Appalachian musician, teacher makes lives better through music

If it’s got a string, she can make it play a tune that beckons crowds to dance. And, if it’s got a string, she can teach anyone to play it and make them feel like the most talented Appalachian musician while doing so.

Affectionately known as “Ms. Emily” to her students and former students, Emily Spencer has been inspiring children to explore their mountain music heritage, helping them to fine-tune their talents and keeping traditional mountain music alive for decades.

Jack Hinshelwood, who until 2019 served as the The Crooked Road’s executive director, said Spencer has played no small role in preserving Appalachian music over the years by teaching in public schools and in after-school programs, sitting on the board of The Crooked Road, and, of course, just making mountain music.

“Her impact has been both as a very talented musician, as well as a teacher and she’s really inspired a lot of young people to take it up,” he said.

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An Arlington, Virginia native, Spencer’s love of music and the mountains blossomed at an early age.

“From the time I was a little kid I always really liked music,” Spencer said. “I think I was just born liking it.”

In elementary school, she picked up the violin and later on, in middle school, began thrumming a ukulele, picking guitar and singing with her school friend, Chris O’Connell. Best known for her mean claw hammer banjo playing, she’d go on to add just about every other stringed instrument to her musical repertoire.

As a kid, Spencer and her family frequently visited the mountains, a place she fell in love with.

“So, when I got out of high school that was my goal. I was going to play music and move to the mountains,” she said.

That’s exactly what she did.

Before she made her way to Southwest Virginia in the early 70s, though, Spencer, then Emily Paxton, and O’Connell found themselves at an Asleep at the Wheel show.

“They were playing old country, Hank Williams and stuff like that and we were like, ‘Well, this is what we want to do,’ so we said, ‘We’re just going to find them and join their band,’” Spencer recalled.

The two women became the then newly-formed group’s earliest female members. Spencer returned home after a few gigs, though, after her father fell ill, but O’Connell stayed on, singing with the band for another 15 years. Asleep at the Wheel went on to snag several Grammy Awards over several decades.

Eventually, Spencer made her way to the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, then called Clinch Valley College, studying social welfare, “which was maybe one of the first Appalachian Studies programs,” she said.

Around that time, Spencer met her husband, Thornton Spencer, a well-known Grayson County fiddler and brother-in-law to the renowned fiddle luthier Albert Hash.

“And, the rest is history,” she said. “We started playing together right away.”

Just about a month after the two met, the couple and Hash revived Hash’s Whitetop Mountain Band in in the mid-70s. Just a few years later, in 1980, the trio, along with Hash’s daughter, Audrey Hash Ham, started holding jam classes at the Mount Rogers Fire Department at the urging of Margaret Messick, wife to instrument maker and then-minister Walt Messick.

“And, that’s how a lot of this stuff kind of got started was really through her,” Spencer said.

Spencer recalled that the fire department jams were a big hit, bringing in about 60 people during its first class.

In 1982, the Spencers, Hash and Ham brought the program into Mount Rogers Combined School, volunteering with lessons once a week.

Hash died about a year after the school program launched, and the band of students became known as the Albert Hash Memorial Band.

Ham led the program, with the Spencers lending a hand, until the late 90s, when the school system decided it should become part of the curriculum so students could get credit. It was then that Spencer returned to school herself to get her certification as a music instructor to take over the class.

In its early days as a part of the curriculum, the music program at Mount Rogers was one of only two programs in the nation to provide string band instruction in a K-12 school. Through her work teaching, Spencer touched the lives of an untold number of students. Her knack for simplifying music and building confidence in her students made them eager to embrace their talents and celebrate their heritage.

“I’ve been around a lot of those students that she’s taught,” Hinshelwood said, “and I’ve seen just how inspirational she’s been to them and how much the music really means to them. It’s something they’re proud of that’s part of their family and community’s history and they’re sort of carrying on those traditions that she’s opened them up to and sharing with them.”

Spencer believes opening up the world of old-time music to kids does more than help carry on a rich heritage. It gives them a sense of belonging and purpose.

“You give kids a place that’s a supportive environment and just try to make their lives better—especially right now, I think we need that,” she said. “It gives people a place to belong and, I feel like kids that play music, they kind of have a sense of ‘us.’”

And, carrying on the practice initiated by Ham, Spencer took her band students on the road, allowing them the experience of performing on stage at a number of venues in the region.

After Mount Rogers closed in 2009, Spencer made sure students didn’t miss out on the string band, splitting her time between the new Grayson Highlands School in Troutdale and Grayson County High School in Independence.

Spencer left public school teaching following the COVID-19 pandemic, but continues to mold young minds as an instructor for the Junior Appalachian Musicians (J.A.M.) program, along with her daughter, Martha, who picked up the teaching bug while still in high school at Mount Rogers in the early 2000s. Currently, Spencer teaches classes at the Alleghany program, but she’s had a hand in instruction at a number of the program’s location throughout the years.

“These kinds of music programs are life-changing for people both young and old. It really changes lives, I think. It makes them feel good about themselves and proud of their heritage,” Spencer said.

The main goal, she said, is to make people’s lives better through music.

“It’s something they can do their whole lives and they can pass on. They may not follow the path of all traditional music, but if they can make their lives better and make themselves feel better through music, that’s what my main focus is.”

As for the Whitetop Mountain Band, it still spreads its musical goodness to folks near and far. Now the last original member of the band following Thornton’s death in 2017, Emily, along with Martha, Emily’s son, Kilby, and long-time band mates Debbie Bramer and Ersel Fletcher, continue to carry on its legacy.

Through a grassroots effort, the group honors that legacy by organizing and hosting the Albert Hash Memorial Festival, held each year on Labor Day weekend.

The Whitetop Mountain Band’s journey has taken its members from Southwest Virginia stages such as those at the Carter Fold in Hiltons, the Lincoln Theater in Marion and the Floyd Country Store in Floyd to places across the country and back, and around the globe.

Everywhere they go, they receive a warm welcome, Spencer said, noting a special appreciation in England, where band members have been told the country’s musical roots have been lost in some ways.

“We’ve heard people say, ‘you all are keeping our traditions alive,’ because some of it’s been lost,” Spencer explained.

Back home, folks can catch the Whitetop Mountain Band at regular haunts such as the Floyd Country Store, Wytheville Community College, the Carter Fold and more. Show schedules can be found at www.whitetopmountainband.com.

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