Like the traditional music that it features each Saturday night, the Carter Family Fold sprouts straight out of Clinch Mountain. This concert hall in tiny Hiltons, Virginia, in the southwest tip of the state, is open on three sides and covered by a tin roof. The most comfortable seats in the house—the ones with backs—are old school bus seats, duct-taped together to prevent further tearing and placed next to each other in rows in the middle section. Some of these seats join together unevenly, situating audience members three inches or so higher than the people next to them. The side sections have wooden benches, stapled over with squares of carpet remnants, narrow patchwork quilts intended to cushion sitting for the night’s entertainment.
When the place is filled to capacity, audience members spill over onto Clinch Mountain’s steeply sloping grassy foothills. If they’re regulars, they remember to bring their own lawn chairs for this area; otherwise, they sit on the ground. The sightlines are not good from that vantage point, but the music still carries back to the farthest row. On a good night, with the right bluegrass band and a crowd itching to get the flatfoot dancing started, the Fold usually holds somewhere around 800 people.
On June 21, 1,600 people crammed together there to hear a widowed Johnny Cash sing for his wife. He could have played Titans Stadium outside Nashville and charged $50 a ticket or $200 for gold-level seats. That night at the Fold, I paid $5 to see him. Two months before his death, in one of his last public appearances, Johnny performed as he lived so much of his life, surrounded by family and friends and humbly offering his gifts before his audience and his God.