Monday, May 21, 2012

From Whitetop Mountain

"WBRF 98.1 FM sends out 100,000 watts of live old-time and bluegrass music every Friday night from the stage of the historic Rex Theater, located in down-town Galax, Va., a town nicknamed 'The World Capital of Old Time Mountain Music'" (

Listeners may be in one of four area states enjoying the weekly "Blue Ridge Back-roads" live radio show of traditional music show from the comfort of their homes or they may be sitting back in one of the 475 seats at the Rex.

The majority of the shows are free with donations being accepted to help maintain the theater, which was built in 1939 as the area’s second movie theater. However, tonight's show, as you can tell from the nearly packed house, was something special (admission: $5).

The Whitetop Mountain Band.

During our visits to southwest Virginia, we have learned that generations of families have become identified with a specific area in the region, and music historians can trace "music family trees," i.e., the histories of instruction or influence for a prominent musician, as easily as tracing one's biological family tree.

And such was the case with The Whitetop Mountain Band. The Band is a family-based band from the highest mountains of Virginia: Whitetop. It originated with Albert Hash in the 1940s, a well-known and beloved fiddler and luthier.

In the 1970s, Albert’s brother-in-law, Thornton Spencer (twin fiddle), and his wife, Emily Spencer (banjo, vocals), joined Albert in the Whitetop Mountain Band. (An extensive history of the family tree of instructors is available at

And as is frequently the case with the musicians of the mountains of Virginia, members of the band are quite versatile, often skilled on two, three, or more instruments.

The evening began with Martha Spencer (on the banjo in photo #4 above) introducing the songs and handling the vocals. (She also plays the guitar, fiddle, and bass and dances). Later, another fiddler (far left in the photo above; unfortunately, I did not get his name) joined the band for a couple of numbers.

Midway through the second half of the group's perfor-mance, Emily Spencer arrived, following her respon-sibilities with the graduation ceremony of a school in the area. Emily's arrival seemed to have the effect of improving the group's performance, as though "everyone was in the right place," musically.

Tha members, (l. to r. above: Martha Spencer Cunningham (guitar), Jackson Cunningham (mandolin), Spencer Pennington (I think) (guitar), Debbie Bramer (bass), Emily Spencer (banjo), and Thornton Spencer (fiddle), displayed why they are well-known regionally, nationally, and world-wide.

It was more than a concert that evening. I think the meaning of the performance went beyond the simple explanation of excellence; the audience's applause was as much a sign of apprecia-tion as it was a sign of the pride in "some of their own" preserving history in the music.

1 comment:

DennyG said...

A nice report on what was clearly a wonderful event. I definitely intend to visit the Rex the next time I get the chance. I've been in Galax just once and remember some pretty good BBQ there at the Smokehouse. While there, I got a good dose of music at the nearby Blue Ridge Music Center which I'm sure you've visited or will do.

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