Common threads through time

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 9, 2001

Last Saturday was a perfect fall day in East Tennessee. The sky was washed clean by recent rain. The few clouds in sight were scudding across the sky in front of a persistent wind. It was the kind of wind that made the stem ends of the oak, ash and poplar leaves tug hard at the branches holding them. But the branches held fast.

It is not yet time for the trees to loose the leaves to drift down to the winter ground. Green has begun to give way to reds and golds as these hills put on their Jacob's coats whose brilliance will draw people from far and near.

On that perfect day I ventured into the Smokey Mountains to Cade's Cove, a well known area nestled safely within the protective mountains. This cove was for centuries home to strong, stalwart souls seeking new land and a good life.

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The last human resident of the cove, a bee-keeper known by many as The Honey Man, moved from the cove just this year when he became too old to continue his life of isolation , especially duriing the cold, icy and often trecherous winters. The home place he tended for the National Park Service now stands like the other buildings left in the cove, a testimony to the past.

The reason for my trip to Cade's Cove that day, other than the reasons of beauty, serenity and re-connection, was to participate in "Old Timers Day."

People came from every part of our country, mostly to listen. Because on this October Saturday and again on the first Saturday in May, the music makers come out. The cove is then filled with mountain music played on guitars, fiddles, harmonicas, dulcimers, and on and on. And above the instruments are the voices, those plaintive, mostly untrained, yet resonant voices that sing the stories of settlers, farmers, the people brave enough to battle these mountains for a space in which to live.

The songs tell of hard work, struggle and survival by the hand of God. There was not what I call neon country music being played. None of it made me think of Nashville or L.A. The music reflected the sounds of Scotland, Ireland, England and of the Cherokee Indian Nation. It reflected the co-mingling of European and Native American cultures from which this part of the country descended.

As I

moved through the area listening to group after group of musicians, there was a common thread of story and sound handed down through the generations. And that thread tied each musician not only to the past but to everyone singing and playing on that day.

It is pretty much a certainty that over time the music of these mountains has changed and evolved into what I heard that day. Each new musician adds a nuance, an inflection, a rhythm reflective of his or her own interpretation.

After all, music is a reflection of life, and we all know life constantly changes. But maybe that common thread will hold fast, will not break.

A few years ago, an album was released with singers like Clint Black, Travis Tritt and others singing the songs of the Eagles. That album was titled "Common Threads", and it stitched together contemporary country stars and the legendary rock music of the Eagles.

In the same way when you hear musicians like Roc Killough, Renny McNaughton, Jeff Cummings and others of your acquaintance, you are hearing sounds bound to music from the past. It may not be mountain music, but it none-the-less hearkens back to times past, to stories told long ago. Hopefully the common threads will continue to be woven together so that our communal past will live on in melody.

And on another fine autumn day music of the swamplands, the mountains, the valleys and plains will race across the sky in front of a crisp, persistent wind.