27 July 2012

Ralph Berrier, Jr. If Trouble Don't Kill Me: A Family's Story of Brotherhood, War, and Bluegrass. New York: Crown, 2010.

From Roanoke.com
As a librarian, I am confronted daily with the truth that I will never read every book I want to read. In fact, I will probably never read every book I should read. Thousands of books stare me in the face every time I go to work, and as intriguing as many of them sound, reading them cover-to-cover is simply impossible. If only the notion that the only thing a librarian does all day is read were true!

That being said, Ralph Berrier, Jr.'s If Trouble Don't Kill Me was so good that I read it once and had to read it again. The story of Berrier's talented grandfather and great-uncle (twins) was fascinating, informative, and moving, and it has something for everyone - music enthusiasts, history buffs, biography lovers, and Southside Virginia aficionados.

Reading If Trouble Don't Kill Me was something of an emotional experience for me, mostly because it combines two of my favorite things: bluegrass music and Patrick County, Virginia. Berrier, a features reporter at The Roanoke Times, is a masterful writer. He artfully weaves his family's story with local and national history and music theory. Even though a reader likely never met his famous relatives, considering what it would have been like to know them and to hear their music comes effortlessly. Berrier's pride in his family never becomes cumbersome, even though it is clear that he is enjoying telling their story.

 Saford and Clayton Hall were born in The Hollow of Patrick County on May 4, 1919 to Judie Hall. Although the twins were the unmarried woman's ninth and tenth children, Mamo (Judie's nickname) had strong support from her mother, known to people near and far as Granny Hall. The twins grew up poor in an area near Ararat "below the mountain" (meaning that they were "looked down upon both literally and figuratively" p. 13). Although they went without for much of their early lives - including britches - the boys were blessed with a musically-inclined mother. Mamo taught Saford how to play the fiddle when he was little enough to sit on her lap, and later when a banjo produced itself in their small cabin, she showed Clayton how to play it, too.

Playing music eventually got them out of The Hollow. First, in the band The Blue Ridge Buddies, Saford and Clayton played in nearby Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on the local radio station WSJS. Later, in 1937, they moved to Bassett to work in a furniture factory; Mamo eventually moved there to watch after them (they were always accused of being spoiled since they were the babies). They played live shows on the weekends and became well known as skilled bluegrass musicians in Virginia and North Carolina. One day Roy Hall (of Roy Hall and His Blue Ridge Entertainers) came looking for the twins to see if they would join his band. The rest, as they say, is history. Of course, this is a history that involves Roanoke's WDBJ, World War II, family tension, loss... and even Dr. Pepper. Fortunately it also includes reconciliation and a lifetime of the magic of music.

As I mentioned earlier, reading If Trouble Don't Kill Me affected me deeply. I love bluegrass, and much of that has to do with the way that it was introduced to me. When I was a child, my sister, brother, and I were "kept" by "Nannie" Reinhardt, a family friend who grew up in Cana (a stone's throw from Ararat). She used to tell us stories about listening to live bluegrass growing up, and we would watch The Grand Ole Opry with her (I distinctly remember episodes with the Statler Brothers of Staunton). Nannie also used to go to local jam sessions. Later, as an adult, I fell in love with the style again with updated approaches, from bands like Nickel Creek and Rose's Pawn Shop. Living in Stuart from 2007 to 2009, I got to experience the genre almost everywhere I went - festivals, high school talent shows, events at the Patrick County Music Association and the Floyd Country Store, and FloydFest (which is actually in Patrick County :) ).

The best part about reading this fantastic book is that even when you have finished the last page, the Hall twin's impact on you does not end. You can listen to Roy Hall and His Blue Ridge Entertainers on a variety of websites and even listen to similar music on Pandora. You can travel to Southside Virginia, following the Crooked Road or going off course, to listen to a wide variety of music (some of which that may have been influenced by the men). And it may even inspire you to pick up a banjo, a fiddle, a mandolin, a guitar... heck, even a washboard... and to find your inner musician - which is exactly what it did for Berrier!

Hear Roy Hall and His Blue Ridge Entertainers perform Orange Blossom Special in 1938.

Watch Ralph Berrier, Jr. introduce us to Saford and Clayton Hall and their story.

Have you read If Trouble Don't Kill Me? Please share your opinion about the book and this summary.

What are some of your favorite bluegrass bands and venues?

17 July 2012

Listen Southside Virginia: The Great Moonshine Conspiracy [Audio Documentary]

from UNC Libraries
Last year I wrote about The Wettest County in the World (Scribner, 2008), which follows Matt Bondurant's grandfather and two great-uncles as they made a living moonshining. It was a hard life for them: poverty was widespread in Franklin County in the 1930s, the effects of the Great War and of Spanish Influenza still weighed heavily on the community, and a drought made making an honest living almost impossible. To make matters worse, the local law enforcement kept a tight grip on the illegal liquor trade by charging high fees for protection from the feds. Going against them was a risk that the Bondurant Boys took - with dire consequences.

from Kirkus Reviews
A little over a year ago, Charles D. Thompson, Director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, wrote Spirits of Just Men: Mountaineers, Liquor Bosses, and Lawmen in the Moonshine Capital of the World. A new audio documentary, put out by Big Shed Media (with assistance from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum at Ferrum College), uses Thompson's research to tell the story of how Franklin County got to that trial in 1935. The documentary puts it in a different light, from the perspective of people whose well-being depended on moonshine and who experienced the Great Moonshine Conspiracy of Franklin County firsthand (or secondhand from his grandparents in Thompson's case).

I heard The Great Moonshine Conspiracy last night on American Public Media's "The Story." Much of the fun of writing my post for Bondurant's novel last year was researching Franklin County's moonshining history (Franklin County is very proud of the legacy, carrying the title "Moonshine Capital of the World"). But I could never write anything as eloquent as this documentary, so I encourage you to set aside sixteen minutes to hear this fascinating piece of history.

from The Great Moonshine Conspiracy | Big Shed


Lawless, the movie version of Bondurant's The Wettest County in the World starring Shia LaBeouf and Jessica Chastain, has just been released with favorable reviews. See the trailer here.

12 July 2012

Terri Fisher and Kirsten Sparenborg. Lost Communities of Virginia. Earlysville, VA: Albemarle Books, 2011.

From Virginia Tech News
Here is something that I will only say once, and if it weren’t for the eternal nature of blogs, I would deny ever uttering (writing) it from here on out. So all of you out there who bleed maroon and orange, listen up! Here it is: reading Lost Communities of Virginia made me wish that I had gone to Virginia Tech. If I had become a Hokie, I would have gotten involved in the Community Design Assistance Center and the Lost Communities of Virginia Project.

Alas, I didn’t. I went to the University of Virginia, where I got a phenomenal education in architectural history and where I got placed in my first job after college, Patrick County, probably my favorite place on the planet. So not going to VT wasn’t the worst decision of my life, but I am still pretty jealous of the Hokies who got to perform all of the research and write the beautiful book that is Lost Communities of Virginia.

In 2011, the CDAC put out a handsome publication compiling information about thirty of the 2,600 small communities that “[cover] the breadth of Virginia’s geography, history, and community types” (Lost Communities of Virginia Project). What makes these places unique? They have been lost to the hands of time.