The Cumberland Trail is a new creation on an old landscape, envisioned by naturalists and hikers in the 1960s, and dug in by volunteers — thousands of them — who are still coming, from every point in the nation, to carefully piece the trail like a 300-mile-long craft work. There is no ancient pathway to follow through the mountains from Cumberland Gap to Signal Point. The Cumberland Trail marks the most scenic and protected route, rather than the easiest or the most traditional. It aims to present and protect the beauty of eastern edge of the Cumberland Mountains and Cumberland Plateau, some of the wildest terrain in the eastern United States.
Our trail intersects history with every mile. Much of it is faint, and it requires a good eye to divine the overlay of grown-up roadbeds that once pounded with logging trucks, and to pick out the crumbled bridge abutments, rusty rail spikes, or persistent daffodils marking an old homeplace. The Cumberland Trails’s viewscape includes churches and cemeteries, roadways and rail lines, mine entrances, town squares, and pine plantations.
Musicians have also borne a corpus of history along the Cumberland Trail, and this project is the evidence. Some of America’s best-known folk songs, in fact, celebrate our Cumberland Trail landscape. Some mourn its tragedies. And not all musical stories need words. In this territory, fiddle tunes have been like a second language. A tune title—imagery more compact than haiku—and a pure melody can be enough. Traditional music in this region shares much in common with all Appalachian music, and with all Southern music. Rock music, country, and gospel are most popular here, as they are everywhere in the South, but this project focuses on the regional music that pictures life in the Cumberland Mountains. The pieces on this album date from the earliest American settlement of the Cumberlands to brand-new compositions — the impulse to tell history through music is still humming. A traditional lyric that has been passed down for a hundred years or more can be a fascinating bit of conversation, encased in amber. More recent songs let you know what’s on our neighbor’s minds. This project is evidence, also, that family music–homemade music–still carries this history between generations. All the musicians included here are connected to the Cumberland Trail corridor, as native residents, locally-based entertainers, or both.
1. Cumberlin’ Land – Norman Blake
A graphic ballad dating to the late 18th century, this song depicts the journey through the Cumberland Mountains along the Avery Trace to the Cumberland Settlements of middle Tennessee.
2. Cumberland Gap – Russ & Lou Wilson
Probably composed by a civil war soldier in the fortifications at Cumberland Gap, this tune has become standard among Southern fiddlers and banjoists.
3. Pinnacle Mountain Breakdown – Buster Turner & Pinnacle Mountain Boys
Composed by Loren Rogers in the late 1950’s, this breakdown is known to hot pickers throughout East Tennessee. It celebrates the famous lookout that hangs above Cumberland Gap.
4. Yes, Pappy, Yes – Martin, Bogan & Armstrong
Composed by Howard Armstrong, the son of an African-American iron furnace worker from LaFollette, Tennessee, “Yes, Pappy, Yes” teases about the “romance” of farm life.
5. Coal Creek March – Clyde Davenport
Among the best known Appalachian banjo themes for sixty years, the “Coal Creek March” commemorates the rebellion of Anderson County coal miners against the use of prison labor in Tennessee mines 1891-91.
6. Cross Mountain Mines Explosion – Tony Thomas
Anderson County suffered the two of the worst mining disasters in American history, including the explosion of the Cross Mountain mine in 1911.
7. New River Train – Jean Horner & The Fiddle Shop Band
Musicians in the coal mining towns of Tennessee’s New River watershed adopted this theme, though it has a historical connection to Virginia.
8. Southern No. 111 – Jerry Moore/Luke Brandon
The Southern No. 111 still runs across the Cumberland Trail near the Emory River. Fiddlin’ Jimmy McCarroll composed this tune in 1928.
9. I Feel Like Traveling On – Chosen
The verses of this famous hymn were written by an Irish immigrant soon after the Civil War.
10. Hills of Roane County – Avery Trace
Although the ballad became a classic during the early days of country music, it was composed by an African-American prisoner, Willis Mayberry, who murdered his brother-in-law in 1883.
11. Zollie’s Retreat – Mike Bryant
A dirge-like fiddle tune preserved from the Civil War, “Zollie’s Retreat” refers to the Battle of Mills Springs where Confederate General Felix Zollicoffer was killed and his army routed in 1862. Zollicoffer had been the first commander at Cumberland Gap.
12. Sand – Luke Brandon
Luke Brandon’s father was a coal miner and profession musician, and learnd “Sand” from an African-American miner in the 1920s.
13. Fire on the Mountain – Lantana Drifters
This tune title precedes the Civil War, and might have derived from the centuries-old practice of managing pasture and woodland with fire.
14. Black Mountain Rag – Mike DeFosche & the Cumberland Trail Trotters
A busking fiddler from Cumberland County named Leslie Keith composed this tune in the early 1930s, commemorating the peak at the heart of the Cumberland Trail. It has become one of the best-known tunes in Southern music.
15. Essence of Sequatchie County – Ed Brown
Sequatchie County is one of eleven counties along the corridor of the Cumberland Trail. Composed and performed by Ed Brown of Dunlap, Tennessee, this piece inspired professional banjo players all over America to attempt a new “melodic” style.
16. Sequatchie Valley – Bob Douglas
Sequatchie Valley lies like a pastoral oasis between Walden’s Ridge and the main body of the Cumberland Plateau. Bob Douglas and father composed “Sequatchie Valley” in 1923 to imitate the small train that pulled up the valley.
17. Race Between the Trail and the Model T – Adm. Red Best Curly Fox
The Grand Ole Opry’s star fiddler in the 1940s composed this harmonica novelty about the weekly race he witnessed between the Graysville mail carrier and a Southern Railway engineer.
18. The Bible’s True – LeRoy Troy
A number of songs were written during the Monkey Trial defending the stance of William Jennings Bryant, including this song by Uncle Dave Macon.
19. Goin’ to Chattanooga – Fletcher Bright and Friends
Chattanooga is the southern gateway to the Cumberland Trail. “Goin’ to Chattanooga” dates to the 19th century, and was played from Union County to Hamilton County.
20. Weevily Wheat – David Schnauffer
“Weevily Wheat” is a children’s song collected by Emma Bell Miles during her pioneering folk music observations on Signal Mountain at the turn of the 20th century. Though she was revered as a novelist, journalist, philosopher, poet, and artist, she lived and died in poverty in 1919. This performance was recorded on her own dulcimer, loaned by the Tennessee State Museum.
21. Buddy Won’t You Roll Down the Line – Fiery Gizzard String Band
These are the sentiments of convict miners from 19th century Grundy County, though the song has been carried on as a rousing banjo anthem.
Funded by the Tennessee Arts Commission, the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, Tennessee Bureau of State Parks, Cumberland Trail Conference, MasterMix.
South engineers: Elmer Cole at Pyramid Studios (Lookout Mountain), Tab Crabb at Flatwood Studio (Lebanon), Hal Duncan at Cumberland Sound Studio (Oliver Springs), Reecie Pearson at Hickory Hill (Maryville), Dave Lovett at Grinning Deer (Knoxville), Bob Townsend, David Schnaufer, Ed Brown, Emma Drake, Bob Fulcher, David Howard.
All other materials is in the public domain or used by permission of the composer.