Country Flavor: The Carter Family Fold

A legendary music hall feeds the stomach and the soul.

Thomas R. Fletcher (Getty Images)

It's nine o'clock in the morning in Hiltons, Virginia, and Rita Forrester is stirring a pot of soup beans. A simple marriage of pinto beans, water, and vegetable oil, this Appalachian dish has seen families through winters for as long as anyone can remember. But today, Rita is cooking for the people on their way to Hiltons to listen to the music of her grandparents A.P. and Sara Carter.

In 1927, A.P. Carter, his wife, Sara, and Sara's cousin Maybelle (the mother of Johnny Cash's wife June) made the 20-mile trek from their Hiltons home to Bristol, Tennessee, to record a few songs. The resulting Bristol Sessions catapulted country music into the American canon. In 1974, A.P. and Sara's middle child, Janette, fulfilled her father's dying wish to keep the music of the Carter Family (pictured, in 1941) alive by establishing the Carter Family Fold, a small concert hall in Hiltons. When Janette passed away, in 2006, her daughter, Rita, stepped in to run the place.

The Carter Family Fold is convenient to nowhere, but every Saturday night, hundreds of fans travel here to listen to music, cut a rug, and eat some supper. There's a lot of food to be made: gallons of those hearty soup beans, trays of corn bread muffins, dozens of egg salad sandwiches. Two of Rita's aunts arrive early to help cook. At 8 a.m., Nancy Carter boils eggs for the salad; Mary Hartsock works on chili for the hot dogs. Later, friends of the Fold prepare dessert. Chickie Renfro makes homemade coconut and lemon pound cakes. All the recipes they cook—Janette's, Rita's, Chickie's—are inspired by Recipes From Carter Country (Cookbook Publishers Inc., 1997).

"I help in the concession until the music starts. When the music starts, I'm gone," says Renfro, who brings her dancing shoes each weekend. It's almost eleven o'clock, and Chickie drags me out in front of the stage. The concession stand has sold out of food, the band is still playing, and it's time to dance, to come into the fold.