Soundtrack of the mountains: Exploring the hidden musical gems of Scott County

Nick Shepherd • Aug 13, 2017 at 6:00 PM

On a Friday night in July, long before the sun goes down, the parishioners gather. A few linger outside, talking about their time in the coal mines or discussing the latest happenings around town.

Everyone else shuffles inside and takes a seat in one of the mismatched church pews. Quilts hang on the walls behind the small pulpit. Nine people gather on stage. When the music starts, no one rises with hymn book in hand.

Because these people are not at a normal worship service. They are attending the Church of Bluegrass.

Like the Clinch River, music flows throughout Scott County. It can be found in a large venue tucked into the side of a mountain or inside an old high school gymnasium, underneath a banner hanging where a basketball goal used to be. Music can be found deep inside the county and a few miles away from the Tennessee state line.

Mountain music is alive and well in this small corner of Southwest Virginia. Much of it is not flashy, with some shows attracting 45 people and others done simply for the musicians. But people from all over the world flock to Scott County just to experience the music.

To find all the music there is much like a treasure hunt, and like all treasure hunts, there are many hidden gems to be discovered.

The Church of Bluegrass

Located off a pothole-pocked road that runs alongside a lazy creek in Nickelsville, the Church of Bluegrass is formally known as Hicks Friday Night Jams. It appears suddenly, with trees and greenery turning into a large gravel parking lot on which a barn and a small red house sit.

Inside the red house, a small eatery is upstairs. Before shows, the musicians gather in a small room off to the side to warm up. Below the restaurant is a basement with a small stage. And on Friday nights, it is filled with the sounds of bluegrass and gospel music.

Owner Alan Hicks had no idea he would one day be hosting a jam session, which one musician called the best jam session around the entire Tri-Cities. After all, Hicks was a steel worker for his entire life.

After he retired, Hicks began building mandolins. His son, Larry, built guitars. And if you build musical instruments, musicians are sure to follow.

“Boys started coming in each and every Tuesday. ... I gave them the big room back there and they started coming in and playing,” Hicks said. “Pretty soon we outgrew that. ... There were about 40 or 50 (people listening). It was standing room only.”

So a stage was built downstairs to accommodate everyone who wanted to listen to the jam sessions. Once the stage was built, seats were needed. Hicks said he took what he could find, and what he could find were old church pews. Pews were taken from two or three different places but luckily all were about the same length.

Hicks is not sure how long the jam sessions have been taking place but believes they started approximately 15 years ago. He has been retired for the last 20 years.

His venue was opened to the public in 2012. A year later, Hicks Friday Night Jams won a Scott County Tourism award. Soon after, The Crooked Road, Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail, came calling and named Hicks Friday Night Jams as an affiliated venue.

Many of the same musicians come every Friday night. Robert Edwards has been coming to play at the Church of Bluegrass for the last decade. Edwards, who is a police officer in Johnson City, plays the acoustic guitar and sings. His father, Millard, picks a banjo. He has been coming since the sessions started.

But new blood shows up to jam constantly. On this particular Friday, a mandolin player named Annie Eaves, originally from Georgia but living in Johnson City, joined in for the first time. She seamlessly blended in with the jam night veterans, and the crowd showed their appreciation of her skills with a round of applause during a song.

Later on in the night, a fiddle player from North Carolina asked to join in and was welcomed with open arms. Hicks introduces every new person who attends and says the first time you come you are a visitor. The second time, you are family.

Jam sessions usually last two to three hours and are free. Signs advertising the events as drug- and alcohol-free hang on the outside walls. Hicks wants to keep his place family friendly.

Because family is what the Church of Bluegrass is all about.

“A lot of people are here every Friday night,” he said.

A Picker's Paradise

Every Friday morning in Weber City, hours before the Church of Bluegrass goes into session, a number of musicians gather next to a fireplace in the back of a small music shop. They sit in metal folding chairs that form a tight circle while a few people gather on a couch behind them. A small banner hangs over the fireplace with the words “Lazy Time Pickin’ Parlor: Hangout for the Homeless & Henpecked. College of Knowledge.”

There is no microphone and only a few amplifiers, with only one currently being used by a bass player. One person shouted out a song, and the group launched into the music without a second’s hesitation. Banjos, acoustic guitars and a mandolin fill the air with music that has been played in the hills of Appalachia for centuries.

Musicians come from all over the Tri-Cities to take part in the jam sessions hosted by the Lazy Time Pickin’ Parlor. On this particular Friday morning, musicians from Piney Flats, Kingsport and Surgoinsville were plucking strings and lifting their voices up in song.

And while the group welcomes anyone, people have to earn their way into the jam circle.

“First of all, you get over on the couch and tune up and hope to find a seat,” said John Collier, a retired teacher who plays the banjo. “I waited until somebody said, ‘Do you want to join us?’ And then I got in there making a racket.”

The Lazy Time Pickin’ Parlor is owned by Leonard Stallard and was opened in 2002. The shop specializes in selling instruments synonymous with the music of the mountains. If someone shows up to jam but forgot their instrument, Stallard will allow one to be taken off the wall and used for a session.

Bluegrass is not the only type of music being played at the parlor. Soon after the bluegrass musicians wrap up their session, two men sit down in their place and begin playing country music. On Saturdays, the parlor fills up with country musicians.

Like a lot of music around the county, the parlor attracts people from all over the world. It has also attracted heavyweights in bluegrass and country, who sometimes make unannounced visits. Johnny Cash and Tim Stafford, from Blue Highway, have both stopped in to jam at the parlor.

Like the Church of Bluegrass, many of the same musicians come every week to jam. Because of this, participants feel like they have an extended family.

“Everybody checks on each other and makes sure if they’re not here, why they’re not here,” said Jack Stallard, Leonard’s brother.

Collier said Leonard has called him several times when he missed a session. He calls him the father figure of their musical family. Pictures of all the people who have jammed in the pickin’ parlor adorn the walls next to the fireplace. And 33 funeral announcements hang beside them, the number of people the parlor has lost over the years.

“We try to stay off that side of the wall,” Collier joked.

An Ode To The Classics

A white dry erase board hangs on the side of the gymnasium. First names are scribbled beside different slots. Each name on the board will perform five songs before a crowd of approximately 45 people seated in black plastic chairs.

Once one person finishes, the next person steps up on the small wooden stage with musical notes taped to the front. One by one, the people rise from their seats and belt out country hits like “Cool Water” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter” underneath a white banner taped to wooden planks that used to hold a basketball goal. The words “Duffield Jam” are emblazoned on the banner.

While bluegrass music dominates much of the eastern side of the county, classic country music is all the rage on the opposite side.

Duffield Jams was born in 2011 when Larry Prevatte, also known as Harmonica Man, wanted to bring music to his hometown. He had been travelling to Norton and Coeburn to listen to jam sessions. He really wanted to see something similar in the Scott County town.

“I started talking to people and I got the pastor at Three Bells Church, he had the lease on this building, the community center, and I talked with him and he said he would let me go ahead and do the jam at the community center,” he said. “I got with Jim Gates and Bill Kilgore, and we approached the county commissioners and they gave us the lease on the building.”

Jam sessions in Duffield, similar to other venues in Scott County, are free and open to the public. Performances take place on the first, third and fifth Thursday of every month.

The three-hour jam sessions are structured a little bit differently than at the pickin’ parlor or the Church of Bluegrass. On the first Thursday, an open jam session happens. Musicians sit around the stage and each person is allowed two songs. Once the circle is completed, the process starts all over again until time has run out.

At the second session, musicians perform sets. Each person who signs up for one of the slots on the dry erase board gets to sing five songs. There is no limit to what one person can sing and it is not limited to any one genre.

While a few perform gospel or bluegrass, classic country music is by far the most popular.

A regular group shows up almost all the time. Prevatte said the people who attend the sessions watch out for each other and care about one another. Before the night’s performance gets underway, the session is dedicated to C.J. Dotson, a regular attendee of the jam.

No matter where it takes place across Scott County, mountain music is the heartbeat of the people.

“Music is very important,” Prevatte said.

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