God save the Hilltoppers

Janice Birchfield doesn’t ruffle easily. The washtub-bass player for the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers even seems nonplussed about the day the Sex Pistols spent at her family’s homestead in Roan Mountain, Tenn.

“They were very nice,” she says of Johnny Rotten, the late Sid Vicious and company.

The same goes for Boy George, who, according to Birchfield, “just showed up in our driveway one day.

“He’s a nice person,” she adds. “He’s just an exhibitionist.”

The above-mentioned flock of British bad boys became aware of the Hilltoppers when punk icon Malcolm McLaren — famous for producing the Sex Pistols’ work — sampled some of the mountain band’s music on his own 1982 hit, “Buffalo Girls.” The song held fast on Billboard‘s Top 10 list for months, and was re-sampled by Eminem on his 2002 recording “Without You.”

“We had a pig roast and a dance,” Birchfield remembers of the Sex Pistols’ visit to Roan Mountain. “They loved it. They wanted us to teach them how to dress like mountain people, with coonskin caps and so on.” (Quite a mental picture, that — the pale, snarling, overtly British, heroin-addled Vicious decked out in overalls and sundry other Appalachian regalia.)

The Hilltoppers themselves are not about to go punk anytime soon: “We play the way our family always has,” says Birchfield. “Straight, traditional sounds.”

Pure, hard and unyielding — maybe it’s not such a stretch to call them punk after all.

The tight-knit group was born in the early part of last century on a farm in the East Tennessee mountains, when brothers Joe and Creed Birchfield began learning old-time ballads from their father and uncles. Creed, who passed away in 1998 at age 93, first learned to play a fiddle made from a wooden cigar box, and later moved to his true calling — banjo — on an instrument he once described as “made out of cherry wood and groundhog hide.”

Joe started out on banjo, then took over the fiddle when Creed declared his preference for the former instrument. But the death of Joe and Ethel Birchfield’s 7-year-old daughter, Ella Mae (the girl is immortalized in the band’s song “Blue Eyed Angel”), so devastated him that he vowed to never play fiddle again … and he kept his word for nearly 30 years.

Joe’s guitar-playing son, Bill Birchfield, married Roan Mountain native Janice Holtzclaw in 1970. Bill and Janice are now the only two surviving members of the original group.

These days, and for the first time, two non-family members round out the band: Greg Speas, on guitar, fiddle and vocals, and young Ivy “Half Pint” Lindley, who fills Creed Birchfield’s considerable shoes on banjo. Lindley hooked up with the Hilltoppers at a festival in West Virginia and has traveled with them ever since.

“We liked the way she played banjo and she liked the way we played, so we just took her along with us,” says Janice.

Of the younger generation of musicians who’ve embraced traditional styles over the past decade or so, resulting in a full-on revival of old-time tunes, she notes, “They will naturally have their own way of playing traditional tunes. That’s the way music has always evolved over the years, and I think it’s a good thing.”

The Hilltoppers’ only CD, Down Home (Ivy Creek Recordings, 2002), is a gem of well-worn mountain tunes (“Sally Ann,” “Cluck Old Hen”). Their style, however, is singularly mesmerizing — raw, rapid-fire, trance inducing, played with the kind of technical skill that comes from a lifetime of honing. Their music is infused with a genuine Appalachian energy that young, wannabe old-time bands from Seattle and Portland can’t touch.

The Hilltoppers will grace the Bluff Mountain Music Festival this year — and not for the first time. Mary Kelly, the event’s organizer, cites the band as a favorite with both audiences and festival workers.

“They camp out with us every year; they go fishing up here,” she notes. “They just really participate and have a great time.”

Says Janice: “The best thing is, you’re really close to the audience.”

The BMMF began nine years ago as a political rally of sorts, founded to raise money and awareness to prevent a large government logging project that targeted the pristine slopes of Madison County’s Bluff Mountain (“Don’t cut Bluff” became the battle cry of many an activist). The mountain was saved, thanks in no small part to the efforts of BMMF organizers. Today, their free festival functions as a major fundraiser for the Madison County Arts Council, via donations and an annual raffle.

This year’s Bluff lineup is a virtual who’s-who of old-time music luminaries — with most acts, refreshingly, springing directly from these mountains.

As for the Hilltoppers, they aim to keep the music fresh, while sticking to their roots. It’s the same goal given lip service by most of today’s traditional bands. But for this East Tennessee outfit, achieving that balance just comes naturally.

“We’ve always looked ahead,” explains Janice. “We knew as Bill’s dad and uncle were getting on in years that we’d have to replace them. We always enjoy young kids 6 and 7 years old, playing banjos and fiddles. They come to our campsites [at festivals], and they’re always welcome to jam.

“It’s so exciting and rewarding to see kids we helped learned to play; it’s as exciting as if it were us up there.”

[Marsha Barber is a frequent contributor to Xpress.]

The Bluff Mountain Music Festival happens Saturday, June 12, from 10 a.m. until dark at the Hot Springs Resort grounds in Hot Springs. The Roan Mountain Hilltoppers will play at 4:30 p.m. Admission is free. For a complete lineup, more information, or to volunteer, contact the Madison County Arts Council at (828) 689-5507.


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