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Seems hard to believe now but in the early 1970s, festivals were one of the few public places in Southwest Virginia where old-time and bluegrass music could be heard. And with the exception of a monument on State Street in Bristol — now widely regarded as the Birthplace of Country Music — rarely was the region’s rich musical heritage acknowledged.
In 1974, Janette Carter set out to change that by creating a festival that would honor not only her late father, the legendary A.P. Carter, and the rest of The Carter Family, but also the legacy left by the other forebears of mountain music.
That tradition will continue this weekend as the third generation of Carters presents the 37th Carter Family Memorial Festival at the Carter Family Memorial Music Center in Hiltons, Va.
The stage for that first festival was the flatbed of an 18-wheel truck on loan from the National Guard. Sara Carter came from California, and Maybelle Carter traveled from her home in Nashville for the occasion – very small by today’s standards, but truly a labor of love.
After the festival, Janette Carter began presenting shows of acoustic-only old-time and bluegrass music in the grocery her father ran in the ’40s and ’50s. The shows quickly outgrew the one-room structure, so in 1976, Janette Carter — along with her siblings, Joe and Gladys — built the Carter Family Fold.
Despite the fact that she never graduated from high school, Janette Carter established a nonprofit, rural arts organization and a museum. Along the way, she won the National Endowment for the Arts’ Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Award. The NEA’s highest honor, the award paid tribute to Carter’s lifelong advocacy of the performance and preservation of Appalachian music. Janette Carter died in 2006, having devoted the last 32 years of her life to the Carter Family Memorial Music Center.
Janette Carter’s daughter, Rita Forrester, along with hundreds of family members, friends and supporters will continue that mission as they present this year’s Carter Family Memorial Festival.
The festival will get off to a rousing start at 6 p.m., Friday with performances by the Whitetop Mountain Band and the Whitewater Bluegrass Company. Saturday’s entertainment lineup, beginning at 3 p.m., includes music by the New Ballards Branch Bogtrotters, Tyler Williams & Ashley Davis, Lonesome Will Mullins and Surefire, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Also performing will be the Great Smoky Mountain Cloggers, marking their 37th year at the festival, along with Carter Family descendent Lorrie Carter Bennett and long-time family friend Ronnie Williams. Bennett and Williams will perform both days.
Gates will open at 3 p.m., Friday and at noon, Saturday, as will craft and outside food booths and the A.P. Carter Cabin Birthplace and Carter Family Museum, which will close at 8 p.m., each day. Guests can bring their instruments and join in on any of the impromptu musical jams on the grounds.
Limited rough camping is available.
Tickets for adults are $10 on Friday and $20 on Saturday, or $25 for both days; tickets for children ages 6-11 are $2 a day, with children 5 and younger admitted for free. Tickets are available at the gate only; all seats are festival seating.
For more information, call the Mountain Music Museum at (276) 645-0035 or visit the Carter Fold web site at www.carterfamily fold.org .