In 1968, a southeast Tennessee man named Boxcar Pinion fell under the spell of that crazy hillbilly jazz we call bluegrass. For the last 25 years, his daughters and thousands of bluegrass pickers and fans have gathered annually to remember the spirit of the old bass player. Today, we invite you to spend three days up on Raccoon Mountain with writer Tony Rehagen, looking for that eternal twang.
Afternoon shadows stretch across the mountain campgrounds high above the Tennessee River, less than 10 miles west of Chattanooga, when Steve Maxwell emerges from his RV. His graying black hair is still matted down by last night’s ball cap, his mustache uncombed. He squints without his glasses. On the table against the brown and beige Toyota Dolphin, a grimy propane camping stove fires a skillet piled with salted country ham and diced potatoes. Half a dozen biscuits are browning in the toaster oven. Breakfast at 2 p.m. on a Thursday.
If this feast seems like a little much for one 66-year-old man and his girlfriend, Jean, it is. Jean cooks plenty for the campers in the neighboring lots and for any passersby who are feeling peckish after lunch or simply can’t muster the resolve to pass up a warm ham biscuit. And for those who linger for more than a minute beneath the Dolphin’s makeshift tarp awning, Steve will climb inside and return with a Ball jar and a grin that is short one tooth.
“Smoothest you’ll ever taste,” he says.
Maxwell takes a pull to help jump-start the day. He was up until dawn lugging his bass fiddle from camp to camp, joining in to play and sing bluegrass around the fire. He’s known some of the musicians for decades; others he met just last night. But it’s hard to find a stranger at the Boxcar Pinion Memorial Bluegrass Festival, where every corner of Raccoon Mountain echoes with the same string-and-descant music and every camper and truck — with license plates from Tennessee to Missouri to California — is plastered with the same white sticker reading Forever Bluegrass beside the silhouette of a man, peacock feather in his hat, leaning on a bass fiddle.
The sticker on the Dolphin’s rear bumper is practically worn into the chrome. Maxwell first met Boxcar playing the dance halls and fiddler conventions in and around Chattanooga in the late 1960s. Twenty-five years Maxwell’s elder, Boxcar was something of a role model, who loved his cold cans of Pabst almost as much as slapping his pawn-shop bass, “Ole Yeller.” To know Boxcar was to know his three daughters — Inez, Ruth and Cindy — who, even as grade-schoolers, tagged along to every show. Maxwell was especially fond of Cindy.
“She had that long curly blond hair and she was always dancing and grinning at us,” says Maxwell. “I’d say she was flirting, but she wasn’t quite old enough to flirt.”
Just about everyone on this mountain has a Cindy Pinion story. Maxwell has several, but his most mythologized is set in the late 1990s, after Boxcar had died: Maxwell was leaving a late-night picking session at Inez’s house in Flintstone, Ga., down in the valley below Lookout Mountain. Maxwell had left his instrument case at home, so he set his 1950 Kay bass in the back of his pickup and headed home. After turning off of gravel onto the main road, he hit a bump, and caught air. He heard a crash like an empty piano crate being dropped from four stories up, and looked in the rearview to see shards of his bass fiddle scatter across the pavement in the red brake-light glow. He got out to find his precious Kay in dozens of pieces. Disgusted, he threw a couple of the larger chunks in the truck bed and drove off, abandoning the rest.
Once Maxwell got home, he was paralyzed with anger. But his girlfriend at the time called the Pinions. Cindy and Inez grabbed flashlights and trudged through clay mud up to their ankles as they scoured the roadside and gathered every splinter of the old bass. They collected the pieces Maxwell had picked up and shipped a box full of kindling to an Atlanta craftsman.
“That’s just bluegrass people,” Maxwell says today. “That kindness is just such a pervasive thing … you don’t think about it it’s so common.”
Maxwell tosses a paper plate of biscuit crumbs into the trash and climbs back into the Dolphin. He returns with the 1950 plywood Kay bass fiddle, intact, standing strong, a good foot taller and a few inches wider than its owner — and with a worn finish and a few chips in the varnish, in just as good a shape.
A cool summer breeze sweeps across the grounds, carrying the cries of a mandolin and the pings of a banjo from a nearby campsite. Maxwell puts on his ratty brown Boxcar Festival ball cap, cradles the old Kay, and sets off to find the source.
A bluegrass festival is really two separate events. There’s the campgrounds, where pickers like Maxwell play pickup sessions until first light and sleep until noon. Then there’s the actual concert, where polished professional acts perform from a stage. The $85 three-day pass buys you admission to both, though many choose to do only one or the other. If Boxcar were here, they say, he’d never leave camp. If his youngest daughter had a choice, neither would she.
Instead, Cindy, The Head Pinion In Charge, is more or less confined to the stage area, set in a clearing a few hundred yards up the mountain from Maxwell’s camper. There, in a sleeveless white Boxcar T-shirt, denim vest and cutoffs, she buck-dances her way between the canopied stage where she emcees, the backstage area and clubhouse where she directs the bands, the concession stand and other booths where she makes sure the cooks and craft vendors and snow-cone makers have what they need, and the giant, open tent over the audience where she enforces the basic rules of the house. Plastic cups, no bottles. No littering. No smoking under the tent. And for God’s sake, no disrupting the show.
With a mane of white-blond curls, a homespun drawl and electric red lips (one of her daddy’s sayings was “Another coat of paint never hurt the old barn”), the 56-year-old is mostly smiles, hugs and sunshine. Just don’t incur the dreaded Cindy Pinion Finger Wag. For instance, when a car alarm sounds off in the middle of a set and Cindy pulls the wireless mic from her back pocket and brandishes that painted fingernail: “This is a bluegrass festival — you don’t need an alarm. Besides, for this song, your horn should be tuned to C.”
Cindy has also taken it upon herself to uphold another set of rules, a code unwritten yet far more sacred. For example, when one band comes out and plugs in an electric acoustic guitar, anyone within earshot will hear Cindy say: “That ain’t grass!”
Cindy Pinion’s Hard-ass Bluegrass Rule No. 1: No electric instruments. True bluegrass is completely acoustic. Especially the bass — Lord help you if you try to plug in a bass.
Or when a band plays a bluegrass rendition of a pop song: “That ain’t grass!”
Cindy Pinion’s Hard-ass Bluegrass Rule No. 2: Bluegrass covers are fine. The standards are expected and appreciated. But don’t turn bluegrass into a novelty. There’s a place for Britney Spears and Snoop Dogg — and we’ll send you there if we don’t hear some Bill Monroe in five seconds.
When she needs a rest, Cindy grabs a lawn chair she pulled from a dumpster while cleaning houses — her day job — and mans the Boxcar Booth, set up on a hill overlooking the stage. Behind the card table, beneath the white party tent, Boxcar’s blonde Kay bass, “Ole Yeller,” stands bungee-strapped to a handcart. The man-sized fiddle is held together at the edges by duct tape, but the mother-of-pearl inlay of “BOXCAR” on the fretboard still gleams. From here, Cindy sells T-shirts and cups commemorating the 25th Boxcar Festival and featuring her father’s silhouette. She also hands out the matching Forever Bluegrass bumper stickers out of a baby-blue suitcase. And on the table beside the merchandise sits a stack of old photo albums pulled straight from the living room shelves. It’s a multi-volume flipbook biography of a man with a cigarette and a can of Pabst aging from black-and-white into fading Kodachrome.
In these old self-adhesive albums, anyone is welcome to see the story of this festival, this family and, in a way, the story of bluegrass itself.
Thomas “Boxcar” Pinion got his name as a tough-to-tackle high school running back. Growing up in the mountains near the border of Tennessee and Georgia, he taught himself to play guitar when he was a boy. He even toted a beat-up Shepherd Special six-string across Europe during World War II. When he came home, he married his grade-school sweetheart, Frances, set to work as a welder, and played in a country band at weekend square dances.
One weekend in 1968, the Pinions attended a fiddler’s festival in Henagar, Ala., where 45-year-old Boxcar saw his first bluegrass band. Despite its rustic, rootsy sound, bluegrass had been around for only about 30 years at that time — and it was still very much of its time and place in Appalachia. Its bedrock was the mandolin- and fiddle-based folk songs of Scottish and Irish Appalachian settlers. When the railroad came through the mountains, the influence of the black laborers added the banjo, an African instrument, and shifted the music to the backbeat. Add in the harmonies and call-and-response of the Baptist Church, the thumb-picking guitar and down-home lyrics of Depression-era old-time and country music, the improvisation of jazz. Speed it up like a moonshine runner’s car, and you have something that speaks directly to a mountain boy’s soul. Boxcar was particularly enamored of the bass, the backbone of the band. He went out and bought Ole Yeller for $35 at a local pawnshop.
Boxcar’s band, Tom and Newell and the Grasscutters, was a regular billing at concerts, dances and festivals throughout the region. With Inez, Ruthie and Cindy, gigs became the weekly family vacation. And everywhere he played, the family collected a caravan of new friends who shared a passion for this music. The Pinions hosted a weekly picking session in their Chattanooga Valley shanty. Whenever a band was touring through southern Tennessee, be it a national act like Bobby Osborne or an unknown group just starting out, they had an open invitation to stop over, fill up on Frances’s home-cooked hospitality, and play into the early morning. And in the event that anyone in the community fell ill or on hard times, Boxcar was ready with Ole Yeller and a set list for a benefit dance.
So when Boxcar was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 1988, the bluegrass community he helped build threw him a benefit to raise money for treatment. Several thousand showed up to throw cash in the hat and pick and dance through the night. Boxcar fought for more than a year, his daughters literally carrying him to and from the car at bluegrass festivals, before he died in July 1990.
The following spring, the family decided to carry on the tradition of the benefit and hold the inaugural Boxcar Pinion Memorial Bluegrass Festival — a portion of the proceeds going to the American Cancer Society. In 25 years, attendance has steadily grown. Whereas a couple hundred people showed up to the first festival, today it takes more than a hundred volunteers to facilitate several thousand patrons. That’s due largely to the fact that Boxcar’s daughters have picked up their father’s role as bluegrass ambassadors.
Cindy in particular organizes weekly picking sessions and promotes local acts. Bands from all over the country know they can pull their bus or trailer into Cindy’s driveway, at that same valley shanty where she was born, on their way through Chattanooga. She will cook them a meal, give them a bed, and with a little notice even find them a show in town. She’s seen pictures of her Forever Bluegrass sticker delivering its message in Africa and Europe. She’s heard stories of motorists broken down on the side of the road being helped by strangers who stopped only because they spotted Boxcar’s silhouette on their bumper.
“Daddy loved the music,” Cindy says. “But more than that, he loved the friends that it brought him.”
Like most RV parks, Raccoon Mountain’s campsites are laid out along long gravel drives that branch off from either side of the main drag, forming a sort of ribcage. Since so many of the Boxcar Festival campers are perennial, staking claim to the same sites year after year, each rib has become a community. Most have come to be known by nicknames corresponding to the campers’ predominant states of origin — North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi — complete with flags at mast. An exception is the twisted, dislocated rib at the northeast corner of the cage, where Maxwell camps.
While it is populated mostly by Maxwell’s fellow Tennesseans and North Georgians, locals call it The Swamp. Some say this is because when it rains, the down-mountain grounds turn into a soggy mess. Others contend it has nothing to do with the weather.
A few sites downhill from Maxwell’s Dolphin, a fire blazes from a ring of stones, trying to fend off the approaching dark and chill. Maxwell has posted up with his bass at the southeastern corner of a camouflage tarp extending from a squat pop-up camper. Seated in front of him are two stout men with gray beards, brothers, one plucking a banjo with thick-but-agile fingers, the other dwarfing a mandolin. An acoustic guitar and a Dobro buzz on the periphery as Maxwell sings a nasal “Big Spike Hammer” over the ensemble.
Can’t you hear the whistle of my big spike hammer?
Lord, it’s busting my side
I’ve done all I can do to keep that woman happy
Still she’s not satisfied…
On the table behind the musicians, listeners are welcome to a crockpot of homemade chicken gumbo and a steamed pot of white rice. There’s salt, pepper, hot sauce and a short, sealed Mason jar filled with a grainy, gray substance. The latter, it turns out, is not for consumption.
“That’s Donnie,” explains Amy Bates, maker of the gumbo and owner of the camper.
Donnie McRae was a 500-pound mandolin player who had dated Bates’ mother for a time decades ago. McRae had met Boxcar at a bluegrass festival long prior and was a regular at the Pinion house for pickin’. Even after McRae and Bates’ mother broke up, he was an immovable fixture at the Bates camper for the duration of this festival. McRae was a jovial man with a high tenor, who’d sing “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” as a gag. But his real song, the one everyone begged of him, was the rollicking Osborne Brothers tune “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?”
“He’d almost refuse to do it,” says Bates’s husband, Robin. “He’d do it later in the night, on his own terms.”
There was a darker side to Donnie McRae, an addiction to crack that often put him at odds with family, friends and the law and would pull him away from his music for stretches of time. Cindy personally bought his mandolin out of hock several times. But he’d always come back to bluegrass, and it was bluegrass, the community built around the Pinions, that finally pulled him out of that rut for good about 10 years ago.
But six years later, McRae was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Body withered to what Amy describes as “bones” (but still some 300 pounds), McRae would insist on coming out to the Boxcar Festival and trying to play. In 2013, he became nauseous and had to be driven home. He died on New Year’s Day 2014. He was cremated. None of McRae’s scattered relations would take responsibility for his ashes, so the Bateses claimed them and spread most of them over Lake Hiwassee in North Carolina, where McRae liked to fish for trout.
“We kept a little,” says Amy Bates, and his jar now sits on the piano in Robin’s picking room — except when she takes it on a little field trip to Raccoon Mountain every May. “He always had a twisted sense of humor. He’d think it was funny.” Amy Bates says she can still picture McRae sitting beneath the camouflage tarp, in the corner right where Maxwell and his bass now prop each other up.
A blanket of gray clouds has hastened the fall of night, but the party is just starting as more and more onlookers approach the pop-up camper, answering the music’s call. Someone wisely moves McRae’s ashes from his place in the chow line to a table set up beneath a neighboring poplar, closer to the warmth of the campfire, where Donnie can listen to that mandolin wail until daybreak.
Nine a.m. on the Friday of a bluegrass festival is one of the loneliest places on Earth. The show doesn’t start for another three hours. The sun is bright, the birds and squirrels are awake, and the mountain wind rustles the limbs and leaves. The only traces of human activity in The Swamp are a few half-filled beer bottles left leaning in the dirt around fire pits that still smolder.
One of the first to rise is Jay Rohrer. Two spots from Maxwell’s silent Dolphin, Rohrer slips down the steps of his Passport Ultra Lite Elite RV, across the “Welcome” mat and into the morning. A friendly but reserved retiree from just outside St. Louis, Mo., Rohrer sings a bit and plays harmonica, but he isn’t one to pick and howl too late into the Tennessee night. In fact, his own musical tastes skew a little more country, like Gene Autry and the old cowboy songs of his youth. His wife, Linda, still asleep in the RV, is the one who introduced him to the world of bluegrass.
When she was in her 20s, Linda and a group of girlfriends would frequent festivals throughout Missouri. Marriage, family and a career as a research biologist and teacher pulled her away from that life for decades. Then seven years ago, Linda was diagnosed with colon cancer that spread to her liver and her lungs. After a couple years of treatment, Linda decided to take a break from chemotherapy. She told Jay that she wanted to see a good bluegrass festival again, and she had found one online whose proceeds went toward cancer research. Linda called Cindy.
“Cindy told her: ‘We’ve got two spots,’” Jay says. “‘One is quiet. The other one is a little rowdy. You might see a beer. Might hear some cussin’. There might be some pickin’ late into the night.’”
Without hesitation, Linda chose The Swamp.
“Cindy just said, ‘You get to Chattanooga, and we’ll get you here.’”
Jay and Linda Rohrer
Three years ago, the Rohrers piled into their Passport and trekked eight hours from Missouri. The morning after they arrived, Cindy was knocking on the RV door in the rain with a basket of eggs from her own brood of hens.
“We stayed up until 4 or 5 for Wednesday-night picking and the next morning everyone was coming up and asking ‘How are you doing?’” Jay says. “I was like ‘Who in the hell are you people?’” Last year they came a week early, at Cindy’s insistence, and camped at Cindy’s house. Linda ended up staying with Cindy a week after the festival, too.
Jay says they almost didn’t make it this year. Linda called three times to cancel their reservation. Cindy refused each time. Still, they need to head straight back to Missouri for a Tuesday chemo appointment. Linda was pretty sick on the way down, but got a second wind when they crossed into Chattanooga. Looking back at the RV, Jay hopes it lasts.
The only element of a bluegrass festival as prevalent as picking is drinking. At least one full-sized cooler of canned beer or bottled homebrew sits in front of each truck or RV, and there’s a red Solo cup or Koozie in almost every camper’s hand. You don’t have to turn too quickly to catch an unlabeled jar or jug being whisked from the back of a van or a flask from a back pocket.
Now, a little imbibing doesn’t separate this scene from any other booze-sodden gathering of human beings. The difference is that despite all the drunkenness, there is hardly any disorder. Sure there was the one incident years ago when a tipsy girlfriend got jealous and tried to drive her car through her boyfriend’s tent (he has since broken up with the girl and now sleeps with his car parked in front of his tent, just in case). But by and large, there is no fighting. No shouting. No vandalism — at least not what you’d expect if you herded together thousands of drunken revelers. If anything, the alcohol seems to bring out more awkward hugs, sillier dancing and sloppier I-love-yous between strangers. When a car in the lot won’t start, nearly a dozen different people stumble forth, each with a set of jumper cables. It’s as if bluegrass mixes with the booze (and a few other substances) to create a mellow buzz that permeates the mountainside.
Up at the stage area, a man with a stuffed toy opossum on his shoulder and a cup of Yuengling in his hand spreads the courtesy of camp to the concert goers, passing out his smoked chicken livers wrapped in bacon from the driver’s seat of a golf cart. Riding alone in the back, a woman in her 70s wears sunglasses despite the waning daylight. A little unbalanced, she struggles to brace herself with the golf cart’s sudden stops. Once steadied, she pulls a silver cell phone from a holster on her belt.
“It’s for you,” she says. Then she unscrews the top phone’s faux antenna and offers a swig of Everclear mixed with spiced rum and apple cider.
Meet the aforementioned Linda Rohrer.
While husband Jay naps back at the camper, Linda is still riding high, blonde wig slightly askew, a broad smile plastered to her face. As night falls, Linda is heading back to camp to catch some picking. She’ll be up all night, watching.
“I can’t sing, and I play a mean stereo,” she says. “But I can’t sit around thinking I’m going to die tomorrow.”
Saturday nights are usually Linda’s night to “howl” at the festival. But with the fellowship, the music and the grain alcohol fending off the pain and nausea, she’s not going to waste a minute of freedom. She tells the driver to make for camp as she lifts her phone/flask to her ear.
“C’mon, Jay, honey,” she says. “Wake up from your nap. It’s time to play.”
Whether it’s the hickory-tinged smoke billowing from a nearby smoke box and the promise of brisket or the mere fact that a crowd tends to attract a crowd, a congregation of a few dozen musicians and listeners is piling up beneath the party lights strung up at the mouth of The Swamp. At the center of the ruckus, there are three guitars, three banjos, a Dobro and Maxwell’s bass, picking out a rendition of Bascom Lamar Lunsford and Scotty Wiseman’s classic “Good Old Mountain Dew.”
Having finally torn herself away from the now-silent main stage, Cindy looks on, blonde spirals bobbing as she buck-dances beside her golf cart. As the banjos trade solos, an older woman with glasses and a mouthful of teeth dances into the circle, metal finger picks rubbing a washboard that is strapped like armor to her chest. Her tempo is lagging badly, but it’s the fact that she’s even trying that makes Cindy grit her teeth.
“That. Ain’t. ’Grass,” says Cindy, mostly to herself.
Cindy Pinion’s Hard-ass Bluegrass Rule No. 3: No drums. No percussion. The thump of the bass fiddle should be enough to keep time and get your foot tapping.
Cindy isn’t long for this scene anyway. She merely stopped by to collect her cousin, Kathleen. “I’m going up to Alabama,” Cindy shouts from behind the wheel of her golf cart. She slaps the vinyl passenger’s seat. “Hop on!”
Kathleen and Cindy are cousins in the sense that they’re almost positively pretty sure they are connected somewhere down a common family tree. That notion is based almost exclusively on the faded memories of a Pinion family road trip to California 51 years ago to visit Kathleen’s family. Cindy and Kathleen were both just girls. And that was the last time the two had seen or even spoken to each other until yesterday.
Kathleen grew up to become a nurse, first in California, then in Alaska where she lived with her husband for 24 years. The couple recently moved to Kentucky to be nearer … well … everything.
“California was sort of phony,” says Kathleen, now in her early 60s. “And Alaska? No one we lived around was really from there.” Not long after landing in the South, Kathleen Googled her long lost relative, found the Festival’s website, and pulled Cindy’s home phone number from a picture of the Forever Bluegrass sticker.
“Here, we’re still disjointed,” says Kathleen. “But Cindy has embraced us. I haven’t seen her in 50 years and she’s treating me like it was yesterday. And I have a feeling she would be doing this whether we were blood or not.”
The Alabama camp is just up the mountain from The Swamp. The site is demarked less by Alabama license plates or state flags than by black-and-white houndstooth and the script “A” logo of the Crimson Tide. On flags. On campers. Hats, shirts and jackets. Beanbag boards. Even on the hoods of their golf carts. But when Cindy pulls up and starts doling out the hugs and hi, sugars in her sweet Tennessee mountain drawl, she might as well be Bear Bryant.
Meanwhile, Kathleen seems a bit bewildered by the welcome — particularly when a man with a gray beard offers her a drink from a jar of homemade apple pie.
“I’ve never had moonshine,” she says.
“It’ll make you write bad checks if you drink too much,” he says.
She takes a small sip, and looks up at the man, surprised. “It doesn’t burn.”
“It’s been cut to 40 percent,” he says.
She takes a bigger gulp.
“It’s so good,” she says.
“That’s what she says tonight,” says a bystander.
“Now watch yourself,” says Cindy, dancing her way to the rescue. “You keep taking sips, I’m with you. But you start taking swallers, I’m not responsible.”
Cindy gently grabs Kathleen’s elbow and, leads her back toward the bonfire, dancing all the way. The five-piece playing under the lit canopy of a full-sized RV is a professional band, the Hamilton County Ramblers, slated to hit the main stage tomorrow afternoon. But as night wanes into early morning, they are sawing on their instruments as if the sun will never rise. Whether the moonshine is helping or hindering, Kathleen searches for the beat as Cindy tries to teach her buck-dancing on the fly. Regardless, the reconnected cousins smile and laugh and kick clouds of dust into the fire.
Jay Rohrer climbs down the stairs of his Passport RV and plops down in a deck chair shaded by the camper’s awning. He pulls out a bag of celery, a late morning snack, and crunches down on a stalk. The man looks less than thrilled.
His chagrin is that much more pronounced when, minutes later, Linda wanders over from a neighboring site with a mouthful of chocolate chip cookie, and a half-dozen more of the sweets in her fist. She drops gingerly into the second chair beside her husband’s.
“Cookies?” Jay says.
Linda just looks at her husband. A goofy, crumb-specked grin spreads across her face.
“You didn’t bring me any?”
Grinning. Chewing. Silence.
Jay leans forward.
“Did you eat one of those brownies?!”
Still smiling, Linda starts a chuckle muffled by her stuffed mouth. Jay starts laughing, too.
Unfortunately, the “high” doesn’t last. By early afternoon, Linda is back resting in the RV, trying to rally herself for the evening.
Meanwhile back up at the stage area, there is a rare sight at the Boxcar Booth: the three Pinion sisters — Inez, Ruth, and Cindy — standing in the same vicinity during the festival.
As with any family, there is friction, and that tension is only intensified by the stress of organizing an event like this every year for a quarter century. In the beginning, Frances was around to lead the charge. The Pinion matriarch single-handedly cooked 20 pounds of pulled pork and baked 800 pieces of cornbread to serve guests at the inaugural festival. Her role diminished with the years, and she died in 2007. Since then, the sisters have more than managed to keep the show rolling — and to be relatively civil to one another in so doing.
The sibling strain runs especially deep for Cindy. At one point, it almost drove her away from bluegrass altogether. Inez, the oldest, was always the athletic one. Ruthie, the middle child, was the smart one. Both were beautiful with long, straight hair. Both took right after their daddy and started pickin’ guitars and basses and singing bluegrass at an early age. Cindy was the misfit. She couldn’t even make the cheerleading team. She had curly hair when it wasn’t cool. Boxcar bought her a mandolin, but she didn’t have the patience to learn how to play.
Tired of being known as “Inez’s and Ruthie’s sister,” the teenage Cindy started skipping the weekend family bluegrass outings. She’d stay with a friend, smoke, and listen to rock and roll. She was always close to her parents, and she’d still show up to many of the bluegrass shows and festivals, but she stayed on periphery.
Then her daddy got the cancer diagnosis. Cindy saw the incredible outpouring of love and help from the bluegrass family that her father had built. The phone calls. The hugs. All the people who played and volunteered and came to the benefit. She suddenly realized that, through Boxcar, she was part of this family.
For the remaining months of Boxcar’s life, Cindy helped her mother and sisters drive him to every concert and festival they could find. When he could no longer walk, they carried him in and out of the camper. When he could no longer swallow, they kept a cigarette on his lips, lighting one from another. Cindy began to see firsthand what the music and community really meant to him.
After Boxcar died, Cindy was restless. She just kept driving her camper to festivals in North Carolina and Alabama to stay connected to the music, to stay connected to her father.
As years passed, and the Boxcar Festival grew and took on a life of its own, Inez and Ruthie were still the ones playing onstage. But Cindy emerged as the emcee, the mouthpiece. The new matriarch. Now other festivals ask her to help with organization and promotion. She still can’t play a lick. She doesn’t sing much but to herself. But through bluegrass, Cindy found her voice.
It’s late afternoon when Cindy spots a woman with long, gray hair and, without a word, rushes out from behind the Boxcar booth to offer her a hug.
Cindy first met Laura Chumley and her husband, Phillip, a mandolin player, when the couple drove up from Georgia to attend their first Boxcar Festival nine years ago. They’d been back every year since. Cindy only saw them every May, but she chatted with Laura and followed them both on Facebook throughout the year. Two weeks ago, Cindy saw a post from Laura that Phillip had died suddenly from a blood clot after routine knee surgery. It’s been one week since the funeral, but Laura had decided to come anyway.
“It’s been tough,” she tells Cindy. “But he was looking forward to this.”
Laura sits down in the lawn chair she’s set up among the ranks of others under the big tent. The harmonies and strings she and her husband loved wash over her. It’s too much.
Before the band even finishes the set, Laura folds up her chair and loads it into her orange Subaru Outback. She makes for the gate without saying goodbye.
It’s past 11 p.m., and the waxing moon is bright and almost full in the clear Tennessee sky above the stage area. The last band of the festival maintains a hot tempo to fend of the night chill that has crept over the mountain. Many of the spectators, young and old, still in shorts, skirts and T-shirts, rise from their lawn chairs and picnic blankets to dance off the cold.
Cindy looks on from her perch atop the bare table of the closed Boxcar Booth. She’s warmed by gray jeans, bright red cowboy boots and a black denim jacket with brown leather fringe running up and down the sleeves. She starts singing along to the music as Inez walks up, and the older sister leans in with the high harmony. Cindy’s eyes glaze over, just short of tears that might ruin her makeup. She says she always cries three times. Once before the festival. Once during. Once after. This is a bittersweet moment. The culmination of months of planning and hard work. Three days of running like a mother hen. The passing of another year — more than a quarter of a century since her Daddy left. In a few hours, she’ll say goodbye to more than 2,000 friends. Bluegrass kin. Many, she won’t see until next year. Some, she may never see again.
Inez interrupts the moment as she points out that the band’s mandolin player has now strapped on what looks like a miniature, four-string Fender Telecaster. It’s electric.
“What is it?” asks Inez.
“It ain’t ’grass!” says Cindy.
Cindy looks to her husband, James, sitting beside her.
“We’ve got to get to drinking,” she says. “I’ve gotta party. I’m behind.”
James hands her a cup of beer. Cindy takes a drink and climbs down, starts buck-dancing through the crowd on her way to the stage. Blonde hair bobbing, fringe dangling, she dances up and down the aisles, shaking hands, hugging, kissing, thanking everyone for coming out and pulling some out of their seats to join the fray. By the time she’s kicking up dust in front of the stage, the band is finishing their set. She pulls the mic from her pocket.
“Let’s hear it, y’all!” she says. But when one of the musicians walks offstage, she interrupts the ovation over the PA. “C’mon back out here, banjo player. You ain’t done. I ain’t paid you yet!”
After the second encore, Cindy releases the band and the crowd.
“Y’all be safe walking to camp,” she says. “’Cause I know y’all are staying with me tonight.”
Many do. As the herd meanders downhill, they can see fires and strings of party lights from Alabama, North Carolina and The Swamp. Shadows dancing in the timber. A brisk, whirling wind brings that cacophony of banjo and mandolin. Then the thump of bass. The jangle of guitar and Dobro. Harmonized voices echoing through the hills. A dozen different groups, old friends and new friends, playing a dozen different tunes.
One great mountain song.