Smokey Creek meanders beside a winding road, its music one of rocks and water, of the breeze in sandbar willows. A scattering of homes lines the road: trailers sit next to brick houses at the foot of the mountain where the state highway becomes a bobby pin of curves. I know these sharp turns well. I grew up in this area and have gone over this mountain many times on my way to friends’ houses or to the local bootlegger long before the recent vote to legalize alcohol sales. I know these woods and these people. Some I know by name, but all I know by my bones and blood because we share the same collective memory. We share a culture, a language, and a common history. There are few things more binding.
When I was growing up here in the 1980s, the larger world told us we had nothing to be proud of. As Eastern Kentuckians, we knew better. We had our people, our work ethic, and our land. And we had our internationally known musicians: Loretta Lynn, Tom T. Hall, Jean Ritchie, Patty Loveless, Dwight Yoakam, many others. In our little corner of Southeastern Kentucky, we had the Phipps Family—lesser known but still a great source of pride for us. They had sung with the Carter Family, and they had performed at the Newport Folk Festival. Most importantly to us, they had popularized “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem,” one of the most beloved songs of the Appalachian people.
Today I live about an hour north of Smokey Creek, but the little college town of Berea might as well be a world away. It’s still officially within Appalachia, but it’s not the kudzu-decorated and Christ-haunted place of my youth. In Berea, the cadences of my people have been largely overtaken by professors who moved into the area from all over the nation. I moved there seeking a little dot of blue among a sea of red and a job at the liberal arts college that shares the town’s name, but I’ve been perpetually homesick ever since. So I went “down home” last summer to ease my constant ache, to breathe that air once again, to soak in that particular quality of leaf-light that lives only in Southeastern Kentucky, and to rediscover one of its lasting musical legacies.
On that humid day, when the smell of wild grapes filled the air with their mouth-watering tang, an older couple, dressed as if they were just home from one of the dozen nearby churches, worked in their garden, a miracle of growth with greasy beans climbing high on carefully stretched white string, big tomatoes throbbing with redness, cucumber vines snaking out into the grass beyond the rectangle of rich soil. Two little girls took turns failing to master a sparkling purple hula-hoop in their front yard. A group of men stood around a new pickup truck as one bent over the engine, half swallowed, until he emerged, arms streaked black with grease. The men raised their chins in greeting when I passed by.
Smokey Creek is near the center of Central Appalachia, in one of the prettiest and hardest places in America: Knox County, Kentucky, thirty miles from the legendary Cumberland Gap where Daniel Boone cut his Wilderness Road. Less than two hundred years ago, this was the Wild West. There are many Appalachias, but this one is much like most of the rural places in the region: a wound, a poem, a contradiction—none of them easily defined, all of them complex, taut with history and culture that most people never bother to study or understand before passing judgment. Like most places in America, it’s a place of poverty and wealth, of education and ignorance. Nowadays it’s mostly conservative; eighty-two percent of Knox County voted for Donald Trump. Once, however, this area was a hotbed of labor movements and yellow-dog Democrats.
In summer, Smokey Creek is a cathedral of lush glowing green. Springtime is a riot of white (dogwoods, sarvis), fuchsia (redbuds), yellow (forsythia, jonquils), and new leaves, small as squirrel ears. Wintertime is a gray affair—gray rocks atop the hills exposed by the bare, gray trees, against low, gray skies. The fall colors rival those of New England. Always there is the sound of the creek. And grumbling four-wheelers climbing the mountains. Cars and trucks zoom by as if on a NASCAR track. The breezes preceding summer thundershowers create a symphony of leaves. Not everyone here is loud, but in this part of Appalachia things are done in big, boisterous ways: loving, fighting, grieving, celebrating, worshipping. Music, everywhere.
I pulled into the freshly blacktopped parking lot of the Pleasant View Baptist Church, outfitted in faded brick and topped with a squat white steeple rising above the mouth of a holler. Parked here, I could watch Smokey Creek for a time. Across the road an old man finger-picked “The Great Speckled Bird” on his beat-up guitar as he sat on a folding chair out in front of his trailer, tucked in the shade of an enormous and fully blooming purple crepe myrtle. A freshly washed Mustang went by, thumping the heavy bass of a rap song. A young woman wearing earbuds and a Lady Gaga shirt—LITTLE MONSTER, screamed the jagged script from the black cotton—walked with determination across a wide pasture, bobbing her head to the silent beat as a feisty spotted terrier hopped behind her like a rabbit. Later on I knew the church would be filled with singing and tambourining, the speaking of tongues. Down the road I pumped gas while a young boy whistled and picked up cigarette butts from the pavement. Inside the station the cashier’s gravelly voice produced not only her words—Hi there sugar, how are ye?—but also the smoke of her recently inhaled Virginia Slim. I could barely hear her over the blaring speakers issuing mainstream hits from Nashville.
For hard country like this, music has always been the balm.
In the early 1900s, a tremendous number of songs were written, performed, and preserved in Southeastern Kentucky. This great flourishing of music centered around the railroad town of Corbin, about twenty miles west of Smokey Creek, where a melding of Appalachian, African, British, Irish, and Eastern European influences not only cemented a lively and mournful brand of music but formed a thriving music scene where songs were created and passed on. Scholars say the music was largely shared in “the shops,” a local name for the cluster of locomotive service centers in Corbin that were used to maintain, inspect, and service locomotives, rail cars, and coal trains for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. There was also a more violent side to the town’s cultural mixing. In a 1919 riot, a mob of white men chased all two hundred African-American railroad workers out of town; many of the remaining people of color soon left. (Some white people reportedly allowed black men to take shelter from the riot in their homes.) The legacy of that night lives on: Corbin is still considered by some as “a sundown town,” where nonwhites are not welcome. I grew up in a tiny community near Corbin. Today, when I tell people where I’m from, they sometimes hesitate and say, Wait, now, isn’t that that real racist town? The answer, I believe, is more complex than a simple yes or no. Many of Corbin’s residents still fight against this notion and strive to make it a welcoming place. A few others don’t seem to mind the identity. Some even embrace it. But once upon a time, different kinds of people made music there together.
The 1920s were the beginning of rural music’s commercialization throughout Appalachia and, indeed, around the United States as record companies looked for as many avenues as possible to sell records—and they reasoned that capturing the voices of the rural working class might be one way to make more money. At the same time, musicologists were seeing radio as a possible threat to authentic voices, so they began to go into the region to preserve the music and “catch” songs.
Pockets as rich as Southeastern Kentucky were rare. In one 1937 trip to two counties abutting Knox County—Bell and Clay—Alan Lomax captured three early recordings of “The Rising Sun Blues,” which would decades later be recorded by Bob Dylan and become a worldwide hit for the Animals as “The House of the Rising Sun.” Victor Records’ talent scout, Ralph Peer, advertised heavily throughout the region and Corbin musicians took the bait. They traveled through Cumberland Gap and over Clinch Mountain to Bristol, the town that straddles the state line between Virginia and Tennessee. The 1927 Bristol Sessions were the birthplace of commercial country music. They were arguably the most important series of recordings ever made in American music, especially because of the Carter Family’s tremendous popularity and influence on country music that still continues.
In 1916, Arthur Leeroy Phipps was born in this unlikely nest of creativity. A.L. was twelve years old when his cousin, Ernest Phipps, recorded a thrilling set of gospel songs at the Bristol Sessions in the same building with artists such as B. F. Shelton, Alfred Karnes, Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Stoneman, and—most famously—the Carter Family. “There are no other commercially released recordings from the prewar era that capture the ecstatic fire of a white Pentecostal church service the way that those of Ernest Phipps and his singers did in 1927 and 1928,” said Nathan Salsburg, the curator of the Alan Lomax Archive at the Association for Cultural Equity. I’d reached out to Salsburg because few people understand old-time music better than he does—and because he doesn’t just study it. He feels it, he lives the music. “They’re thrilling, irresistible, no matter how thoroughly divorced from any semblance of Christian belief you might be.”
The Carter Family changed American music forever with their recordings of songs like “Keep on the Sunny Side,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and countless others. Almost single-handedly they proved that Americans wanted to hear working-class rural voices, thereby giving birth to the incredibly profitable country music industry. Perhaps their most important contribution, however, is that the Carter Family collected songs of the region from people throughout the hills and hollers. While some argued that magic was lost in the transfer of songs to the moneymaking schemes of radio, it is inarguable that the Carter Family, with the help of African-American guitarist Lesley Riddle, rescued many songs not only from obscurity but also from disappearance. The Carters and Riddle took songs that had until that point been sung only on porches and in fields, often distilling them down to the two or three minutes that would fit comfortably onto a record, and made them ready for radio.
A. L. Phipps was enthralled by the Carter Family’s music, and as a young man he often shared their songs at the singing parties he attended up and down the creeks and hollers of Knox County. At that time, singing parties were the main form of entertainment for young people who lived in the coal camps and on the farms of Eastern Kentucky. Usually planned around a busy season of physical labor—harvest or planting time—the parties were a reward after working through the week.
It was likely at one of those parties that A.L. first knew he loved Kathleen Helton, a girl almost eight years his junior who attended the same one-room school. They were both beautiful. He was lanky and tall, with luxuriant, wavy hair and piercing ice-blue eyes. Kathleen’s skin was luminous and accentuated by dark eyes and perfectly arched brows. But her actions shone, too. There was an elegance in her walk, in her way of standing, in the gentle way she held her guitar. People who knew Kathleen unanimously say that they didn’t know anyone who didn’t love her. She had a kindness about her that immediately put people at ease. Yet she was no pushover. She was forthright and hardworking, strong and keenly intelligent. A.L. could be brusque, but people liked that you always knew where you stood with him. He did not suffer fools and could be blunt enough to annul those he didn’t want in his company. Like Kathleen, he was known for being smart.
And they both could sing. Everyone in their valley knew that. Kathleen would entrance a crowd when she leaned over her guitar and unleashed her rich alto on tunes like “Home on the Range” or “Old Faithful.” One memorable time at a funeral on Stone Coal Branch, Kathleen invited A.L. to visit her at home—so long as he brought along his guitar. “We tuned up our instruments, and played some,” he reflected fifty years later in an oral history taken by Harry Rice, a longtime sound archivist at Berea College. “There were several others there, fiddles and guitars, people singing. But it seemed like somehow we were outstanding.” Even then, A.L. thought that he and Kathleen had a unique talent for playing the Carter Family’s tunes.
A.L. and Kathleen married on a lovely fall day in 1937. She was thirteen and he was twenty-one. While they were courting, Kathleen had told him that she wanted to learn to play an Autoharp the way Sara Carter did, so he promptly ordered one from the Montgomery Ward catalog and gave it to her as a wedding present. She took to it so quickly that she seemed to have been born with the knowledge. The young couple settled a few miles away from their families near the banks of Smokey Creek. Together, they started playing gospel concerts throughout the valley and were popular guests at Baptist churches in the area. Folks wanted them at their homes, on their porches, at their church homecomings, at Dinner on the Ground gatherings at graveyards on Decoration Day.
I imagine them at a baptism on the banks of the wide Cumberland River, its summer water as green as the skin of an acorn. They are not two people, but one entity, their voices rising together into the willow leaves, their arms moving in unison much like that old couple in the garden I saw on my drive back home. They are singing:
There’s a little black train a-comin’
Set your business right
And it may be here tonight
Kathleen’s eyes are closed, clutching the Autoharp against her chest, her right ear resting on the rich maple. A.L. is watching her, joining in only on the chorus, his fingers lithe and slender on the guitar strings. A woman in a white dress is dipped into the silky water and her mother collapses into tears, happy that salvation has come at last to her once-prodigal daughter. The congregants sing along, raise their hands in praise. The river flows on around the people, carrying the voices of the Phipps Family downstream.
At the height of the Great Depression, A.L. talked himself into a good job working for the L&N railroad, though music remained his greatest passion—not just the hearing of it, but the playing of it, the act of being a musician. A.L. was drafted and served in the waning days of World War II, although the war ended before he was sent overseas. He came rushing back to the green valley of Smokey Creek to devote even more of himself to music. A.L. and Kathleen had thirteen children, one of whom died in infancy, and several became sometimes-members of the band. The Phipps Family got their own radio show on the hugely popular WCTT in Corbin, and they were guests on most of the other ones in the area, always receiving a slew of fan mail and calls to the station requesting more.
To listen to the Phipps Family sing and play is to hear the mossy rocks and wide pastures along Smokey Creek. In their voices sits the sound of Paint Hill in the gloaming, of a mountain holler in the blue hour. In some ways, even though they are a generation younger than the Carter Family, they sound even more rural. “I hope someday we’ll all get thar,” they repeatedly sing in “Away Over in the Promised Land.” As they sing, we are bearing witness to a time that is long gone from us now, when the dialect and accent of the Appalachian people struggled to hold on against a world that heard only poverty in their cadences, a world inundated by the standard newscaster voices, vocal fry, and up-talk that now make the region sound like everywhere else.
For many people listening during the group’s heyday of the 1950s and 1960s, the Phippses offered a sense of nostalgia. The country was already changing with great speed thanks to the consolidation of schools, growing generation gaps, the social upheaval of Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the Appalachian diaspora. The nation was desperate for those ancient tones once again, resulting in a resurgence in popularity of country blues and Dixieland jazz as well as the folk revival. Nostalgia had always been a way to go forward by comforting oneself with memories of the old days. Much like today, some folks simply wanted music that reminded them of their youth, while others were longing for a time when lines demarcating race and gender roles were clearly defined, when people “knew their place.” The Phippses delivered the sound of the past, as their goal was not one of innovation, but remembrance.
A.P. Carter, a founding member of the Carter Family, was living in relative obscurity when he became a fan of the Phippses in the 1950s. By then, some people had begun to describe the family as “Carter Clones.” The Phippses tuned their instruments well below standard pitch, just as the Carters had done, resulting in a rich bass quality and a striking similarity to the original Carter Family sound, especially since they employed the same harmony structures and instruments; A.L. even played the same brand of guitar as Maybelle Carter. But they were much more than a cover band. “To anyone who gave a second listen, it became clear that the Phipps Family had gone far beyond mere imitation for its own sake,” wrote musicologist Bill Vernon. “They have absorbed the elements of The Carter Family style so thoroughly into their own style of singing and playing that what has emerged is a thoroughly personal perpetuation of a fine old mountain style of singing and playing.”
A.P. seemed to have a deep respect for the way the Phippses were not only carrying forth the musical tradition but also putting their own marks on it. In the late 1950s, the Phipps Family started to attend and perform at the annual Carter Family Homecoming at Maces Spring, Virginia, near Bristol. And A.P., whose dark depressions are well documented, often visited the Phipps Family on Smokey Creek.
“A. P. Carter came and lived with us for two or three months at a time,” remembers Truleen Phipps Morgan, Kathleen and A.L.’s sixth child and the oldest still living today. A former middle school teacher, she still gives off the air of someone ready to dole out either love or discipline, depending on the situation at hand. When I met her, she would have been right at home at a tony beach resort, with her golden tan, her white capris, and her fresh pedicure of coral nail polish, but we were in her condo in Lexington; she was about to turn seventy but looked at least ten years younger. She sat in a large comfortable chair in the middle of her carefully decorated living room. “He was like a member of our family after Sara left him,” she said. (A.P. and Sara Carter divorced in 1936.) “He was very lonely and he loved to come to our house. And we’d go to their home in Virginia. Once we went and Johnny Cash was there, officiating the funeral of [A.P.’s daughter] Gladys. We’d go to Nashville and visit backstage at the Opry with Maybelle, June, and the girls. Helen Carter sang on an album with us.”
A.P. most likely influenced the way A.L. and Kathleen would take old songs, slightly rearrange them, add a few new words, and then slap their own copyright on them, always in A.L.’s name. This was not an attempt at dishonesty. On the contrary, at this time such rearrangement and copyrighting were acceptable and widely done. Almost all of the Carter Family’s most famous songs were the result of such restructuring, although it is hard to understand this element of folk music in today’s heavily policed, multi-billion-dollar music industry.
The Phippses composed songs of their own, too. “Their music told the stories of the tragedies that fell in the mountains,” said their grandson, Wayne Phipps, who is now a pastor in Georgia. Some of these songs of tragedy include “The Yellow Tomb,” about the 1958 school bus wreck that resulted in the deaths of twenty-six children and their bus driver in Floyd County, Kentucky; “The Red Jacket Mine Explosion,” about the deaths of forty-five miners in Southwest Virginia in 1938; and “Hurricane Creek Mine Explosion,” recounting a 1970 mining disaster in Leslie County, Kentucky, that left thirty-eight miners dead. (Tom T. Hall’s “Trip to Hyden” is also based on this event.) The songs acted as broadside ballads once had, carrying news of the happenings to people throughout the land.
The Phippses’ big break came in 1959. “The Little Poplar Log House,” written by Kathleen and recorded by the family, became widely heard throughout the region. In the 1960s, Kathleen recounted that the song was No. 1 “for four full months on the most powerful radio stations.” The 45 was backed with an original composition of A.L.’s, “Wish You’d Meet Me on the River,” which received plenty of airplay as well. The songs were big enough radio hits to attract the attention of the Nashville-based Starday Records, which signed the family. They would go on to record for Vanguard, The World of Folk Music, the American Record Company, and Folkways. But most of their music was controlled by A.L. himself, who set up his own enterprise, first called Pine Mountain Records and later Mountain Eagle Record Company, where he also released albums by other artists, including the Carter Family.
A.L. became so well known throughout the region for his business savvy that people began to seek him out at his home to help them with their music careers. Truleen remembers a visit from a young Dolly Parton, who was raised a couple hours south, just over the Tennessee border. She was brought there by a man who was trying to help her break into the business. “She didn’t even have a coat,” Truleen recalled. “My mother was looking all over the house for one of my old coats to give her.”