Living in the northern Virginia suburbs does not automatically connect a person to the older music traditions of that state. Last night a few folks at a Reston house concert found that connection with the music of the Whitetop Mountaineers, and the effect was as refreshing as the first apples of autumn.
The Whitetop Mountaineers are Martha Spencer and Jackson Cunningham, a young couple from southwest Virginia. From the start of the show, the duo sang strong, clear vocals with uplifting harmonies on “Just Got To Heaven And I Can’t Sit Down,” with Martha playing clawhammer banjo and Jackson on flatpick guitar. They played casually through a few more songs and tunes this way, trading lead vocals and improvising the set list. Martha told the audience how she had learned to play, sing, and dance from her family and neighbors as part of her rural upbringing. Jackson talked about building his own instruments with advice from many other builders in that area.
Then they started swapping instruments, with Martha on guitar and Jackson ripping through some Monroe-style mandolin on an instrument that he had built. When I hear someone play real Monroe style, it just keeps in my head for a long time. Loud, strong, melodic tremolo, and lightning-clean on the dance tunes.
Next Martha got up to do some flatfoot dancing while Jackson played the banjo. She was kicking high and stomping hard and had the audience loving it all. All energy and fun.
The instruments kept passing around, with Martha on fiddle and Jackson touching everything else at some point. To old-time music lovers, the hour-long set was mostly familiar stuff: “The Cuckoo,” “Let Me Fall,” etc. The timing was absolutely always there, the vocal harmonies free and light, and the instrumentation spot on the melody booking straight down the road without a swerve.
This duo is a subgroup of the full family band known as the Whitetop Mountain band. They are playing as part of Virginia’s Crooked Road music programming, so folks in Virginia will get many more chances to hear them if they keep an eye out.
For me, I love hearing people who live in one of the musical traditions that I dabble in myself. Martha and Jackson play southwest Virginia music that goes back generations and even centuries. I usually describe my suburban version of fiddle music as “old time,” or “music from Appalachia and New England.” I’m not apologizing for my postmodern surveying of old-time and contra styles, just pointing out the contrast between folks deep in a tradition and a city-billy who respectfully borrows a touch of that.