By Jim Buchanan
Music has rung off the hillsides in Jackson County for almost as long as the hills have stood, and although somewhat muted by the coronavirus pandemic, music continues to echo today.
Looking back across the history of the county, there might be one day that stands out more than others when it comes to music: Saturday, July 27, 1940.
That was the day the Carter Family came to town and performed at the Sylva Graded School Auditorium under the auspices of the Sylva Fire Department.
The Carter Family made music for generations, and their honors would fill this page. Known as the First Family of Country Music, they were added to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970 and the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1988. Young June Carter, pictured in the ad from 1940 accompanying this article, won five Grammys and went on to marry a fellow named Johnny Cash, who earned a bit of fame himself along the way.
The Carter Family had a connection to Jackson County through Dr. John Brinkley, who set up a “border blaster” radio station just across the Texas border in Mexico to help hock his medical treatment and worldview. The station also provided a venue for the Carters, one that could be heard across the Canadian border and reportedly even in Russia, as the station’s location fell outside the power rules for American radio. (It’s said truck headlights would come on and bedsprings would vibrate nearby when the station came on the air).
The station, XERA, also provided a venue for a local talent, “Aunt” Samantha Bumgarner. And Bumgarner’s popularity was so high that apparently the Carter Family played, no pun intended, second fiddle on that July 27 day. One of the first women to record county music, Bumgarner – along with other local talent – proved to be quite the draw at the annual Farmers Federation picnic. As reported in the Jackson County Journal on Aug. 1, 1940:
“More than 2,000 persons attended the annual Farmers Federation Jackson County picnic at Sylva High School Saturday. It was the largest crowd ever to assemble for a Federation picnic in Jackson County. … First prize in the singing competition went to the Speedwell choir, led by Sam Fox. The Cowee choir, under Robert Jones’ direction, took second. The Pressley group was chosen as the best quartet, while the Woods-Shelton quartet captured the runner-up position. Dork and Irma Lee Woods were honored for the best duet performance, and Will Bramlett and his daughters won the award for the outstanding trio.
“A large group of Jackson County musicians and singers crowded the platform during the day. Uncle Jim Corbin played his fiddle, and Aunt Samantha Bumgarner gave several selections on the banjo. John Hensley told a story about the young Daniel Webster…”
Oddly, there was no mention of the Carter Family in the Aug. 1 edition. There was one aside in the story on the Federation picnic that shows just how much times have changed.
An award was given for the vehicle bringing the most people to the picnic.
It was a truck.
It brought 120 people.
The Journal didn’t specify if those 120 were brought on different trips, but it doesn’t sound like it, with the story saying “Robert Jones’ load of 120 swept the competition for the largest truck load.”
We assume the truck was a large flat-bed or such. Whatever, it must have been quite a sight. And later, must have been quite a treat for county music fans.