The Black Twig Pickers hail from Virginia and West Virginia and they specialize in resurrecting lost folk songs from the mountainous border region between these two states. A bit of an anomaly on the indie-oriented label Thrill Jockey, they boast a rich discography chock full of great arrangements of old-time music, and of course a veritable roundhouse worth of train songs. The music conjures up images of front porch jams and old country stores, and it drips with a level of authenticity that today’s suspender-clad hip new folk troubadours could only dream of matching. Indeed their record label’s site relates their reliance on first person sources, either actual songsmiths, or relatives, and even recordings dredged up from archives. To be sure, this is not the last time you will see this group here on this blog.
“Cherry River Line” is off their 2008 release, Hobo Handshake, and its a rather dark tune to say the least, and a reminder to this former metalhead that the old-time Appalachian ballads can often match metal when it comes to grimness. The vocals are in the back of the mix, allowing the minor-key instrumentation to shine through, and adding to the isolation of the narrator. Lyrically, its yet another train song about a failing relationship. The singer is “lonesome all the time” missing a girl on “yonder mountain” who took up with another man. He resolves to find another woman and the slow running train’s lonesome whistle matches his despair, He closes the tune by noting that while someday he may forget his former lover, he’ll never forget the Cherry River Line.
The tune itself comes from the mountains of West Virginia. Far as we can tell, the “Cherry River Line” refers to an old spur line off the Baltimore & Ohio, a spur line that has now undergone a conversion to a rail trail. Mountain regions were usually the latest to receive rail service – from the looks of this map of the B&O system above, it looks as if the railroad got to this area (near the town of Richwood) by 1901. When the rails did arrive, it was usually the leading edge of an exploitative or even colonial arrangement hauling away wealth and resources, with little benefit to the local communities. Though the grievance that inspires this track is more personal, it should not be surprising that a railroad song from this corner of the mountains is so dark.
Further hints about the origins of this tune come from this clip of old-time fiddler Lester McCumber who recalls a friend of his used to play “Cherry River Line” so it “made the hair raise up on your back” and who discusses a few variations on the tune. There’s a profile of McCumber in the New York Times rom 1999 if you’re curious on reading more on his career. The story is testament to the authenticity of the song, so kudos to the Black Twig Pickers for resurrecting this great piece of history.