The Rocky Toppers

At the time of the release of the Cumberland Plateau anthology in 1980, the Rocky Toppers were the only working old-time band in the region. Their followers appreciated both their familiarity with favorite breakdown tunes and the fact that the tempo was always right for dancing. According to dance caller Elmer Hurst, who often accompanied the band at their square dance performances

“You could hunt the whole world over and you couldn’t find any better square dance music. If you can’t dance to their music, you can’t dance. You might as well just sit in your seat.”

The group’s personnel – Ray Souders, banjo; Louella Souders, guitar; and Ralph Troxell, fiddle – grew up together, but first formed a string band in 1975. The band’s repertoire is entirely Burnett and Rutherford pieces and prewar breakdowns like “Sleepin’ Lulu” and “Candy Gal” (associated with Rutherford). Each band member was well acquainted with Burnett and Rutherford, particularly Ray Souders. When Ray was age 9, his mother moved into a tenant house behind Burnett’s house and a close relationship developed between the two families: “Dick Burnett, he wanted to make me a guitar picker. So I started out with it. And he taught me right smart stuff and I went from there picking it up”.

By 1936 Ray was playing regularly with Monticello’s famed duo. As Rutherford’s drinking made him an unreliable driver, Burnett recruited Ray for the task, and to play guitar.

“I just went and got me an old Model A Ford, and we’d just go place to place. We’d leave Dick Burnett’s and we’d go to Russell Springs, Albany, and Jamestown, Tennessee, and play music. Course, old man Dick was blind, you know, and he had that big cup on his knee. So they’d go to pitching them nickels, quarters and things in there, and just tell us what they wanted to hear, and we’d start out on it.

Played at the courthouse [in Jamestown, Tennessee] right under the big shade trees. They’d come out there, lawyers and sheriffs, and everything close and listen to us. Ambeer half leg deep and shavings under them trees where they’d whittle – them old men. Some a’hollerin’, some a’dancin’, and the law never interfered with us – they liked it.

When we’d get done playin’, divided up the money, we’d have right around ten dollars apiece. Nickels and dimes and quarters. Old Man Dick, he’d have his pockets full of that money, carryin’ it. Course, a lot of times Leonard, he was awful bad to drink, Leonard was – somebody’d come around and give him a shot or two and the next you know he’d be pretty well drunk. He’d get till he couldn’t play sometimes. Well, me and old blind man Dick Burnett, we’d have to leave him. Leave him in some town, you know Come back, and old Leonard, then, he’d come drifting in, in a day or two. Say he’d got in jail sometimes. Course old Dick, he didn’t like it, cause he’s a good musician, you know, a good fiddler.”

Ray traveled with Burnett and Rutherford for the next few years, finally moving into a CCC camp at Bell Farm in 1939, and then into the army. In 1947, he married Louelle Sharp, who was no stranger to string music. Louella had been born and raised near Mt. Pisgah, in the Washington Young Place, like her uncle Fiddlin’ John Sharp. Her father, Hugh Sharp, picked the banjo, as did all her uncles. In her fifteenth year, Louella cracked enough walnut kernels to order a guitar from Sears and “sat out in the tater bed” until she was good enough to play with the rest of the family.

Ralph Troxell, fiddler for the Rocky Toppers, also grew up in a music loving family. His older brother Clyde and his fiddling father Jasper were his first partners and teachers when he began playing guitar as a child. Although he never met his grandfather, medicine show musician Al Davenport, he carries many of Davenport’s tunes and, according to him mother, has Davenport’s build and mannerisms. When he joined the Souders to form a string band, they chose ‘The Rocky Branch Travelers’ as their name, after Ralph’s home community. It was changed to its present form a year later by the owner/emcee of a square dance hall in Hanging Limb, Tennessee.

Elmer Hurst, of Jamestown, Tennessee, is not a member of the Rocky Toppers, but is always close by when a square dance is held. Elmer began buck dancing as a young child at his father’s late-night fiddling sessions with Cuje Bertram. He was seventeen in 1924 when he went to his first square dance in Pall Mall. Elmer took up his traditional style of calling sets, sharply barking out the calls, in 1955, when there was a local need for more dance callers.