horses to sheep and pigs and even peacocks while its hay and grain and such feed them. So by visiting the Museum of Appalachia, whether each October for the Tennessee Fall Homecoming or at any other time during the year, visitors will experience a resonant taste of Appalachian life circa mid-nineteenth century and forth. There are even two moonshine stills, one of which was built by infamous moonshiner, the late Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton. “I saw Popcorn Sutton here one time,” says John Alvis, who plays in the Museum of Appalachia Band. “It looked like he’d done crawled out of a hollow log.”
For the curious who venture up a hill behind at least one log cabin that dots the museum’s fertile grounds, there’s an outhouse, a pristine two-hole privy, an indelible sight for generations of residents of Appalachia. Such a sight brought a wide grin to Leroy Troy, who gave a tug to his Pointer overalls. “I love it,” Troy says. “These old cabins, I like to go in ’em where I can think about how things used to be. My wife complains that we have only one bathroom, but golly, we’ve got two bedrooms and cable television.”
Food available on site during the homecoming includes such typical festival fare—funnel cakes and cotton candy and hot dogs and such. However, lines were much longer wherever cornbread and soup beans and blackberry, peach, and cherry cobbler were sold. “It’s pretty dang good,” Troy says between bites of a warm dish of blackberry cobbler.
Buildings include an extremely rare cantilever barn, jail cells circa 1874, a schoolhouse, Irwin’s Chapel Church circa 1840, a slave cabin, smokehouses, outhouses, and a gristmill circa 1790s. There’s even a log cabin that the parents of Mark Twain lived in up until just a few months before the famed author was born. “It reminds me of where I was born and raised with all the horses and mules and chickens,” Melvin Goins says. “They’ve brought back a lot of the old things.”
Look at the Tennessee Fall Homecoming as the embodiment in action of that which the museum is grounded upon. In addition to music on five stages, demonstrators include weavers, whittlers, spinners, cedar rail splitters, lye soap makers, and so on. From the barns to the cabins to the food that in decades past was probably served within those cabins to music that once was most likely played on the porches of those cabins, the festival offers a loving and vividly accurate look back. “It’s awesome,” says Alan Bibey of Grasstowne. “It reminds me of being back home. I grew up with stuff like this. I grew up with tobacco fields and going to the barn when I was five years old. Maybe a lot of these people wouldn’t go to this festival if it was only a bluegrass festival. You get a touch of Americana according to us, thirty to forty years ago. It’s everything I grew up around.”
Tennessee Fall Homecoming
Lyle West travels each year from his home in Homer, Alaska, to attend the Tennessee Fall Homecoming. “He used to come down from Alaska to see the Grand Ole Opry,” Troy says. “He’s got pictures of Uncle Dave Macon, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb. It’s what he loves, and a lot of that music is still played here.”
West diverted his trips south to Tennessee from the Opry to the Tennessee Fall Homecoming around the time that much of the music at the Opry failed to suit him. So, now, for about 15 years in a row, West’s search for the music that he loves culminates in Norris, Tenn. Until five or six years ago, West actually drove the entire 5,200-plus mile journey. “I’ve driven down the Alaska Highway 68 times,” West says proudly while Mike Snider plays on the main stage. “I love this enough to drive 5,240 miles. Does that tell how much I love this music?”
West is 93 years old. “I wish to hell I was ninety again,” he says with a grin, after hopping down from his perch on a high chair alongside the soundboard and from behind his Canon digital video camera. “I got old and didn’t know it.” Old, yes, but he enjoys a love affair with bluegrass and rural-based string music, which in part explains why he videos each Homecoming that he attends. “We don’t have this music up there in Alaska, and we have long winters, so I will watch this all winter long,” West says with a grin and a pat on the shoulder. “If you like great music, this is the place to come to.”
Just check the lineup during 2009’s homecoming. Legends booked included Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and Melvin Goins, who joined Grasstowne, throwback to Acuff and Oz-styled music in Leroy Troy, Grand Ole Opry member Mike Snider, and string bands such as the Roan Mountain Moonshiners and the Museum of Appalachia Band. Years past performers include Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, Grandpa Jones, John Hartford, and Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys. However, strictly regional and locals acts maintain a strong presence, too. For example, local band Dixie Gray draws widespread response each year. “We’ve had big names here like Bill Monroe,” says John Rice Irwin. “But we’ve gotten more written accolades on these boys (Dixie Gray). This is what it’s all about.”
That underscores an elemental obvious aspect of the museum and its fall festival. While there are countless bluegrass and bluegrass-like festivals across the country each year, none are quite like the Tennessee Fall Homecoming. Herb Miller sat on a wooden bench a few feet from a pot of brewing beans on Saturday right about lunchtime. Miller, 76, who plays banjo with the Roan Mountain Moonshiners, picked one old Appalachian song after another on his banjo. He’s been coming to the Tennessee Fall Homecoming for 25 years as a musician and as a fan. “Oh, there ain’t nothing like it,” Miller says. “I play here all the time. (The organizers) insist on doing it all the old-time way.”
That suits Miller just fine. In between chatting about the festival, he picked “Tennessee Fox Chase,” his own “Ode to Tennessee,” and he obliged a request for “Mountain Dew” with a nod and a smile and a wonderful performance on his banjo, played clawhammer style. “It’s so pure and unadulterated,” Miller says of the museum. “It’s depicting our heritage better than anything else.”
Find a band playing an old-time tune on any one of the six unique stages at the homecoming, look around and you’re pretty sure to see Carlock Stooksbury, 86, nearby. Hat on his head, flannel shirt on his back, thumbs snagged onto the galluses of his overalls, and smile on his face Stooksbury dearly loves the music that amounts to the music of his life. Stooksbury attended the first homecoming. “John Rice Irwin and I are second cousins. My father and John Rice’s grandmother were brother and sister,” Stooksbury says. “We brought up a wagon (for the first homecoming). John Rice got a bunch of us together and we played music. It was a lot of fun. I played the Jews harp. It’s grown quite a bit since then, hasn’t it? It’s typical of the way I grew up in Union County, Tennessee.”
Museum of Appalachia officials not only herald such older folks as Stooksbury, who made a difference in the early days of the museum and homecoming, they honor them. From founder John Rice Irwin to Stooksbury to old-time fiddler Charlie Acuff and famous fan Lyle West, elders maintain a place of honor when they enter the grounds. “I’ve played with Charlie Acuff since I was 12,” says John Alvis. “Charlie, for one thing, in all the world is John Rice Irvin’s favorite fiddler. Charlie played in our museum band for years. He’s the last of the old-time fiddlers still here.”
On the second day of the 2009 festival, Acuff sat in front of a roaring fireplace backstage in his wheelchair after performing on stage, holding court with well wishers as a steady parade of musicians paused while passing by to say hello. Meanwhile, his beloved fiddle lay across his lap and in the care of his loving ninety-year-old hands. “Music keeps me feeling good,” Acuff says. “It takes just one song to take some of my worries away.”
It sure doesn’t take a ninety-year-old to do that, transport folks away from their day-to-day troubles and travails. Perhaps a song from upstart bluegrass band Brand New Strings could work such magic. “This is our first time here as Brand New Strings, and it was a great reception,” says Stuart Wyrick while standing in the museum’s store. “When you see them dancing you know they’re into the music.”
Though 2009 marked Brand New Strings’ first homecoming as a band, bandmates Wyrick and Tim Tipton have attended for many years. “I was at the very first festival. I was about 11 or 12,” Wyrick says, who added that his favorite memory to date was the time he played at the homecoming with a country and old-time music legend. “Playing with Bashful Brother Oswald. I backed him up on guitar. It was just him and me. Oz was something up on stage. That was priceless, and hearing him play ‘The Great Speckled Bird’ and having seen him at the Grand Ole Opry, man, that was priceless.”
Priceless could describe the homecoming itself, Tipton says, particularly given such a lack of similar diversions in today’s society. “It’s a family atmosphere,” Tipton says. “In this region of the United States, a lot of people still remember the old ways. They’re plain country folks. But you also have people from all over the United States. I first came here in ’94 to see Bill Monroe as a fan. My favorite memory was meeting Bill Monroe. That will never change. The songs he played, the breaks he took, and then when he broke into some buck dancing.”
Such stories abound throughout the Tennessee Fall Homecoming as old friends and family gather for what really does amount to a homecoming. Take Leroy Troy. Up to and after he performed “Watermelon On The Vine” and “Jesse James” during his multiple performances, fans who seemed more like old friends reminisced about times past and posed with him for pictures while gathering his autograph. “This is my 27th year here,” Troy says. “For me more than anything it’s the friends I’ve made here. I’ve made so many friends here through the years that it really is like a homecoming for me. Of course, I love the music, I love the food here, and I really enjoy going through the cabins and going through the museum, but more than anything it’s the friends I’ve made through the years.”
Perhaps that best explains the gradual growth of the Tennessee Fall Homecoming. Despite damp and cool conditions during 2009’s event, crowds were large to see locals to legends play their music on one of five stages. Just before he stepped on stage to waves of applause and a brilliant flash of cameras, Melvin Goins shifted his guitar to his side and summed up the homecoming that he’s grown to love so dearly.
“It’s like a tree; it grows every year. People know about this festival in little Norris, Tennessee, and come from all over the world,” Goins says. “Once they come, it’s like you’ve got a great need and you want to come back next year.”
Tom Netherland is a freelance writer who contributes to the Bristol Herald Courier, Richmond Times-Dispatch, and Road King magazine, among others. He lives in Bristol, Tenn.