The white van pulls onto Burnt Mill Road, a pine-strewn lane winding through the Chattanooga Valley town of Flintstone, five miles south of the Tennessee border. It’s 5 p.m. A beat-up light box reading Mike’s Music points to a white one-story whose basement juts out from the hillside. Across the road squats a sharecropper’s shanty, its tilted mailbox slapped with a sticker: Forever Bluegrass beside the silhouette of a man, peacock feather in his hat, leaning on a bass fiddle. An identical sticker is plastered to the van’s bumper, next to Minnesota plates.
The van crunches into the shanty’s gravel drive, and four travelers climb down. Inside, Cindy Pinion bounces in her boots to some unheard tune, trying to stay on top of the mounting pile of dirty dishes while the cornbread rises. On the table, a feast worth the thousand-mile trip from Minneapolis: turnip greens, a twelve-pound roast, and blueberry crunch for dessert. Last night Monroe Crossing played Elberton, Georgia, and tomorrow they’ll gig in Chattanooga. But tonight the musicians will take respite in the fabled Pinion hospitality, where for more than thirty years bluegrass musicians have found a home-cooked meal and a much-needed break from the road.
Cindy’s older sister, Inez, owns the white house and music store across the street. Cindy lives here, in the shanty, where she was born fifty-one years ago. The home is cluttered with books, guitar cases, a dusty piano, and picture frames occupying nearly every inch of surface and wall space. The visitors focus on several photos of a gaunt man, peacock feather in his hat, leaning on a bass fiddle—Thomas “Boxcar” Pinion, Cindy’s father.
Boxcar, who got the nickname as a high-school running back, was a welder by trade. But on weekends he frequented dance halls and bars, lugging along his pawn-shop bass (“Ole Yellar”), his wife, and three daughters. His band, Tom and Newell and the Grasscutters, picked out mountain music at concerts, festivals, and square dances. Anyone who plucked a string in these parts came to know Boxcar, his girls, and his wife, Frances, who hosted and fed pickers passing through. And when anyone needed help, he was standing by with a set list for a benefit. So when Boxcar was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, his friends held a concert, a tradition that the Pinions have continued every year since his death in 1990. The 22nd Boxcar Pinion Memorial Bluegrass Festival will be held in Chattanooga this May to support the American Cancer Society.
Through her father and the festival, Cindy has come to know musicians throughout the world. And whether it’s a national act like Bobby Osborne or a smaller band just passing through, Cindy is eager to promote their show or even find them a gig. At the very least, she fills their bellies. She doesn’t get a dime. All she asks is that they take a bumper sticker.
As night sets in, the Minnesotans unload their instruments and trek across the road. The music store is bursting with bric-a-brac: faded playbills, photos, and antique guitars. Uprooted church pews line the perimeter of the open floor. There the Minnesotans set up—a bass, guitar, banjo, and fiddle—and play for the neighbors who’ve started to arrive. As the locals spot the tunes, they unpack their own instruments and join in. The circle grows. The music swells. Cindy herself doesn’t play a lick, but she dances and makes sure everyone has a seat, a beer, and a bun for the hot dogs she’s boiled.
Night slips by and dozens more come down from the mountains: a veterinarian, a lawyer, a business exec. Ages thirty to sixty. Some play, others listen. Wednesday Night Pickin’ has been a weekly tradition in these parts for twenty years. A pair of the Minnesotans put down their instruments and mingle with the crowd. To someone just walking in the door, it would be impossible to spot the outsiders.
Photograph by Jamey Guy