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Ya’ll Don’t Know It: The Mural Mile, Long Journey Home, and the almost forgotten legends of music

Artist Cristy Dunn explains the features of the Clarence Tom Ashley mural, the first one she created for the Musical Heritage Mural Mile in Mountain City, Tennessee. Photo by Dan Cullinane.

By Dan Cullinane
Freelance Writer

In the vacant lot on Main Street, musical notes snake across the wall of the Cornett Furniture building, where the newest mural in the Johnson County’s Center for the Arts’ noted Musical Heritage Mural Mile waits to be revealed part of Labor Day Weekend’s Long Journey Home celebration.  On this humid Friday afternoon, Johnson County Center for the Arts Executive Director Cristy Dunn and I are walking the mural mile, but first I asked her about the idea, and her answer clarified both the genesis and mission of the project.

“If not for Joe Wilson, this whole heritage would have been lost,” she said. 

Wilson, a Johnson County native and the director of the National Council for the Traditional Artists, was visiting with Dunn at Lois’s Café, and she was telling him about her plans to create murals of songs she grew up listening to her mother play, many of the Carter Family classics. Wilson was surprised.

“Why do you want to do Bristol?” he asked. “Johnson County has more musical history than Bristol. The problem is that ya’ll don’t know it.”

In quick succession, he rattled off the names of key musicians and events. The 1925 Fiddler’s Convention, G.B. Grayson’s recording of Tom Dooley, the impact of Clarence Tom Ashley, and Fiddlin’ Fred Price and Clint Howard’s recording of The Ballad of Finley Preston. This last one floored Dunn, as Fred Price was her grandfather.

“I knew he was a fiddle player, and I knew I loved his playing, but that was it,” Dunn admitted.

So, stories were told, plans were changed, and emerging from the shadows of history, came what Dunn described as “A visual language that preserves the musical heritage of the county and educates Johnson Countians and folks visiting about it.” The mural commemorating the 1925 Fiddler’s Convention is on the wall of the Arts Center and is across the street from Heritage Hall, where the event took place, and which many musical historians consider to be an even bigger watershed event than the Bristol Sessions. 

It’s an apt beginning to the story of Johnson County’s impact on old-time, bluegrass, and country music; an impact felt by everyone from Mick Jagger, Jerry Garcia, and Bob Dylan to contemporary artists like Kody Norris and Old Crow Medicine Show. 

From Mulberry Street, we hooked a right on Main and crossed the street to Smith and Cockett’s building, where Temple Reece’s It Surely is a Train pays tribute to the song Long Journey Home. Riding the rails is Laurel Bloomery’s renowned blind fiddler G.B. Grayson and his musical partner Henry Whitter, whose song Train 45 is one of the most famous songs to come out of Johnson County.

Further down Main is Dunn’s First Sunrise, which acknowledges that Johnson Countians always see the sunrise before anyone else in Tennessee, but the presence of Dunn’s grandfather Fred Price, Clint Howard, and their sons Kenny and Clarence point toward a different darker part of Johnson County’s history.

“The last legal hanging in Tennessee took place right across the street on the grounds of the courthouse,” Dunn told me.

That story became The Ballad of Finley Preston, the song and album which launched Rounder Records.  The next mural we will come to is Clarence Tom Ashley, and as we walk, the stories continue.

“In his early career, Tom Ashley toured with the medicine shows, and Roy Acuff performed with him. Roy often said everything he learned about show business he learned from Tom,” Dunn said as we turned the corner on Church, where the mural appears in front of us on the wall of the former Ralph Stout Jewelry Store. “Anyway,” she continued, “They played a medicine show right around the corner here in Mountain City.” 

Tom Ashley’s mural includes the cuckoo, which inspired one of his most well-known songs, as well as his pony, for whom, it is said, Tom tried out all of his songs.

“Jerry Garcia heard about his claw hammer style of playing and came here for a week to learn from Tom,” Dunn said, demonstrating again the undeniable impact of the artists she is memorializing. 

Ambitious in scope, the next mural, Birth of a Ballad: The Capture of Tom Dooley, pays homage to two events in Johnson County History: The capture of Tom Dula in Trade for the murder of Laura Foster, and the recording of the ballad Tom Dooley. No one knows who wrote the song, but the version that would become the number one song in America in 1959, was introduced to the world by another figure in the mural., Gilliam Banham Grayson is the topic of a new documentary to be screened during Long Journey Home.

Crossing back over Church Street, Dunn explained how the series of smaller murals on the wall of Farmers State Bank came to be. Collectively entitled Legacies, they are a community art project led by Dunn, in which teams of local artists chose albums or songs recorded by the county’s legends and then conceived of and created visual representations of them. 

Tom Dooley makes another appearance here, as does Finley Preston. The House of the Rising Sun and Amazing Grace also adorns the walls, as does the abandoned house where Dunn laughingly reports the album Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s was recorded after the players’ wives collectively banned them from playing at home. 

The final mural unfolds on the back of the building adjacent to the arts center. Entitled A Day in the Life of a Song, it evokes the importance of music in our lives and how it carries us throughout the day from home to work and home again. It also embodies the community spirit of the entire project. A collaboration between Dunn, Temple Reece, and Lewis Chapman, with work done by a team of community members under Dunn’s tutelage, celebrates Johnson County’s history and community, just like the whole Mural Mile. 

Due to some COVID-related adjustments, the unveiling of the latest mural, I’ll Fly Away takes place online on Saturday, September 4, at 12:30 p.m. as part of the Long Journey Home Weekend. For more information on the murals, on Long Journey Home, and on virtual options for watching the unveiling, visit the Johnson County Center for the Arts’ website.