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Papa Joe's legacy lives on through those he's inspired

Debra McCown Thomas • Aug 19, 2019 at 4:30 PM

When Tyler Hughes first met Papa Joe Smiddy, it was 13 years ago at a mountain music camp in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. Smiddy, a well-known local musician and former UVA-Wise chancellor, always performed a Monday concert at the camp – one of several programs in the area aimed at introducing youth to mountain music.

“One thing that Papa Joe always tried to do … is to use his music to benefit the region in various ways, through supporting good causes or just passing on music to future generations,” says Hughes, speaking about the man who inspired the Papa Joe Smiddy Mountain Music Festival, an annual event in its 17th year that’s coming up Sept. 1.

“He was a big supporter of camps like Mountain Music School and has always been a huge supporter of young people playing mountain music, particularly old-time mountain music, and that’s a thing that we try to keep going in the festival also.”

Hughes, 26, has performed at the festival over the years, and this year he’s calling the square dance – a feature designed to bring people together, regardless of whether they’ve danced before, and revive some of the social traditions associated with mountain music.

“Doing something together is important because when you live in a fast-paced, technology-driven world, I think it’s easy for us to forget how important human-to-human interaction is,” he says. “I think through the dancing and here at the festival, we’re just kind of helping to re-establish that.”

Hughes says Smiddy, who died in 2017 at age 96, was one of several musicians in the area who inspired him. And over 14 years of playing mountain music – he started when he was 12 – he’s come to see it as more than just a hobby; to a region that’s struggling in many ways, it can be a cultural lifeline.

“It gives young people a tool to connect with the place that we come from. So much of our history, so many of our traditions around food or storytelling or dance – they all connect into this music, and so I really believe that it’s important for young people to learn that so that they know they come from a truly unique place in the world,” he says.

“The region continues to face some uphill battles when it comes to economic and social problems here. I think our music [has] given us an opportunity to continue to build tight-knit communities, and when you have a tight-knit community you’re able to address some of those problems that we’re facing a lot better.”

Hughes says there’s been a concerted effort for a decade or more, among many people in the region, to work on spreading these musical traditions. He says he’s proud to be a part of helping to carry the music forward.

“For the last 10 years, there’s been a huge movement to sort of restore our musical heritage in the hands of the younger generations,” Hughes says.

“The ways of the world have led to a lot of our music not really getting passed on in the same way that it always has been. Our music has always been really social, sometimes passed on from family member to family member and neighbor to neighbor and, living in a fast-paced world, that doesn’t happen quite so much anymore. Papa Joe was a big advocate for coming up with ways to make that happen again.”

One way is through the Papa Joe Smiddy Mountain Music Festival, held annually on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, at Natural Tunnel State Park. Papa Joe started ‘Pickin’ in the Park,’ the summer Sunday afternoon get-togethers at Natural Tunnel designed to encourage children and families to play music. The annual festival grew out of it.

The annual gathering, presented by the Cove Ridge Center Foundation, seeks to promote the musical heritage of the area’s Appalachian mountain culture and honors the memory and legacy of Papa Joe and his tireless work to promote the music of the region for decades.

This year’s Papa Joe Smiddy Mountain Music Festival gets underway at 3 p.m., Sept. 1 in the amphitheater at Natural Tunnel State Park in Duffield, Virginia. Performers will include Boozy Creek Grass, Miss Ellie String Band, UVa-Wise Bluegrass Band, ETSU Old-Time Ramblers, ETSU Bluegrass Pride Band, and headliner Dr. Joe Smiddy & Reedy Creek. Radio personality Tom Taylor will serve as the emcee.

Dr. Joe Smiddy & Reedy Creek have played together for more than four decades. Reflecting the broad musical tastes of Papa Joe, the band plays a variety of old-time music and original songs.

Mountain music, Hughes says, is what’s made it possible for him to make a living and stay in his native Big Stone Gap, close to his family.

“I think we can’t understate the importance of not only the arts but just our history and our culture in general here,” Hughes says. “That’s really what makes life livable here.”

Tickets for the festival are $10 in advance and $15 at the door, and kids 12 and under get in free with a paying adult. While there is fixed seating under roof, additional seating is available and used on the grass behind the fixed seating, so festival goers are encouraged to bring a lawn chair or blanket. Tickets can be purchased by phone at (276) 940-2674, or in person at Addington Oil in Weber City, the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce or Natural Tunnel State Park.

Proceeds from the event go into the Cove Ridge Foundation’s Papa Joe Smiddy Scholarship Fund. The festival an official event of Duffield Daze and an affiliated site on The Crooked Road.