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Mountain Grown Music - traditional mountain music of Haywood County North Carolina

The Thrantham Family

The Trantham Family: Carrying on Traditions

By Michael Beadle

In a quiet neighborhood tucked away in the hills of Jonathan Creek, the
spirit of mountain music stirs.

Once again, Doug Trantham and his children have gathered on the porch to
play the stringed songs they love.

“Gimme a D chord, Emily,” Doug instructs his 11-year-old daughter, who
strums a guitar in her lap. Doug tunes a banjo, while his 8-year-old son,
Adam, waits with wooden spoons in hand. In the audience are Doug’s wife,
Amy, and their youngest daughter, 4-year-old Sara.

During a happy-go-lucky version of “I’ll Fly Away,” Doug and Emily trade
tender smiles as their voices blend in harmony.

It all seems so perfect, so fitting that the traditional tunes of Appalachian folk music continue as they have for generations on porches like this one.

Today’s instruments are more refined than those homemade contraptions early
American settlers put together to play music and pass the time. And these
days the recordings come from CDs instead of crackling records.Over the years, as the world got a little closer, a myriad of musical styles have crept into the folk songs, converting some to frenzied bluegrass or fancying up others with chord changes.

But the spirit of old-time mountain music has endured. Once upon a time,
mountain music was strictly an oral tradition in isolated communities, Doug
explained, but then came radio and television which exposed us to so many
new mixes of music.

For today’s teachers, there’s a delicate balance to remember: preserving an
honored tradition by holding true to its purity but allowing it to grow and

“I don’t try to be an artifact,” Doug said.

The son of a ballad singer and musical instrument maker, Doug began playing
music when he was 7 years old. First it was the spoons and the Jew’s harp,
then the mountain dulcimer, the ukulele, the banjo and the guitar. During
the last several years, Doug’s been playing the hammer dulcimer, having
become enchanted with Celtic tunes that are more associated with Appalachia
than Ireland and Scotland.

As a boy, he toured with his father from Florida to Kentucky and picked up
several awards including a junior old-time banjo championship at the
prestigious Fiddler’s Grove Festival. Also as a talented buck dancer in his
younger days, he performed with the Smoky Mountain Kids and the Soco
Mountain Cloggers. Along the way, he appeared on the Grand Ole Opry for an
ABC television Christmas Special in 1979.

Growing up, he could see the popular style of bluegrass and new-grass
drifting away from its old-time mountain music roots. Doug stuck to those
roots with early influences that included fiddler Mack Snoderly, banjo
player Carroll Best, relatives and countless other musicians who attended
the regional folk festivals.

Discovering traditional Scottish and Irish music in college, he became
fascinated by the old Scottish ballads and Irish jigs and how the music of
the Old World made its way into Appalachia. Like many mountain musicians,
Doug never sought out a full-time professional music career. Going on 12
years in the mental health field, he has devoted a good part of his life to
relocating mentally ill patients out of institutions and into more normal
lives. While working as a case manager in Hickory, he formed the “Stray
Chords,” a string band with several coworkers that played at rest homes and
nursing homes and for mental health patients.

In the Tranthams’ home, instruments decorate the walls — a fretless banjo
here, a mountain dulcimer there. A couple of guitars and hammer dulcimer
rest on stands in a living room corner. They are reminders of the musical
legacy that lives on in these mountains.

Just as Doug caught on to music at an early age, two of his children have
already established themselves as award-winning musicians before their
teenage years. Doug began performing publicly with Emily and Adam when they
were in elementary school. Emily recorded one song on “Play it Again Daddy”
— one of Doug’s three albums — when she was eight years old.

Getting over stage fright had been tough for Doug, but Emily and Adam got
over it pretty quickly when the family won the most outstanding performance
award at the 1995 Asheville Mountain Dance and Folk Festival.

“That trophy was bigger than Adam,” recalled Amy Trantham, Doug’s wife, who
prides herself with keeping the musical group cleaned up and on time for
their appearances.

To some, it may seem a little odd that so much talent fell upon one family,
but these musicians shrug it off as something they’ve always had inside
themselves, and when they get together to practice, it’s like sharing
presents — each brings a gift.

“It’s just a fun thing to do,”Emily said. “Once you get it down, it’s pretty

The way Doug tells it, Emily was practically singing when she came out of
the womb. A student of the guitar, she has also sang in the elementary
school chorus beginning in third grade.

Meanwhile, Adam picked up the wooden spoons early on and progressed to the
mountain dulcimer, an easy-to-learn instrument for children, Doug explained.
It’s small enough to rest in a lap, has a linear scale and just takes one
finger to hold down strings to play a chord.

Each generation learns new lessons. Avoiding the temptation to be the
perfectionist teacher, Doug sends his children to get private lessons from
local and music teachers. While he and his father Jim love the old Scottish
murder ballads that have been localized into Appalachian songs, Emily
prefers the upbeat songs, so that’s what Doug and his children stick to
mainly. Doug still relies on learning chords by ear and mentally remembering
his songs, so he has a computer program that interprets the musical notes he
plays into notes on a page of sheet music.

To give his children the best of both worlds, Doug sends Emily and Adam to
separate instructors, who teach music theory and how to read notes on a page while Doug provides the learning experience of playing by ear.
Watching these children learn so much at such an early age. Doug and his
wife are consciously making sure music isn’t the only thing in their
children’s lives.

“That’s a tough balance,” he said. “Kids need time to play.”

Seeing how the glamour of performing might outweigh the discipline of
practicing, he gives his children a simple rule: If they want to perform,
they have to practice. And performing is optional, he told them.

Back out on the porch, Doug taps away at the strings of a hammer dulcimer
hand-crafted by his father. As he plays a bouncy Celtic tune, Emily pays
close attention, nodding slowly, absorbing each note, taking in the rhythms
and the magic dancing off the strings. It won’t be long before she falls
under the spell of another song.

And rest assured, a passing generation of mountain musicians can take pride
in the talent of a new one carrying on the tradition.

Trantham Family Music
Traditional mountain music from Doug Trantham and family of Western North Carolina.


a project of the Haywood County Library System and
North Carolina ECHO: Exploring Cultural Heritage Online

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