Published May 24, 2023

For more than seventeen years, Wytheville Community College has hosted a Bluegrass & Old-Time Jamboree on the third Saturday of the month in Grayson Hall on its main campus. Started in 2006 by then-college-president Charlie White, the WCC Jamboree is an affiliated venue of The Crooked Road. English faculty member Jason Settle runs the program nowadays, and on Saturday, March 18, presented the Cabin Creek Bluegrass Band followed up by the Whitetop Mountain Band. We share both sets on our SoundCloud for your enjoyment:

Featuring Carol Shores, Tim Lewis, Jack Wells, Crystal Shipley, N.R. Taylor, and Will Eller. Audio engineering by Jamal Millner, recorded by Katy Clune and Pat Jarrett.
Featuring Emily Spencer, Kilby Spencer, Martha Spencer, Ersel Flecther, and Debbie Bramer (Lisa Ring joins for a song). Audio engineering by Jamal Millner, recorded by Katy Clune and Pat Jarrett.

The Whitetop Mountain Band used the occasion to celebrate the release of a new compilation album, “Thornton Spencer: Fiddling Through the Years,” and a chapbook, “Thornton Spencer: Tall Tales and Funny Happenings from Grayson County, VA and Ashe County, NC.” (Virginia Folklife provided financial support to this project, both are available online.)

Thornton Spencer joined Whitetop Mountain Band with renowned fiddler and instrument builder Albert Hash, bringing his wife, singer, banjoist and music instructor Emily Spencer with him. Today, they are joined by their children Kilby and Martha Spencer, Ersel Fletcher, and Debbie Bramer.

These two releases were partially born out of the opportunity the pandemic provided for reflection and digging through the family archives. “Fiddling Through the Years” begins with a recording of Thornton playing at the 1952 Galax Fiddlers’ Convention spans his career through to 2017, a recording made just months before he passed away. It also features remastered recordings from the 1970s, which Kilby Spencer produced after finding the masters in the storeroom of the Heritage Label, upon the invitation of Bobby Patterson’s widow. (Those materials are now part of the Southern Folklife Collection at UNC Chapel Hill).

In the 1970s, Thornton asked his wife Emily to help him type up the stories he was known for telling. “It was good to get them down on paper,” explains Emily. “He was like a wealth of stories and family trees, stories from the past of the whole area, I bet he could have told them for weeks without repeating them. Some of them are true, I do know. Some of them, maybe not so true.”

“He could tell stories for hours and hours, about all sorts of things. He made things a legend in your mind,” added Martha, his daughter, who remembers growing up to the images Thornton spun to life.

Kilby collaborated with Kelley Breiding and photographer Mark V. Sanderford to at last release the tales to the public, typing the pages his mom had transcribed on her electric typewriter decades ago. We share Thornton’s original foreword, as well as one of his tales, in the spirit of keeping the storytelling alive:

Original Foreword
by Thornton Spencer

The reason I am writing this book about tall tales is because when I was a child, I used to visit neighbors houses and listen to them play music and tell tall tales. The music has survived better than the tales have. Another reason I want to write this book is because my lifestyle has changed here in the mountains. Today, when you visit most people’s homes the television is going full blast and it does their thinking and talking for them. People don’t have to learn how to entertain company or themselves.

The Sawmill Man

This is about an old man who had sawmilled most of his life. He had sold his sawmill, and his neighbors were curious as to what he was going to do since he had never done much else but run a small sawmill.

One neighbor in particular was real curious and went to visit him and asked what he planned on doing since he sold his sawmill. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said. This neighbor, being persistent, said, “You surely have something in mind.” The gentleman answered, “Well, I guess I do.”

“Well, just what is it?” asked the neighbor.

He said, “Well, I’ve worked pretty hard most of my life and am getting pretty old, and I am a danged good mind to hire me a good fiddler and just spend the rest of my days dancing!”