Whitetop Mountain Band signs record deal

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By Ben Bomberger, Reporter

The Whitetop Mountain Band from Grayson County recently was signed by Mountain Roads Recording, a record company in Bristol, Tenn.

The traveling family band hails from the high mountains of Grayson.

In a press release, the company said “Whitetop is a region rich in the old-time music tradition; 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 has become one of the most popular dance bands of the Appalachian Mountains and have a great following at square dances all over Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky at venues such as the Carter Family Fold.

In addition to local venues, the band has also performed at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, National Folklife Festival, Word Music Institute in New York City, Doc Boggs Festival, World Fair, Virginia Arts Festival, Floydfest, Ola Belle Reed Festival and Merlefest.

The band was recently featured on the National Council for Traditional Arts’ 2007 Crooked Road Music Tour of California, Nevada, Oregon and Idaho.

Members also toured the United Kingdom and Ireland, playing the Cornish Bluegrass Festival and Open House Festival, along with venues through England, Wales and Ireland.

This past January, members of the band performed at the Illawarra Folk Festival and Tamworth Country Music Festival in New South Wales, Australia.

Band members actively teach as master musicians and dancers for workshops and classes in fiddle, banjo, guitar, vocals and dance all over the country. Some places include Swannanoa Gatherings in Asheville, N.C.; Cowan Creek Music School in Kentucky; Mountain Music School in Big Stone Gap and Mount Rogers Combined School.

Karl Cooler — co-founder of the record company with his wife, Gail — said that “while we really loved the music that they make, we were equally impressed that many individuals and bands credit members of this group with having a major influence on their musical talent and style.”

The Whitetop Mountain Band has been featured in many books, magazines and on television and radio shows about the Appalachian music, such as “The Guide to the Crooked Road,” “A Hotbed of Musicians,” “Strings of Life,” In Good Keeping, Country Music Television, the Travel Channel, PBS, Old-Time Herald and many more.

The band originated with Albert Hash — a well-known and beloved fiddler and luthier — in the 1940s.

When he was a teenager, Hash played fiddle with Henry Whitter of Grayson & Whitter — a popular group that recorded during the 1920s.

Hash had a tremendous impact on the old-time and bluegrass scene. The tune “Hangman’s Reel” that Hash recorded is the version still played by many old-time musicians today.

Hash also taught such luthiers as Wayne Henderson, Audrey Ham and many others to build instruments.

In the 1970s Hash’s brother-in-law Thornton Spencer and Spencer’s wife Emily joined Hash in the Whitetop Mountain Band.

The three also started an old-time music program at Mount Rogers School. The students learn fiddle, banjo, guitar, bass and dancing. Emily Spencer carries on the program and it has received regional and national attention for its uniqueness, including features on CMT, numerous articles and radio shows and a Grammy Award nomination.

Currently, the band is carried on by Thornton on the fiddle and Emily on the banjo and vocals. Their daughter — Martha — plays with the band, as well.

A multi-instrumentalist and dancer, Martha has taken part in many master-level flatfoot dancing workshops and performances.

Jackson Cunningham plays mandolin and guitar and provides vocals in the band. He is originally from Oregon and has played music since early childhood. He grew up in a musical family and has performed in several bluegrass and old-time groups from the West Coast to the East. Jackson also plays clawhammer banjo and harmonica.

Spencer Pennington, of Warrensville, N.C., plays guitar and sings in the band. Pennington has been playing for more than 60 years and has been in several bluegrass and gospel quartets.

Debbie Bramer, originally from Michigan, moved to Fancy Gap in the early 1990s. 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.

“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. Shows also include flatfoot dancing and the band is well known for their high energy and charisma on stage,” said the release.

“We are very happy to be joining the roster at Mountain Roads Recordings,” said Emily Spencer. “Karl and his wife seem to be great folks, and he seems to be a good promoter of his artists. We are looking forward to our affiliation with Mountain Roads.”

“The Whitetop Mountain Band is a perfect fit for Mountain Roads Recordings, which strives to discover and promote unique bluegrass, old-time and mountain music and make quality recordings of these genres available to the world. We expect their first release on our label in early 2009,” said the release.

Mountain Roads Recordings also signed Big Country Bluegrass — a Southwest Virginia traditional bluegrass band currently entering its 21st year in the business — in February. Big Country Bluegrass recorded sessions at Eastwood Studios in Cana and hopes to have its first project ready for release this summer.

Members of The Whitetop Mountain Band offer free classes every Tuesday at Mount Rogers Combined School from 7-10 p.m.