Mountains of Songs

By Wayne Erbsen

Hank Williams was once quoted as saying, “You got to have smelt a lot of mule manure before you can sing like a hillbilly.” If Hank was right, then what I did today puts me over the top into the ranks of genuine hillbillies.

It all started when I got back from a week of fiddling and singing at the Appalachian Stringband Festival in Clifftop, West Virginia. After I barely had a chance to settle into my normal routine at home, my wife, Barbara, said she had a “honey do” list for me. The good news was that there was only one thing on the list. The bad news was that I needed to move an enormous truckload of manure.

Armed only with a shovel and a wheelbarrow, I began moving the manure mountain. To pass the time, of course, I started singing. But I couldn’t think of a single song about manure. With its deep roots in rural America, you would think there’d be lots of bluegrass songs about this meaningful subject. If only I knew a song about manure, I was convinced I could sing it now with real feeling!

When I came up short of manure songs, I realized that I knew a pile of songs that contained the words “mountain” or “hills.” Here are some of songs that I thought of as I shoveled:

Bear Tracks
Big Rock Candy Mountain
Black Mountain Rag
Bluebirds Singing in the Blue Ridge Mountains
Blue Ridge Cabin Home
Blue Ridge Mountain Home
Cabin in Caroline
Cabin on a Mountain
Fire on the Mountain
Foggy Mountain Breakdown
Foggy Mountain Top
High on a Mountain
How Mountain Girls Can Love
I Like Mountain Music
Life is Like a Mountain Railroad
Little Mountain Church House
Little Georgia Rose
Living on the Mountain
Looking For a Stone
Medicine Springs
Meet Me Out on a Mountain
Mole in the Ground
Mountain Laurel
Mountain House
Mountain Rosa Lee
Mountain Girl
Mountain Dew
Mountain Boy
Mountain Folk
My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains
Rank Strangers
Sawing on the Strings
Smoky Mountain Memories
Tall Pines
The Hills of Roan County
White Dove

After I finished moving the mountain of manure, I started wondering if the legendary musicians who picked and sang bluegrass and old-time mountain music actually lived in the mountains. I compiled two lists, one of bluegrass musicians, and a second one of old-time musicians. Under each entry, I included where they were born, and the elevation. Interestingly enough, Bill Monroe ranks second from the bottom in terms of elevation, right above Don Reno. Raymond Fairchild gets the prize for living at the highest elevation, 3020 feet. The average elevation for these particular bluegrass musicians is 1354 feet.

For the old-time musicians, Charlie Poole lived at the lowest elevation at 591 feet, and Albert Hash gets the blue ribbon for having lived at the highest elevation, 3638 feet. When I tallied up the average elevation of these old-time musicians I came up with 1655 feet.

What valid conclusions can we draw from this non-scientific survey? None, probably. But we did learn that the old-time mountain musicians did live more in the mountains than did the bluegrass musicians. Either way, we did learn that this ain’t no flatlander music.

Bluegrass Musicians

Bill Monroe, Rosine, KY, 459 feet
Don Reno, Spartanburg, SC, 246 feet
Earl Scruggs, Boiling Springs, NC, 912 feet
Hylo Brown, River, Kentucky, 670 feet
Jim & Jesse, Coeburn, VA, 1995 feet
Jimmy Martin, Sneedville, TN, 1171 feet
Lester Flatt, Sparta, TN, 885 feet
Lilly Brothers, Clear Creek, WV, 1467 feet
Osborne Brothers, Roark, KY, 1464 feet
Raymond Fairchild, Maggie Valley, NC, 3020 feet
Red Rector, Walnut, NC, 1942 feet
Red Smiley, Asheville, NC 2134 feet
Stanley Brothers, McClure, VA, 1476 feet
Vern Williams, Newton County, AR, 760 feet
Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper, Valley Head, WV, 2372 feet

Old-Time Musicians

Albert Hash, Whitetop, VA, 3638 feet
Baird Ray, Sodom, NC, 2182 feet
Bascom Lamar Lunsford, South Turkey Creek, NC, 2100 feet
Beachard Smith, Scott County, VA, 1916 feet
Blue Sky Boys, Hickory, NC, 1163 feet
Carter Family, Maces Springs, VA, 1858 feet
Charlie Poole, Eden, NC, 591 feet
Eva Davis, Gastonia, NC, 797 feet
Frank Profitt, Reese, NC, 3041 feet
Fred Cockerham, Surry County, NC, 1000 feet
Kyle Creed, Surry County, NC, 1000 feet
Lilly Mae Ledford, Powell County, KY, 685 feet
Roscoe Holcomb, Daisy, KY, 965 feet
Samantha Bumgarner, Dillsboro, NC, 2051 feet
Tommy Jarrell, Toast, NC, 1063 feet
Uncle Dave Macon, McMinnville, TN, 968 feet
Wade & JE Mainer, Stony Knob, NC, 2080 feet
Wade Ward, Independence, VA, 2689 feet
Wilson Douglas, Rush Fork, WV, 814 feet

Wayne Erbsen was born in Los Angeles, California, elevation 105 feet. In 1977, he moved to Asheville, NC, elevation 2134 feet. In 1999, he purchased a getaway log cabin near Big Pine, NC, with an elevation of 3800 feet. When he’s not measuring elevation, Wayne teaches old-time and bluegrass instruments and singing and writes books for his company, Native Ground Books & Music.

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