Bristol is renowned as the birthplace of country music—but how are musicians in and around this border city evolving its sound for 2023 and beyond? This special set, emceed by Tyler Hughes, executive director of The Crooked Road, features brief performances by 5 musicians who received awards from, or served on, the Greater Bristol Folk Arts & Culture Team (supported by Mid Atlantic Arts’ Central Appalachia Living Traditions initiative).
Pierceton Hobbs is a community-based artist and cultural organizer from Dickenson County, Virginia. Living on the border of Virginia and Kentucky, Hobbs finds inspiration in regional songwriters and musical styles—both in their many variations and in the way that “the traditions intertwine.” As a kid, Hobbs would travel between Virginia and Kentucky to attend live music performances, learning about coal-country musical traditions along the way. In addition to putting regional traditional music practices into conversation with one another, Hobbs takes a sonically inclusive approach as he continues to hone his sound. He cites his late cousin Mark Linkous, of the genre-spanning Virginia band Sparklehorse, as an important influence on his style.
An internship at Radio Bristol at the age of 18 first piqued Hobbs’s interest in heritage music; before that, he was a self-described “rock and roll kid.” Inspired by the regional traditions he encountered, he landed a job at the Ralph Stanley Museum and spearheaded the revival of the Junior Appalachian Musicians Program (JAM) in Dickenson County. In his current role as JAM program coordinator, he helps create an outlet for community youth to learn about and play traditional Appalachian music and tell their own stories. Hobbs also works for Appalshop’s June Appal record label and coordinates their JAM affiliated “Pick & Bow” program in Letcher County, KY.
In 2022, Hobbs became a member of the Waymakers Collective, an Appalachian Arts & Culture Assembly, and received funding for his next recording project.
Mouth of Wilson, VA
In hindsight, Jackson Cunningham’s career as a luthier was meant to be. He began piano lessons with his grandmother at age seven, picked up guitar soon after, and learned to play banjo and fiddle in his teenage years. Around the same time, Jackson’s stepfather introduced him to woodworking. The confluence of these interests brought Jackson Cunningham to the threshold of instrument craft, which he eagerly pursued after moving to Grayson County, Virginia, from his home in southern Oregon. There he found a community in the musicians, luthiers, and craftspeople that stewarded traditional Appalachian music.
Jackson cites a large cohort of mentors and colleagues that have helped him with the finer points of instrument making, including the late Audrey Hash Ham, daughter of renowned luthier Albert Hash, whose stories made Jackson realize he was “tapping into something that had been around a long time.” He received mentorship in building guitars from Don Wilson and Wayne Henderson and building banjos from Mack Traynham and Arthur Connor. In addition to swapping skills, songs, and stories, members of the musical community often share access to raw materials. Jackson takes pride in sourcing local wood from Grayson County and the surrounding area, and has even harvested his own red spruce.
Jackson builds instruments under the name Cunningham Handmade Instruments. He keeps busy with custom guitar orders—ranging from 1930s small-body styles to archtops—but still finds time to get out and play music, equipped with instruments by himself and other regional artists.
After working on the road as a sound engineer for the bluegrass fiddler Michael Cleveland, KT Vandyke found himself back in Southwest Virginia, doing instrument repair and setup at Front Row Music in Abingdon. There he met Walter “Skip” Herman of the nearby Frog Level Guitar Shop. Herman had learned the luthier trade from “Uncle” Dave Sturgill in Piney Creek, North Carolina, and decided to pursue repair full-time once he saw the reliable demand for, and importance of, the work. As Herman explains, “You can make the very best instrument in the world and if there is no one out there to repair it, it’s like having a Ferrari where there’s no mechanic in the world who can fix it.”
Herman and Vandyke became friends and soon Vandyke was working in Herman’s backyard workshop learning the ropes. In 2021–22, the two received support through the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program. Because of Herman’s generosity and dedication towards ensuring his skills continue, Vandyke is prepared to launch a full-time instrument repair career. He is now building his own backyard shop in Bristol, and Herman will give him much of his workshop equipment, empowering Vandyke to continue his legacy of excellent repair. Born and raised in Buchanan County, Vandyke is also a talented singer-songwriter. KT be performing in the “New Sounds of Bristol” set with his wife Toni Doman.
Johnson City, TN
Roxanne McDaniel’s musical journey began when her parents bought her a little Cracker Barrel harmonica while on a trip to Dollywood. As a child, Roxanne moved from the harmonica to the keyboard and then to the guitar. All the while, she endured the challenges of queer life in small-town East Tennessee, including feelings of exclusion. As a student at East Tennessee State University, Roxanne studied Bluegrass music and Appalachian culture and came to love playing and building dulcimers. During her studies, Roxanne met all kinds of folks who were boldly queer, feminist, and altogether culturally progressive and also identified as Appalachian. After her time at ETSU, Roxanne set her heart on including those traditionally left out of Appalachian culture.
Roxanne believes that the dulcimer, a traditional folk string instrument, in its accessibility and flexible sound, directly expresses an inclusive Appalachian culture. Roxanne’s original music combines old-time and rock influences you can easily hear on tracks like “The Better Half of Me” and “Shooting Star.” Her ease with combining the old time with a contemporary sound points to her drive for an open Appalachian identity.
When she isn’t fronting her band, Roxanne & the Big Bad Buzz, Roxanne teaches children in East Tennessee how to build and play the dulcimer. Through her lessons, she imparts to her pupils not only the craft of instrument making, but the role of steward to Appalachian musical tradition.
Hip-hop artist Geonoah Davis was born and raised in Big Stone Gap, and he is making it his mission to build a supportive community for artists like him—artists that do not fall into stereotypical Appalachian categories. Davis, who recently moved to Norton, performs as geonovah. “What gives me joy is creating and using what comes from it to help those around me,” he shared.
Interested in poetry since his teens, geonovah first began to make music as a student at UVA Wise. In 2016, his cousin Raekwon Mitchell (DJ RKMITCH) invited him to write a verse for his “Starry Nights” EP. Soon he began performing with his cousin in the local hip hop collective Valley Boyz Music Group.
After transferring to East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, geonovah began to develop his own sound. There, he connected with a tight community of hip hop artists including Kareem Ledell, Ishmael Nehemiah, Tyrique Shahmir and Will Castle. Ajavious Deovante (OnlySinger), a producer out of Farmville, VA, was an early champion of geonovah’s work and continues to mentor him. “There’s not a lot of opportunities for hip-hop artists and artists of the like in this area,” geonovah said. “We know that. We don’t really have the money or infrastructure, so we support each other.”
geonovah is part of the Greater Bristol Folk Arts & Culture Team, a culture collaborative that awarded $52,000 in April 2023 to community artists and organizations in the region with support from Mid Atlantic Arts’ Central Appalachia Living Traditions initiative.
Big Stone Gap, VA
Tyler Hughes’s musical career and service to his community and Southwest Virginia are intertwined, inspired by the vision of a formative mentor, Sue Ella Boatright, and through early experiences playing music with friends that were as many as five decades older than him. (His first band, led by David and Bernita Jervis, was “Tyler Hughes and the Generation Gap.”)
When he was 13, Tyler “caught the bug for traditional music” when he attended Mountain Music School at Mountain Empire Community College, founded by his mentor Sue Ella. As a teenager, he performed with the Generation Gap in church, at coal camp reunions, in campgrounds and at the kind of small community venues that depend on the dedication of a few volunteers. Tyler went on to attend East Tennessee State University’s program in Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots music, where he earned his BA in 2015.
Today, he works to increase access and participation in community arts. “People in the Appalachian region deserve to have the fullest life that they can achieve,” he said. “That means having an education and getting a job that will pay the bills and give you a comfortable life. But you also need enjoyment and you need pleasure. And music has always been a part of people’s lives here in some way or another.”
Tyler is also executive director for the Crooked Road: Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail, a 330-mile driving trail through the mountains of Southwest Virginia that connects nine major venues and over 60 affiliated venues and festivals. The Crooked Road is part of the Greater Bristol Folk Arts & Culture Team, a culture collaborative that awarded $52,000 in April 2023 to community artists and organizations in the region with support from Mid Atlantic Arts’ Central Appalachia Living Traditions initiative.