BY JOSH BECKWORTH—
The jam session has become a common event in modern Southwest Virginia. Community centers, general stores, and libraries regularly hold jam sessions as a way of both bringing together local musicians and advertising the rich musical culture of the region. However, prior to the development of these organized and predictable jam sessions, jams were impromptu and popped up anywhere there were musicians with extra time on their hands.
One of the most common places for these jams to occur were at local businesses. Because they were open regular hours, and, unlike private homes, invited the presence of unannounced visitors, businesses quickly became gathering places for musicians. G.B. Grayson often stopped by Oscar Roark’s service station in Konnarock for impromptu jams. Elvis Alderman and Joe Hopkins were jamming in Alderman’s Barbershop in Galax prior to their formation of the Hill Billies. But perhaps no single musical gathering spot had more impact on the development of country music than John Rector’s general store, located in Steven’s Creek — about two miles north of Fries.
Rector’s store was the hub of the local community. The store had been built on the banks of a creek, at the intersection of Steven’s Creek Road and Highway 770. The store was originally operated by a man named Henry Issacs in the late 19th century, but had been taken over by John Rector sometime prior to 1900. Like most community stores at the time, Rector’s store sold a wide range of dry goods, catering to the varied needs of the whole community. At first, the area around the story was sparsely populated, made up primarily of farming families. However, the construction of the Washington Mill on the New River, just over one mile south, set off a boom of population growth that would change the community forever.
By 1920, the community around the store was densely packed with mill workers looking to escape the rental fees of the company housing in the town of Fries. A quick glance at the 1920 census underscores the influx of this new population. Virtually every household was composed of loomers, spoolers, sweepers, carders and weavers all working for the Washington Mill. Whereas the life of the subsistence farmer was independent and unpredictable, the life of a millhand was regimented and orderly. Because the mill employed a single shift during its early years, millhands had time off together. They were able to easily congregate in their leisure hours and local gathering spots like Rector’s Store became popular destinations for loafing as well as for shopping.
Henry Whitter was one of the mill hands who took advantage of the jam sessions that developed at Rector’s store and often came to play his harmonica and guitar along with Rector’s clawhammer banjo. It was during one of these playing sessions that a traveling salesman, whose career took him through New York City, stopped by one day. The salesman was ostensibly there to advertise his wares to Rector, but he was so impressed by the playing he heard, that he encouraged the duo to try and make a record in New York City. The salesman told Whitter and Rector about OKeh records, which had offices in New York, and the suggestion quickly inspired Whitter, who immediately began saving money for the trip from his weekly wages at the mill.
Whitter’s eventual trip to New York would forever change popular music, and would create a regional ripple effect, with numerous other musicians from Grayson and Carroll Counties following his example to their own record careers. Interestingly, when Whitter returned to New York in 1924 to record with an ensemble, the two musicians who accompanied him, John Rector and James Sutphin, were both store owners. In fact, of all the early musicians to record from Fries and Galax — Henry Whitter, Kelly Harrell, John Rector, James Sutphin, Elvis Alderman, Ernest Stoneman, and Joe Hopkins — none was a subsistence farmer. All were employed as millhands, carpenters, store owners, barbers or clerks. This fact was no coincidence. It speaks to the importance played by industrial and retail spaces as incubators of musical talent. It was only through places like these, where people from a similar community with predictable working hours could regularly and easily gather together and utilize their free time in pursuit of music, making connections, finding inspiration, and developing their talents. Places like John Rector’s store were the original soil from which country music would bloom.