Thornton Spencer, fiddle player with The Whitetop Mountain Band, passed away on Saturday evening, November 25, 2017. A U.S. Army veteran, he was 82 years of age when he passed
Born on November 12, 1935, in Rugby, Virginia, Thornton Lee Spencer grew up surrounded by traditional music.
He learned to play the fiddle in the 1940s being taught by his brother-in-law, the revered fiddle maker and player Albert Hash, when Spencer described himself as “just a kid”.
Spencer went on to describe his initiation ..
“I used to pick the guitar with him some in his fiddle shop. One day, I was admiring one of his fiddles he had hanging on the wall and he said to me, ‘Thornton, I believe you can learn.’ So, he showed me how to play two tunes—the Chicken Reel and Rag Time Annie.”
Spencer learned to play the two tunes sufficiently well that Hash gave Spencer the fiddle.
In his early 20s Spencer played in the Virginia Mountain Boys. Most of the band members, who numbered anything up to eight individuals in all, were from the Cabin Creek area in Whitetop, Virginia.
During his Army service he was based at Fort Benning, GA. In 1960 the master sergeant noticed Spencer playing the fiddle in the various jams that took place in the barracks, and started to put together a group with the intention that the band do some U.S.O tours. The attempt ended when playing for a dance at Columbus, GA, a guitarist started fighting with the drummer and the master sergeant ended up in jail.
In the 1977 Spencer and his wife, Emily, moved to Mouth of Wilson where they joined Albert Hash’s Whitetop Mountain Band.
The threesome also started an old-time music program at Mt. Rogers School, a small K-12 public school, in Whitetop, where the students learned to play the fiddle, banjo, guitar, bass, and to dance.
The Whitetop Mountain Band is noted as a very versatile group, entertaining audiences with 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. Shows also include flat-foot dancing. The band was well known for their high energy and charisma on stage.
Through the years they have had a great following at square dances all over Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky, playing at venues like the Carter Family Fold, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the National Folklife Festival, the World Music Institute in New York City, Dock Boggs Festival, World Fair, the Virginia Arts Festival, FloydFest, the Ola Belle Reed Festival, and Merlefest.
The band also performed at other types of venues throughout the United States including concerts, colleges campuses and many competitions.
They were featured on the NCTA Crooked Road Music tour of California, Nevada, Oregon and Idaho in October 2007, and the east coast tour of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, West Virginia, and Washington D.C. in 2010.
The band visited the UK, Ireland and Australia, although Spencer didn’t make the trip to Ireland.
Thornton and Emily Spencer continued with their education programs, some of these included Swannanoa Gathering in Asheville, North Carolina, Cowan Creek Music School in Kentucky, Mountain Music School in Big Stone Gap, VA, as well as at the Mt. Rogers School.
The duo has featured on CMT, had numerous articles written about them, appeared on radio shows and received a Grammy Award nomination.
Thornton Spencer did much to add to an area already rich in the old time.
R.I.P., Thornton Spencer.
Thornton Spencer-fiddle, Kilby Spencer-banjo, Emily Spencer-guitar playing Johnson Boys or Scoot Old Rabbit, an old fiddle tune and song popular around Whitetop, VA, and Ashe County, NC.
One of the fiddlers Thornton learned it from was Albert Hash, who can be heard playing it on the Field Recorder’s Collective release of his name. Kilby learned it on banjo from Emily’s version. Some of the old banjo players in the area who played it were Jont Blevins of Whitetop (VA), Lee Weaver of Whitetop (VA) and Enoch Rutherford of Independence (Virginia). Lee Weaver called it Scoot Old Rabbit rather than Johnson Boys.
From an earlier time, the Whitetop Mountain Band (Thornton Spencer-fiddle, Emily Spencer-banjo, Becky Barr-guitar, Tom Barr-bass) plays Eighth of January in December 1990.
Thornton Spencer was laid to rest on Tuesday, November 28, 2017, in Haw Orchard Cemetery, Rugby, Virginia.
As stated by Reins Sturdivant Funeral Home, Independence, memorial contributions may be made to the Albert Hash Festival, the Albert Hash Memorial Band Program, or the Grayson County Schools Jam Program.
Spencer Family and Friends – Greetings from Whitetop, VFH Label, 2006
The Whitetop Mountain Band
- Bull Plus 10%, Arhoolie Records (Out of Print)
- Music from the High Country, Heritage Records, 2008
- Loafer’s Dream, Mountain Roads Recordings, 2008
- Island in the Sky, High Country Recordings, 2012
- Just Pickin’, Whitetop Mountain Band, 2014
- Roads of Grayson County, Whitetop Mountain Band, 2016
Thornton Spencer appears on Kyle Creed’s Liberty (Mountain) LP; he also appears on Wayne Henderson’s Rugby Guitar (Flying Fish Records); and Thornton Spencer (and Albert Hash) features on Old Originals Volume 2 (Rounder Records).