A BRIEF HISTORY OF MY FAMILY AND
AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH OF
MY MUSICAL LIFE
By Carl P. McConnell
January 24, 1976
1946 WRNL photo; Left to Right: Maybelle Carter's brother, Hugh Jack "Doc" Addington (guitar), Maybelle's 2nd cousin, Carl P. McConnell (banjo), "Mother" Maybelle Addington Carter (guitar), June Carter (autoharp), Helen Carter (accordion), Anita Carter (bass)
I, Carl Patton McConnell, was born January 24, 1913, on a farm in Big Moccasin Valley, at the foot of the north side of Clinch Mountain. I was born in an old log cabin that had been the birthplace of my mother and her four sisters and one brother. I am a Baptist by faith and the third child of a family of seven; five girls and two boys.
I have followed the barber trade for a living for 35 years and music is only a hobby and a sideline with me. What little musical talent I have, probably came from both my mother and daddy’s side of the fence.
My mother could do a pretty good job at playing the autoharp and organ. She also sang soprano and alto parts. Three of my sisters could play the organ and sing real well.
My mother’s parents, Mr. And Mrs. B. M. Francisco, were both great church going people and were members of the old fashioned Methodist Church. They believed in living it every day. My mother and her sisters and brother have followed the same pattern of convictions.
My Grandma Francisco was an excellent old-fashioned singer, with a beautiful, loud, clear voice. She had the reputation of being able to do more good with her singing in the old revival meetings than a lot of preachers could do with their preaching. They sent for her and came after her from miles around to get her to help sing and take part in the old-time country revival meetings. It was well known in those days that she spent a large portion of her time in this manner.
Grandpa Francisco was a farmer and the owner of one of the largest apple orchards in the area, which was located high up under the north side of Clinch Mountain.
My Daddy, was fairly good at playing the harmonica, Jews harp, and could plunk quite a few of the old tunes on the five-string banjo. He did some bass singing. He passed away at the age of sixty-three, on July 11, 1945. My mother is still living alone at the age of eighty-five.
My grandpa, Patton McConnell, born February 2, 1846, was a top old-time fiddler and banjo picker. He was considered the champion fiddler of this area (Scott County, Virginia) for years, back in the days of about 1875 until about 1900. He had participated in almost all of the entertainments and exhibitions around this area in those days.
He, for many years, owned and operated a roller mill in Big Moccasin Valley. The mill was a combination consisting of flour, corn, and buckwheat mills. Also attached to it was a saw mill, and a planing mill, all of which were pulled by a turbine powered by water flowing by gravity from a concrete dam, located only a few hundred yards above the old mill place. There was also an old country general store, a blacksmith’s shop and the old dwelling house, all standing in a cluster.
This was an old stomping ground and gathering place for all the surrounding neighborhood. You might say that in the old days, it served as a sort of shopping center for these people.
Grandma and Grandpa McConnell were old-time Baptist Church people.
Grandma McConnell was known by many people as Scott County’s own Florence Nightingale. She had the credit for delivering more babies in her lifetime than did a lot of the doctors. Her father, James Culbertson (my great grandpa), was a civil engineer by trade. He was part of the big covered wagon caravan that was formed from this surrounding area of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. They made the long, weary, and rugged journey across the U. S. A. to California during the big “California Gold Rush” in 1848. I am not positive, but I’m very much under the impression that he, James Culbertson, (a big man, 6 feet, 3 inches tall and 240 pounds) served as the wagon master for this journey, which took more than six months to complete. These people had to brave the Indians and wild animals that were so numerous at that time.
The first banjo that I ever owned was a little $9.95 Supertone five-stringer that I ordered from Sears, Roebuck and Company in January 1931. After a few days of plunking around, I learned to start a couple of tunes. The first one was “Goin’ Down in Town”. The second was “Down the Road”.
From there I soon learned a lot of the other old tunes; such as “The Spanish Fandango”, “President McKinley’s March”, “Arkansas Traveler”, “Cripple Creek”, “John Henry”, and many others. Those tunes I learned from my Daddy’s youngest brother, Uncle Pat. He was a banjo picker, first class, at the two-finger and thumb style, as well as the old “hoe-down” lick, which has lately been renamed the “claw hammer” style. To me it will always be the old “hoe-down” banjo picking.
As well as I have always loved the old “hoe-down” style of banjo picking; I never did put forth enough effort and time to master it. At that time, I liked the two fingers and thumb style much better and I put all my time in on trying to learn it instead. Now I regret that I didn’t learn both styles.
I also had a cheap Supertone guitar that came from Sears, Roebuck, and Company. It wasn’t a bad instrument for those days. For many years I did a lot of thumping on this guitar and others as well. The fact is, I did about as much guitar plunking, at times, as I did banjo thumping. No one ever called me a “Doc Addington”.
Doc Addington and I are close kinfolk’s. I’d like to add here that he is a brother to Mother Maybelle Carter, who is one of the original members of the famous Carter Family. His dad and mine were first cousins. My daddy’s mother was a distant cousin to Doc’s mother, both being descendants of the Kilgore generation. That makes us even a little more akin.
We grew up about four miles from each other (the way the crow flies), with two ridges and about a couple of valleys separating us. By car, around the road, it was a distance of around ten miles and back. In those days, there were only a few miles of blacktop road in the mountain area, especially here in Scott County. These were mostly narrow, rough, dirt roads.
This being true, Doc and I never had met until the summer of 1932. Doc came over to my home one Sunday afternoon, with his neighbor and close friend, Lester (Groundhog) Addington, who was dating my oldest sister, Irene.
On this occasion, Doc didn’t come in the house. He sat out in the car, parked close to the front porch. I walked out and interrupted the little tune he was whistling, by saying “hello” and asking him to come in the house while he was waiting. He said that he would just sit there and wait on “Groundhog”, who was in the parlor with Irene. He right then started whistling this same little old tune. He seemed to be more interested in being left alone and in whistling than he was in talking to me. Ha!
It sort of worried me a bit because he wouldn’t get out of the car and come on into the house, so I thought I’d go into the parlor and see if I could get “Groundhog” to go out and try persuading him to come on in. Groundhog sort of laughed and said, “Ah, he is bashful and stubborn, too. Let him sit out there.”
This didn’t satisfy my mind and, pondering over the situation another minute or so, I made up my mind to give it another try. I walked back out to the car and found Doc still whistling that same tune. So, ill mannered me, I broke in on his whistling again to say “Doc, I wish you would get out and come in the house.” He said, “No, thanks, I’ll just sit out here.” Then, quickly, I asked him some other question, with the hope of getting him started into a friendly conversation.
He just answered back with as few words as possible, and instantly started right back whistling. To me, that was a pretty firm hint that he just didn’t care too much about getting any better acquainted with me. I hastily turned and walked back into the house. In about an hour, I saw “Groundhog” step off the front porch and crawl under the steering wheel of his 1923 Model T Ford Touring car. I rushed out to invite them to come back again. I got out on the porch in time to see them take off like a ruffled grouse and to hear Doc, still whistling the same tune. By this time, he was setting it afire. This was my first acquaintance and experience with Doc Addington.
I had heard quite a lot about Doc’s fancy guitar picking for about a couple of years. Up until this time, I had never had the chance to hear him. The following fall, he and “Groundhog” dropped in one night at the home of our neighbors, Boyd and Will Quillin. A big bunch of us had gathered there for one of our usual musical parties.
After a lot of insisting from me and the rest of the musicians, (he kept saying that he couldn’t pick), Doc was persuaded to take the guitar and he picked and sang about a half-dozen songs, with me backing him with the banjo.
I will never forget the expressions on the faces of the crowd, (and especially the musicians looking on), as he was about the middle of the first song, “Coney Isle.” You talk about a display of raised eyebrows and staring eyes, with mouths half open, all set on Doc and the guitar. No doubt I looked even worse stunned than they did because I think that I even dropped out and forgot to pick the banjo at times. He also picked and sung “The Brownie Blues”, “My Dear Old Southern Home”, and one of Jimmy Rodger’s “Blue Yodels”.
When he had finished the 4th and last song, he handed the guitar back to its owner and requested a continuation of the music. If my memory serves me right, there was no response.
This was the beginning of mine and Doc’s musical career. I believe the next time we met was at Doc’s home place, in the month of May 1933, on a Saturday night. He had sent me word a few days ahead of time to come over on that particular Saturday night and bring my banjo. He said they were going to have a musical party, or a music making, I believe he called it.
My brother Kenneth and I saddled our dappled gray, half-percheron, work horses, old Frank and Bird, and started on the four-mile rough trail across the two ridges and valleys. At the halfway mark, across the first ridge and down into the valley, in the west end of Taylor town community, we stopped by Beacher Smith’s home place. He met us at the yard gate. He was headed for the party also. As we were approaching Beacher’s home, we noticed a black looking storm cloud rising from the west and coming in our direction.
I called Beacher’s attention to this bad looking thunder cloud and requested that we wait a few minutes to see if it was going to rain, before going any further. Beacher turned his head and looked back at the black cloud and said, “I declare, Carl, I don’t believe it’s going to rain here.” He repeated this statement at least three or four times, as I kept insisting that we wait there at his place until after the rain had passed.
I let him out talk me and against my better judgment, we started on toward Copper Creek Valley, about two miles away. Beacher was then and still is a good old time fiddler, but he taught me that night that he was a poor weather prophet.
By the time we had gone half a mile to the top of the next ridge, (where Joe Addington’s new home place is now) the hard part of this rainstorm overtook us. We tried to keep under the biggest trees as much as possible so they might shield us, but to no avail. The rain was coming down like pouring out of a tub. All of us enjoyed a genuine drenching, including my old banjo, even though I tried to protect it.
When we arrived at the Addington residence, about 9:00 p.m., we found a house full of neighbors and a host of musicians as well. The music was already going in full swing. I held my Supertone banjo over the globe of the old kerosene lamp. The calfskin head was soon dry enough to pick. I tuned up with the boys, and instantly the fiddler, Jimmy D. Cress,
took off on the old tune "Cackling Hen". Then, without a pause, he tore right into another old tune, “Cumberland Gap”. Those old tunes were favorites of Jimmy’s and he could do a job on them, as well as many others that was second to no one else. Jimmy D. was a brother-in-law to Beacher.
Mill Nickels, who lived just a hop and a jump across the field, was another old time fiddler, included in the crowd. He was an excellent, smooth, and a clear noting fiddler as you rarely ever hear, to say the least. He had a whole line of pretty waltz tunes that he played very beautifully, so as to almost make the hair stand on end.
The greatest thrill of all that I experienced at this particular gathering was the honor of seeing for the first time, the greatest country singer that this country ever had, in my opinion. She had the truest and most beautiful voice of all. The person that I am referring to is the great “Sara Carter”, of the famous Carter Family, who did all of the lead singing in the recordings and elsewhere.
After the three fiddlers had played about a couple of dozen tunes each, backed up by mine and Doc’s picking’, Doc’s oldest brother, Dewey, dug out his old five string banjo and rendered about a dozen of the old tunes in the old fashioned “hoe-down” way, which he is so noted for. He played such tunes as “John Henry”, “Cripple Creek”, “Sally Goodin”, “Sugar Hill”, etc.
Then Doc and I rattled off a few instrumentals with Doc in the lead on the guitar. Doc sang a couple, like “Coney Isle”, and the “Brownie Blues”. I tried singing possibly four or five of my favorite sad songs and tried to pick a couple or so, such as “Shortenin' Bread” and “The Spanish Fandango”.
By that time, it was getting near midnight and voices all over the house could be heard requesting Sara to sing. Doc handed her the guitar. Since I never had the pleasure of hearing her in person, but only on records, this was indeed a treat to me. It only took about a verse and the chorus of the first song of her singing to convince me that the old saying was true, in this case; she was the best there by ten country miles and was saved for the last.
Sara sang several of the beautiful old songs and hymns. I don’t recall all of them. To name a few, I do remember that she did sing the following: “The Last Roundup”, “Why There’s A Tear In My Eye”, “On A Hill Lone And Gray”, “When I take My Vacation In Heaven”, “One Step More”, “No Telephone In Heaven”, and “The Old Rugged Cross”.
I had never before heard these songs sung so beautifully and with such real true meaning, as their writers had intended them. I’m quite sure that this was another occasion on which I was caught with staring eyes and mouth half open. I was so carried away with her beautiful singing that I just forgot everything else.
Sara chose for her concluding number an old favorite sacred song that I thought was very fitting. Her choice was "Will The Circle Be Unbroken”. When she had finished the last chorus of this touching old song, the crowd began to rise, one by one, reaching for their hats and milling through the crowd to shake the kind hand of Doc’s mother, Mrs. Margaret Addington, and bid her good night and thanks for her allowing us to come into her good home on this occasion. Mrs. Addington was one of the kindest persons that I ever knew. She was as good to me as a mother. I felt perfectly welcome in her home. She was another good banjo picker, the old fashioned “hoe-down” style.
Now getting back to the breaking up of this musical party: It was then about 12:30 a. m., Sunday morning. After all well wishes and good nights were said, everyone was all soon making their way toward home on foot, through the fields and in the pathways. You could see the lights from the kerosene lanterns and flashlights going in several different directions.
In the meantime, Kenneth and I had already mounted our horses and were starting on the long narrow, rough trail across the ridges and valleys that would lead us back home. We were accompanied by Beacher and Jimmy D. Cress, walking along by our side. They said they would rather walk than ride.
Along the way, we were discussing back and forth the enjoyable time that we had just experienced with this group of wonderful mountain people. The sound of the good old mountain music, and the singing as well, was still ringing in our ears. We had thoroughly enjoyed all the music that had been produced in those short four hours.
At this time, we were passing by Beacher’s home and he and Jimmy D. left us for the night.
The thought also ran through my mind wondering if this would ever happen again, at the same place, and with the same people meeting back there together. I was just dreaming and hoping, of course. All of these pleasant memories seemed to help the time fly by. In no time at all, it seemed that Kenneth and I were riding up in the hallway of the old barn, at our old home place, in Big Moccasin Valley, at the foot of Clinch Mountain. It was then about a quarter until 3 o’clock, Sunday morning.
It turned out that this musical party at Mrs. Margaret Addington’s home place was only the beginning of many similar gatherings or so called jam sessions, which took place there in her home every week or so. However, sadly in response to the question asked in Sara’s concluding song, that particular night – yes, the circle was broken because all of this fine group of people never met together there again. There was always at least two or three absent in the gatherings thereafter.
This was just the first of these music parties. From that time on, people from all around that community started inviting us to come into their homes. We soon had more invitations and had made more promises than we could fulfill in a year’s time. At the rate of only one to two or three nights per week, we played all over the Copper Creek area in dozens of homes, all
the way up into Nickelsville, and on back into the Midway community. Also, extending back in the southern direction, through the ridges and valleys, reaching over into Big Moccasin Valley, my home community, where the majority of the sessions were performed.
In that locality, we had big crowds almost every time. As to be expected, there was a certain group of special friends and fans who followed us from house to house, from one locality to another. Whenever they got the word just where we were going to be, they would usually be there. Of course, this helped to stimulate us to a great extent.
The picking and singing that was appreciated most of all by everyone was that which was rendered by Sara Carter, who attended a lot of these music making parties along with us. When it came her turn to take over, you could almost hear a pin drop. This lull continued throughout the whole period of her performance. She always called on me to take my banjo and plunk along with her. Naturally, this made me feel more important than ever, since she was at that time considered the world’s foremost country music singer. Me, being the weak, corny banjo picker that I was, you can’t imagine just how much I appreciated her attitude and just how good it made me feel.
In addition to all of these musical parties, Doc and I were exchanging visits with each other. Every week or so, I would go over to his home and spend a couple of days, on the weekends. He, in turn, would do the same with me, getting about all of the picking and singing that we cared to do.
To go on with the story of these crazy, whirlwind music makings, I can’t afford not to tell you that another one of our meeting places was in Maces Springs, Va., at the home of Doc’s sister, Maybelle Carter, one of the original members of the famous Carter Family.
Continued on page two
All Rights Reserved
© R. C. McConnell
Mabel McConnell reminiscing about the Carter Family, Doc & Carl: The Original Virginia Boys and the early days of radio.
Check out Doc & Carl on the May/June 2007 cover of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine
The Pioneers of Flatpicking