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Wythe County occupies an important place on the landscape of American music. Native son Kelly Harrell was born in Draper’s Valley, and recorded for the Victor and OKeh labels in the mid to late 1920s. Harrell is most well-known for writing “New River Train” popularized by Bill Monroe; “I Was Born 10,000 Years Ago,” recorded by Elvis Presley; and “Away Out on the Mountain” made famous by Jimmie Rodgers. Another one of Harrell’s tunes. “My Name Is John Johanna” appeared in Harry Smith’s landmark Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952.
Fiddler and Wythe County native Norman Edmonds, known for his mountain playing technique of holding the fiddle on his chest rather than under his chin, recorded four songs at the celebrated 1927 Bristol Recording Sessions with banjo player J. P. Nester. Their recording in Bristol of “Train on the Island” was also included in Smith’s Anthology.
Formed in 1943, The Virginia Skyline Boys, from Rural Retreat, played a mix of bluegrass and old time music. They were the first band to play on WYVE radio in Wytheville, and WMEV radio in Marion, Virginia. In the 1960s and 1970s, the McPeak Brothers from Wytheville left their mark on modern bluegrass presenting distinctive vocal harmonies on regional radio and television, and recorded numerous albums for major record labels such as RCA, County, and Rebel.
More recently, Wythe County has been known for the Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) Jam at Jim Lloyd’s Barbershop in Rural Retreat, music concerts at scenic Big Walker Lookout, and Bluegrass and Old Time Jamborees formerly held by Wytheville Community College.
The Father of Texas, Stephen Austin and his family operated the lead mines at nearby Austinville where the 75’ tall Jackson Ferry shot tower can still be climbed. Lead from the mines made into shot at the tower provided a crucial supply of ammunition to the Confederacy.
Also, born on Wytheville’s Main Street in 1872, Edith Bolling Wilson became First Lady of the United States upon her marriage to President Woodrow Wilson in 1915. After his debilitating stroke in 1919, she managed his affairs and became known as “The First Female President”. Her birthplace is now a museum and is one of only eight sites in the country dedicated to the interpretation of a First Lady.
Research by Ted Olson