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.
To say Avery County, North Carolina is an interesting place would be an understatement. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains and boasting the highest elevation of any county east of the Mississippi, its unique geography is paired with an equally odd mix of residents and developments. Elements of old Appalachia – rural poverty, vast swathes of the county lacking cell phone service, and weekly bluegrass pickings at country stores – coexist along glaring symbols of gentrification like ski slopes, upscale clothing boutiques, multimillion dollar homes and ubiquitous hordes of elderly Floridians. Add in a thriving industry of tourist traps like gem “mines,” garish displays of both natural and unnatural fall foliage and festivals venerating woolly worms, and you’ve got a truly bizarre mix, but one cannot help but notice the ever-present tensions between old and new development. One of my favorite chroniclers of the region, author Ron Rash is perhaps the best at capturing the tensions between old and new Appalachia in short stories about down-on-their-luck meth addicts and rural folk. Massive new subdivisions always seem to be lurking on the edges of his grim vignettes; just as mansions and condos popping up on surrounding ridges jarringly disrupts the natural beauty of this area. It’s a county that also happens to be, as of August, my new home, and we found ourselves on the knife’s edge of this conflict while being aggressively tailgated while attempting to navigate treacherous mountain roads in a car with Florida plates.
Coincidentally enough, this rural mountain county of 18,000 is also the subject of a new concept album of sorts from Barton Carroll, a songwriter who grew up in Avery County before moving out west to Seattle. With his distance from North Carolina, its safe to say Carroll’s nostalgia tinted view of Avery County life falls into the traditional side of this area’s divide between history and change. In an interview (an album stream is linked here as well), Carroll described the record as “reflections of an upbringing in the Appalachian Mountains seen through the lens of several years of city life on the West Coast” and its full of folk-tinged songs about lost loves and mountain memories, in the best storytelling tradition. My favorite off the record is probably “Beech Mountain Waltz,” a doomed love story about a World War 1 where a soldier goes to war while his lover dies of the Spanish Flu.
And thankfully, for the purposes of this site, he also includes a train song, “It Had to Be a Train,” yet another sad train song about a departing lover, this time leaving from Boone. There is a clever hint of self-awareness about the somewhat cliched plot of the song – the narrator mocks her choice of transportation “don’t you know the train’s outdated these days.” And indeed, a picky railroad historian would note that the last major railroad operating in the county, the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, or “Tweetsie Railroad” was washed out in a 1957 flood. But it’s definitely an effective train song that fits well on a record built around fuzzy and somewhat distorted remembrances of the past.
Incidentally, the album just came out Tuesday (October 15) – so check it out on Skybucket Records. I’ve been playing it a lot lately, and not just because its about Avery County!
If there is one thing that excites us as music fans, its thoughtful, well-researched historical concept albums. Southeast Engine, the Athens, Ohio, based band behind today’s train song, burst onto our radar with just such a record, 2011’s Canary. The album eloquently relates the plight of a family suffering through the Great Depression in the Appalachian mountains of SW Ohio. The band veers between rollicking up-tempo folk rockers and acoustic laments, and thanks to some skillful recycling of old musical traditions, an album that could quickly gotten either tedious or overly contrived, retains a sense of authenticity. Our new Appalachian locale has gotten us listening to Canary again, and further investigation turned up the band’s recently released 4-song EP, Canaanville, which continues the same theme as the album, and which contains C&O Railway.
C&O Railway relates the reminiscences of an old railroad worker standing on the tracks that he helped build. The C&O is the old Chesapeake and Ohio rail line, which pierced the Appalachian mountains, connecting its namesake regions in the decade after the Civil War. The song’s protagonist had helped “hammer down the mountains” to build the line, but from his current vantage point, the glories brought by the railroad had long passed his town by. The trains came for the region’s coal and timber, carrying away wealth and “fruits of our labor” before abandoning the town. The train haunts the narrator like a ghost and the old man stares at the old tracks feeling much like a ghost himself.
The song is so effective because it echoes a long and often-tortuous history of railroads (and economic development more broadly) in Appalachia. Throughout the region’s past, there has been a constant tension between the need to attract outside capital and investment to the impoverished region, and the desire that this development avoid exploitation, and that the wealth and bounties of Appalachia stay at home. Sadly, it was typically outside elites and foreign corporations that did the best in Appalachian economic “progress,” whether that meant coal mining, timber, or now, natural gas development. As the leading edge of outside investment, and the vehicle that carried off the region’s commodities, railroads perfectly symbolize this dilemma, so it is no surprise that railroads are often associated with darker imagery and the more tragic side of history, as they are in this song.