Mountain Roads and Whitetop Mountain

The Whitetop Mountain Band - Jackson Cunningham, Martha Spencer, Debbie Bramer, Spencer Pennington, Emily Spencer and Thornton SpencerMountain Roads Recordings of Bristol, Tennessee continues its recruitment drive with the addition to the label’s roster of The Whitetop Mountain Band from Whitetop, Virginia.

The Whitetop Mountain Band is a family-based band from an area featuring the highest mountains of Virginia. The region is also very rich in the old time music tradition and this band has deep roots in mountain music. The members have done much to preserve the Whitetop region’s style of old time fiddling and banjo picking and are legendary musicians and teachers of the style.

The Whitetop Mountain Band is one of the most popular dance bands of the Appalachian mountains. They have a great following at square dances all over Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky at venues like the Carter Family Fold. In addition to local venues, the band has performed at the Smithsonian Folk life Festival, National Folk life Festival, World Music Institute in New York City, the Dock Boggs Festival, World Fair, Virginia Arts Festival, Floydfest, Ola Belle Reed Festival and Merlefest. They recently were featured on the 2007 NCTA Crooked Road Music tour of California, Nevada, Oregon, and Idaho.

The band was founded in the 1940s by the well-known and beloved fiddler and luthier Albert Hash. When he was a teenager, Hash played fiddle with Henry Whitter, of the famous Grayson & Whitter duo that recorded during the 1920s, and he has had a tremendous impact on the old time and bluegrass scene. His recording of the tune Hangman’s Reel is copied by so many old time musicians today. He also taught such luthiers such as Wayne Henderson and Audrey Ham.

In the 1970s, Hash’s brother-in-law, Thornton Spencer (twin fiddle), and his wife, Emily Spencer (banjo and vocals), joined him in the Whitetop Mountain Band. The threesome also started an old time music program at Mt. Rogers School, a small K-12 public school, in Whitetop. The students there learn fiddle, banjo, guitar, bass and dancing. Emily Spencer carries on the programme today and it has much regional and national attention for its uniqueness, including features on CMT, numerous articles, radio shows and a Grammy Award nomination.

The current Whitetop Mountain Band line-up is led by Thornton and Emily Spencer. They are accompanied by their daughter Martha, a multi-instrumentalist (guitar, banjo, fiddle and bass), vocalist and dancer. She has taken part in many Master flatfoot dancing workshops and performances also. Other members of the band are Jackson Cunningham, originally from Oregon, where he grew up in a musical family and played music from early childhood, plays mandolin, guitar and adds vocals. Cunningham has performed in several bluegrass and old time groups from the west coast to the east and also plays clawhammer banjo and harmonica; Spencer Pennington, from Warrensville, North Carolina, plays guitar and sings. He has been playing for over 60 years and has been in several bluegrass and gospel quartets over the years; and Debbie Bramer, who was originally from Michigan, but moved to Fancy Gap, Virginia in the early 90s. Bramer plays bass and dances in the band. She has been a member of several clogging teams and been active in many dance workshops and competitions.

Martha Spencer was understandably enthusiastic about the link up …..

“We are excited to record with Mountain Roads Recordings. We feel that Karl Cooler and his wife are very nice folks and are motivated to do the best with production and recording. We look forward to starting the partnership with their recording label.”

The Whitetop Mountain Band shows are very versatile and entertaining containing everything from fiddle/banjo instrumentals to powerful solos and harmony vocals on blues, classic country, honky-tonk, traditional bluegrass numbers, old timey ballads, originals, and four part mountain gospel songs. Their shows also include flat foot dancing and the band is well known for their high energy and charisma on stage.

The band is described as, “A perfect fit for Mountain Roads Recordings,” a label that strives to discover and promote unique bluegrass, old-time and mountain music and make quality recordings from those genres available to the world.

Live audio samples of teh current band can be found on their MySpace page. The first Mountain Roads release is expected in early 2009.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics.

A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe.

He wrote the annotated series I’m On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.