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The Carter Family Fold: Nurturing the Legacy of Virginia's Country Music



Any big country music fan knows about the Carter Family, and any Virginian knows these musical pioneers were – and still are, at least in spirit – a big part of regional Appalachian culture.

The region influenced the recordings and performances of this "first family" of country and bluegrass, and today, the family's legacy continues to shape the music scene of Virginia. It's a synergy that began many years ago when Alvin Pleasant "A.P." Carter, Sara Carter and Maybelle Carter first took to the stage in the 1920s.


Today, the music and vibe of that past are kept alive through the work of The Carter Family Fold, a nonprofit charity and music venue that strives to maintain what the Carters built back in the early days. A place where Johnny Cash made his last two public appearances – seeing as the Carters were kin by marriage – the Fold has gained a reputation as one of the prime stages in the business. The Carter Family Fold was founded by the late Janette Carter, daughter of A.P. Carter. Today, it's headed up by Janette's daughter, Rita Forrester.


"We are focused on history," Forrester said. "We want to preserve the history of the music."

She explained how the family and the state of Virginia were – and still are – intertwined.

"It [Virginia] permeates all of their music," Forrester said. The mountains are always there, always present as an influence. "No matter how far they traveled or where they went, Virginia was always home. We were set up to promote and present the music of the mountains, as the Carter Family sang it."


The Carter Family Fold keeps things the way Forrester's grandfather – and the other band members – would have wanted it.


"It's a no-alcohol and no-drugs venue," Forrester said, adding that the venue is – in words that would have been used often in the Carter Family – "morally good."


Just as her family would have done in the past, the venue offers free admission to those who are mentally and physically challenged.


Most shows – Saturdays featuring the mid-level country and bluegrass acts that Forrester calls the venue's "bread and butter" – have a low admission fee of $10. Occasionally, there are also special performances featuring big-name acts. The ticket prices are a bit higher for those events, but still quite affordable and in alignment with the status of the performer.


Forrester said the venue has a packed schedule of special concerts coming during spring and summer. In addition to the regular Saturday shows, tickets are on sale now for special performances such as Appalachia Rising, Featuring Volume Five and Lonesome River Band (April 27) and Del McCoury (June 21), with more big names soon to be added to the spring and summer roster (see the Facebook page for updates or visit the website at Carterfamilyfold.org).

Forrester said the 50th year of the Fold's festival – happening August 3 – will offer "extra" for 2024.


"The festival is the most special of anything we do all year," she explained. For the 50th, she said the acts will be bigger than usual. The nonprofit has a ton of support from "all the major players," including the State of Virginia, Virginia Tourism, and more.


"Every penny is used to do what we are supposed to do," she said. As the leader of the Fold, Forrester is a volunteer. It's not about profit. She said anyone who wants to help can make a tax-deductible donation or become a volunteer. She said it's best if those helping out are local, but there are some out-of-towners, as well. Right now, the volunteer list is a whopping 50 to 100 names long…which shows people's love for this chapter of music history.


As Forrester describes it, the Fold feels like family. Like a family with deep roots. It's there, even in the hot dog chili.


"The chili recipe came from 90 years ago," Forrester said. It came from an old-time drug store in Bristol that her mother used to shop at and has stayed in the family ever since. It's served on hot dogs sold at events, along with nachos and homemade baked cakes.

"They won't go hungry at the Fold," she said.


As a final anecdote of how the family has influenced listeners and performers across the world, Forrester shared the story of an outfit called Robirohi, who will appear at the venue on May 11. Hailing from the northern European country of Estonia, they appeared several years ago as part of their travels with a mission group. They were connected to the Fold via a local physician who's part of the family's social circles.


"They performed three songs in English and three in Estonian," she said, adding that many people worldwide know her family's music. "If that doesn't tell you how the music of the Carter Family has traveled across the world, then what could?" Forrester asked. While she said most of the bands appearing onstage somehow "have ties to us," the fans come from far and wide.


"People make pilgrimages here from all over the world…to see where the music began."

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