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The Smyth County Jam History

The Smyth County Jam has a long and interesting history.  I will try to describe it as well as my memory will permit.

 As a teenager, I was learning how to play the guitar when Benita Smith, one of my school teachers, approached me to play the guitar for Judy Marshall to sing “Happiest Girl in the Whole USA” at a school function. She even let us go to my house during a school day to learn the song. This was the turning point for me; when it all started to make sense.   My love for music became an inferno from this initial spark.

Not long after this, Benita Smith and Betty Fawley, another one of my teachers, started the theatre that later became the Salt Kettle Theatre, the most successful and beneficial musical event to ever happen in our small town. The only problem was they needed a banjo player for one of their plays. Guess who they wanted to play the banjo? You guessed it.  I was told to go get a banjo and learn to play it by next Friday. Yeah, right!  I sold my electric guitar and bought a $99 banjo. The rest, as they say, is history.

 Along about this time, 32 years ago or so, a few of us would get together and jam in front of Griffin Motors in Saltville, Virginia. Randy Roberts, "Weets" Moore, Pete Barr, Charles Boardwine, and Tom Hagy would frequent this early jam. On cold nights, Garland Griffin, the owner, would invite us in to his warm office to play. We would do this almost every Friday & Saturday night that we didn’t have a Salt Kettle show. As time went own, we needed a place more out of the traffic and the weather, so we moved to the picnic shelter behind what was then a Piggly Wiggly store. We picked at the shelter for years and the number of musicians and listeners just kept growing. On Labor Day Weekends, I can remember counting over 200 people listening to our jam at one time. It was some of the most enjoyable times of my life. Due to impending responsibilities; jobs, car payments, families, etc., we started missing a Friday here and a Saturday there until we only got together on special occasions. We did try other jams from time-to-time in other places, but they just didn’t work out.

This was about the same time the Saltville Labor Day Celebration got kicked off. In the early days of the celebrations, some of us would help out and perform.  But as time went on, we were mostly replaced with “professional musicians.”  Don’t get me wrong.  It was a big deal to see some of our heroes who came to our little town to perform; especially since we got to see them for free. Also, during this time many of the local musicians had their own groups and were playing at the many fiddlers conventions that went on in the surrounding areas.  Music was everywhere.

I’ll have to tell a little side story to help clarify the rest of the story. During this time, I was also very busy fishing and exploring caves, etc. This story really does parallel the history of the Smyth County Jam very well. I met Ken Collins on one of these fishing excursions somewhere around 1978. He became my very best friend and we spent many days together on the rivers, in the mountains and at various music events. I think you can count the really true friends you have in a lifetime on the fingers of one hand. Well, Ken and his wife Sue took up two of my fingers.

Ken and I would go to the jam at Carson Cooper's music store in Marion every Monday night. This jam was organized by Larry Blevins, one of the best Bill Monroe style mandolin players on the planet. I had met Larry at the jam in Glade Spring and was invited to come to his jam at Marion. I learned more from Larry and the top-notch players at this jam than I could have learned in a lifetime otherwise. I will have to say that he and his brother Don have also become two of my dearest friends. I even played in their band The Virginia Mountain Boys for a short period of time. He kept this jam going for years, but it gradually came to a close due to the occurrence of many unforeseen events.

In 1994, Ken’s wife Sue passed away from a brief illness. In 1997, I noticed while fishing with Ken that he didn’t seem to be himself. He seemed distant at times and would get tired easily. The last time we went fishing was in Alvarado, and he had to stop and rest for about an hour before he could finish the trek back to the vehicle. I knew that something was wrong and I feared the diagnosis which turned out to be our worst fear, cancer.

At this time, I was playing with a band by the name of Common Ground. The other band members were Kim & Stan Dunham, Ray Lowery and John Casey. Ken was one of our biggest fans. He would attend every show possible. We were approached in 1997 to play at the Saltville Labor Day Celebration, but while attending the Labor Day committee meeting, it was made apparent that there was no money for us in the budget or room for us in the show. This came as a shock to us as we had our hearts set on getting to play on a big stage for Ken one last time. As we left the meeting, I remembered being worried about Ken and feeling like an outcast in my own community. Stan Dunham said it the best when he told them that we were being treated like the prophets from the Bible who were not welcome in their own land. My mind was racing. I felt like I had a direct connection to “Infinite Intelligence” if only for a moment. There must be something we could do.

I began to think of some of the great local musicians I knew, and the ones who had already passed on. This seemingly endless list of people included Ossie Roberts, L.W. Frye, Ed Delp, the Lowery Brothers (Bill, Sam, Doc, Paul), Olie Talbert, Ted Barrett, Sam Holmes, Mac Davidson, Hobart Smith, etc. The thoughts of these people kept dancing around in my head. What would the final outcome have been if someone had stood up for them and given them a place to be appreciated? Would Saltville now be the Music Capital? Who knows? All of these thoughts occurred within minutes of leaving that committee meeting. “Every adversity carries with it the seed of an equivalent benefit,” I’ve been told. Where is the benefit?

 Why don’t we have our own Labor Day show that highlights the local talent and their friends? It’s not like we would be doing anything different since we have been playing at the picnic shelter every Labor Day Weekend for years. So in the span of a few minutes, the Saltville Jam was born. This event took place on the Food Country parking lot.   It was packed.  I remember Ken being there sitting in the front row smiling when he could.  He was hurting so badly that he had to go home early Monday night.  Ken passed away in 1998 and I really miss him. The Saltville Jam has been and will always be dedicated to his memory.   The 2006 jam will be the 10th year of the Saltville Jam.  Where does the time go?

The Annual Saltville Jam has been held on the Saltville-Rich Valley Lions Club Carnival Grounds in Saltville since 1998. There is not enough space to tell this story, but I want to thank the Lions Club for standing up for us when we really needed it.

But what does this have to do with the Smyth County Jam? I’m getting to that. For years I have tried to figure out a way to recapture what we had at the picnic shelter years ago, but never could quite figure out how to go about it. Then one day, Jimmy Surber, one of my childhood friends who had been trying to learn to play the mandolin said that we needed to start a jam for beginners as well as seasoned pros, and he asked me to try to organize one. I gave it a lot of thought and figured since I wasn’t getting any younger, that I needed to get off my backside and proceed to make one of my dreams become a reality.

The first weekly Saltville Jam was held in 2002 at the Allison Gap Ruritan Club building which was my old Elementary School. It didn’t last very long due to the heating/cooling situation and the poor acoustics of the building. I began to look for a better facility.

Our next stop was the Saltville Rescue Squad Building. They welcomed us with open arms. We started in the garage in November of 2002. They would move the vehicles out into the parking lot so we would have room to pick. There were 14 musicians at the first jam who sat in a circle and took turns singing or picking. Within a couple of weeks, the Saltville Jam had grown to the point that we had to set up a sound system and a lot of chairs for the ever growing audience. Then in November of 2003 the Rescue Squad made a decision to move their weekly bingo night to Monday. We had grown to the point that I lived in fear that someone was going to damage some of the life-saving equipment at the Rescue Squad building. So rather than move our jam to a different night, I made a decision to try to find another location.

This time we ended up at the Holston River Coon Club building in downtown Saltville. This was far from the adequate facility we needed, but it would have to do. We had a lot of issues at this building. The main obstacle was not having any separate rooms to jam and tune up in. This building could possibly accommodate around 80-100 people comfortably. The last jam we had at the Coon Club was in August of 2004; there were over 150 people at that jam. Once again we had outgrown our facility. Yet, we hadn’t outgrown my vision. 

I had been approached several times to move the jam to the Allison Gap Ruritan Club – back to where we started. They had done some remodeling and had improved the heating/cooling situation. So, in September of 2004, the Saltville Jam kicked off its first show at our old stomping grounds.  The acoustics in these old school buildings are terrible. Yet, we endured.  We had to make do with a very inadequate PA system, poor lighting and only one jamming room off the side of the stage.  But, it was like being at the Grand Ole Opry after playing in the one room building at the Coon Club.

Three months after we started the jam at the Ruritan Club building, my wife Sandy was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Needless to say, after going through this with Ken, I was terrified. The next several months were scary to say the least, but I managed to make two trips every Monday to the building to help set up the chairs, adjust the PA system, check the heating and cooling etc. Sometimes I wouldn’t get home 'til 2-3 o’clock in the morning. Even while Sandy was going though chemo and radiation treatments, neither of us missed a jam. Then in April of 2005, I suffered sudden sensorineural hearing loss in my right ear. This left me with only about 20% of my low frequency hearing in that ear along with one of the worse cases of tinnitus (perceived noise in the ear) on record. According to the doctors, this hearing impairment will never improve. Still I never missed a Monday night jam. Sandy beat her cancer and is doing very well. She is as much responsible for the success of our jam as I am. You know that saying; "Behind every successful man…….."

The Saltville Jam was still growing as were the problems associated with an event of this magnitude. I did everything I could to address some of these issues, but as you can see, I had many issues of my own to deal with. I spent several days preparing an outline of the things that were required to move the jam to the next level. Being a chess player from a way back, I always try to think several levels deep. When it became apparent that the Ruritan Club didn’t share my vision, I had to make a leap of faith to do what was right for the musicians who had followed me on this adventure.  I chose once again to move the jam; but, this time, we had no place to go.  It truly was a leap of faith. This was in September of 2005.

We contemplated on trying to move the jam to the Palmer Mill, but was told that they couldn’t commit to letting us use the building one day per week. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the building could not accommodate the crowds we have now.

Let me say right here before anyone jumps to conclusions. I don’t have any hard feelings towards anyone involved in this saga.  Everything that has happened thus far seems to be some sort of destiny.  Remember: “Every adversity carries with it the seed of an equivalent benefit.”

Don’t think for a minute that Sandy and I did any of this by ourselves. We had a lot of help from a lot of people. Two who have stuck with us through thick and thin are Sherry Worley any Herman Barrett.  They deserve a lot of the credit for where we are today. We actually had two Monday jams at Sherry’s garage while we were in limbo.

Sherry called me one day and said that J.C. Sheppard wanted to know if we would be willing to move the jam to Chilhowie to the Lions Club Building. I gave J.C. a call and he put me in touch with Steve Eller and Hilda Schwartz. We worked out the details, and on October 10, 2005, we had the Saltville Jam in Chilhowie. Are you confused yet? This has turned out to be what looks like the Promised Land.

The Chilhowie Lions Club building is by far the best and cleanest facility with the best acoustics we've been in thus far. The location is excellent being between I-81 and Highway 11. The building will accommodate 200+ people and has several nice rooms for jamming and tuning. At times we have even had the basement full of pickers and listeners.  The Lions Club members have treated us like royalty. The people we have met and the friends we have made over these turbulent years was worth all the adversity.

Now the last thing to do was to come up with an appropriate name. Being that we had extended our reach, we decide that our new name would be the Smyth County Jam.

I want to thank everyone we have encountered along our journey for helping us make the Smyth County Jam what it is today.

If I have left anyone or any pertinent detail out of this brief history, it was not intentional.

Larry D. Hogston