Column – Mountains and music history delight tourists from the flatlands

Published 5:14 pm Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Every flatlander ought to be required to drive to the top of Pinnacle Mountain once, just to better appreciate level ground. For me, once was sufficient, but I’m glad we made the trek.

I’ve driven a number of mountain roads, but mostly back when I was quite a bit younger. What was once exciting then is generally just intimidating nowadays. Blame it on slower reflexes. (I can promise you that local drivers just despise getting behind old flatlanders driving slowly along crooked mountain roads.)

Anne still enjoys the views that often accompany steep climbs or descents and is wont to say, “Wow, look at that view,” just as we’re rounding an outside switchback. I generally don’t look beyond the next curve. And so it was with Pinnacle.

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First, a little background. One of the limitations to being sole owners of a small, weekly newspaper is that you don’t get a whole lot of extended vacation time. The weekly cycle began when a paper was delivered to racks and post offices early Wednesday and ended the following Tuesday evening when another edition was put in the hands of “God and the printer.” Rare vacations amid that were usually only three days long. Four days was a real stretch on the nerves (mine, at least).

We had seen a good bit of Virginia through years of working with the Virginia Press Association, but this time, we got it in our heads to take a leisurely drive through areas we hadn’t seen. and even venture beyond the state’s borders. We started in Asheville, North Carolina, where we toured the Biltmore (most everybody we know had already been there). We then drove to Dandridge, Tennessee, and spent a delightful 24 hours at an inn owned by Smithfield native Jim Everett and his wife, Karen. Jim is a proud member of the Indika Farm Gwaltney family.

(Dandridge, by the way, is in Jefferson County, Crockett’s home before he wandered out west and got himself killed at the Alamo. There’s a neat little display of Crockett artifacts in the county courthouse that this old Fess Parker fan just couldn’t resist seeing while we were there.)

We had planned to go from there to Bristol to see the museum dedicated to founders of country music, but Jim and his daughter suggested we drive up to the Cumberland Gap as a day trip. The conversation evolved into, why not start at the Cumberland Gap and then drive east along U.S. 58, the first 100-plus miles of which are known as the Wilderness Road and more commonly as the “Crooked Road.” Thus we laid plans for our trip home, our first time all the way across the state. 

The drive to the top of Pinnacle took us up a Kentucky mountain from which the historic gap can be viewed from above. Surveyor Thomas Walker discovered the gap in 1750 and named it for an English Duke, but it was Daniel Boone who made it a part of frontier history and lore. He marked (blazed) a trail through the gap and, in time, thousands of homesteaders followed him into Tennessee and Kentucky. 

The Crooked Road didn’t disappoint. It’s crooked and generally lovely, following as it does tributaries of the Holstein River and other streams cut through the hills by thousands of years of erosion. You suddenly come into small towns tucked between mountains, drive down Main Streets that are indeed just that, then exit at the other end to climb back into the hills. It’s a refreshingly constant change of scenery.

My only regret is that we didn’t wander about for days. We coulda’, shoulda’ done that, but we were determined to be home in two days, with a stayover in Bristol, so our rambling time was limited. 

We did turn off at Hiltons (smaller than Bacon’s Castle) to find the Carter Family enclave. We came away with photos of the Carter log cabin and a sense of where the legend surrounding the musical trio of A.P., Sarah and Mother Maybelle began.

On the property is also located the Carter Fold, a modest auditorium set by the side of the road where you can still go on Saturday nights and hear the music that once rang from cabin porches and through those hills. It was built and is operated by descendants of the Carter trio. 

Johnny and June Carter Cash frequently spent weekends at her mother’s home next door, and she and Johnny performed in the Fold, but it was never announced when they would. The place just wouldn’t have held the crowd. He returned there and gave an emotional performance on July 5, 2003, two months after June’s death. Two months later, he died as well.

Those impressions were reinforced when we got to Bristol and ventured into the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. A branch of the Smithsonian, the museum is a professional, tasteful tribute to the various roots of the music that generally is known as country — the Scotch-Irish, African Americans and others who contributed so much to our heritage. It applauds the “Bristol Sessions” of the 1920s and ’30s that recorded music from many sources, including the Carters, but it pulls no punches. It tells how black musicians were most often ignored and how women struggled to become more than “the girl in the band.” It’s educational, eye-opening and delightful, and should be on any acoustic musician’s to-do list.

From Bristol, it was an eastward trek into lower mountains, hills and then Southside farmlands. When you finish a trip and wish you’d seen more, it was a good trip. That west-to-east drive introduced new possibilities, and we may be out of town some this fall.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is