It’s taken local photographer Susi Lawson nearly a decade, but she has finally finished her book, a beautifully photographed tribute to mountain music and the men and women who create it. Inside the pages, musicians talk about their passion for the melodies that echo through the hills and valleys they call home.
The seed for Lawson’s book, “Singing at the Clothesline: Our Music, Our Mountains, Our Memories,” was planted in 2010, when she saw a poster advertising a Song of the Mountains concert by legendary musician and guitarist Doc Watson at the Lincoln Theatre in Marion.
“I saw the poster of him, and it lit something in me,” she said.
She asked Tim White, another musician profiled in the book and host of Song of the Mountains, if she could photograph Watson.
“He said sure, and told me to come in the side door,” Lawson said. “Afterward, he asked me now that I had the photo, what was I going to do with it? I said, ‘Maybe I’ll write a book.’”
And she did.
Inside the book’s 222 pages, are interviews with more than 50 artists, including Wythe County musicians Jim Lloyd, Leigh Beamer, Ron Ireland and Sam Gleaves. The group Cane Mill Road, of which Rocky Gap guitarist Casey Lewis is a member, is profiled in the book as well.
“I started taking photos in 2010; the interviews started in 2012,” Lawson said. “Jim Lloyd was my first interview. The last was Donnie Dobro (Scott), a dobro player from Mt. Airy.”
Lawson met most of the musicians on the front porch of the Tom Wassum home in Wythe County.
“I called it lets-get-together-and-have-a-conversation, and I recorded it on an iPad,” she said. “It’s a 200-year-old house. There’s something about that porch that helped people open up, with trains passing by, lightning bugs and honeysuckle. They would start talking about their lives because of the sentimental quality of it.”
The home and its clothesline are featured on the cover of the book.
“For five years, I was blessed with the magic of this place that is frozen in time and conjures up my own memories of Grandma singing at the clothesline and wiping her brown with her faded flower apron,” Lawson wrote in the book. “I do believe that the atmosphere of the farm and the spirit of Aunt Virginia (the home’s original owner) created a perfect blend of memory and trust, which aided in the natural flow of all the conversations we had there! There is nothing like a real place to bring out real memories in a person.”
After the interviews, Lawson transcribed the conversations – in longhand.
“I don’t know how to type, for one thing,” she said, adding that she filled six composition books with the interviews. Then, she typed up the interviews using a hunt-and-peck method she made her own.
Next, Lawson taught herself InDesign desktop publishing software. A night owl, she worked through the night learning about the software from YouTube videos.
“Everyone was asleep when I needed to ask questions, so I just taught myself,” she said. “It’s been a big education.”
The book was printed by Edition One Books in Berkley, California.
“I wanted to honor our music and culture from this area because I think it is unique and part of our lifestyle,” Lawson said, adding that there is a difference in how young people and veteran musicians talk about their music.
Young musicians talked about their teachers and the music they enjoy. Older musicians were more reflective and shared memories of the life and music.
“The older musicians remember learning organically from neighbors, family and friends who passed knowledge down. There was no ready music; they learned to play by ear. If you are surrounded by it, it’s your language. It’s so embedded in you. The tunes are already there, they just had to figure out how to play them on their instrument. It’s a language of its own. We learn to speak from sounds; you pick up music in that same manner.”
Here are some thoughts by and about some of the local musicians in the book.
• Leigh Beamer felt she had a natural inclination to learn guitar. “I don’t mean to sound cocky, but I never had to work hard to play. It just came to me like I had known it my whole life,” she said.
• Ron Ireland talks about his love of gospel music. “I may be all over the map and my voice may be crappy, but I can really feel that music when I play it, and I hope the audience does as well,” he said. Later in the interview, he said, “It’s all about self expression. I think where there is an interest, or a love to make music, dance or sing, it is always coming from a good place inside you, and it should always be supported.”
• Wytheville bass player Debbie Larson said, “I have trouble watching the celebrity award programs and see those folks patting themselves on their backs for no good reason. I know many locals who are ‘unknown’ but can play circles around the famous ones.”
• Sam Gleaves remembers being inspired to make mountain music by the people around him. “When I was in high school, Jim Lloyd told me that if I was interested in traditional singing, I should look up Mildred and Joe Alexander who live outside Rural Retreat. I did just that, and after a short phone call, Mildred invited me to come out to their house and visit with them. Mildred and Joe welcomed me in and we sat in their living room, getting to know each other and singing old time gospel songs for hours. I was moved by Mildred’s singing, the strong mountain sound of her voice that makes you believe every word she sings.”
• On Casey Lewis and Cane Mill Road, Lawson wrote, “I must say that Casey’s vocal rendition of “Summertime” is one of the best I have ever heard and the way the whole band does their superb instrumental breaks is just gorgeous and impressive.” All of the band members “know who to make their instruments sing, ring, cry and wail!”
• Tim White talks about being an artist “since I could hold a pencil”
The 222-page book cost $68 and comes with a 23-song CD of mountain music.
To reach reporter Millie Rothrock, call 276-228-6611, ext. 35, or email email@example.com.