When I was a child, my father played Carter Family songs on his flat top guitar and my mom sang harmony to his tenor. I've known the chorus to “Keep on the Sunny Side” for as long as I can remember.
Then I visited northeast Tennessee, and learned the tender story behind that hymn. The lyrics were written in 1899 by Ada Blenkhorn, whose disabled nephew always requested that his wheelchair be pushed down the “sunny side” of the street.
State tourism officials borrowed from the song title for their “Sunny Side” driving tour of northeast Tennessee. The trail stretches from the Great Smoky Mountains to Bristol, where the Carter Family helped launch country music in 1927 by recording during what became known as the Bristol Sessions.
Tennessee has a Civil War history most people are familiar with. Not so well known is the story of the Watagua Association, which Theodore Roosevelt referred to as the first free and independent community on the continent, and the pivotal role their Overmountain Men played in the Revolutionary War.
In 1772, a group of colonists defied King George III by sneaking across the Appalachian Mountains, settling in the Watagua River Valley near present-day Elizabethton. They disobeyed repeated orders from the British to return to the colonies, and in 1780 a Loyalist army fighting in the American Revolution decided to go after them.
Unwilling to wait for the attack, the frontiersmen marched for two weeks “over the mountains” to South Carolina and a Patriot victory at King's Mountain.
The story is told in the museum and re-enacted every summer at the fabulous Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area, built on the site where the Overmountain Men mustered.
Also on the trail is Jonesborough, Tennessee's oldest incorporated town, which ignited a renaissance in 1973 with its first National Storytelling Festival. The October festival now attracts more than 10,000 fans, and the best of the yarn-spinners perform 26 weeks out of the year at Jonesborough's impressive International Storytelling Center.
Tireless community volunteer Marcy Hawley serves candlelight breakfasts at the Rees-Hawley House bed-and-breakfast and with a bit of coaxing will tell the story of the “spirits” who visited while she and her husband were renovating the 1793 log and frame dwelling that is Jonesborough's oldest building.