As members of the popular family-based Whitetop Mountain Band, and as long-time teachers and ambassadors of traditional mountain music from Southwest Virginia and Northwest North Carolina, Emily and Thornton Spencer made an important mark on the traditional music of the region. Emily and Thornton have been performing with the Whitetop Mountain Band since the 1970s.
A native of Grayson County, Virginia, Thornton grew up surrounded by traditional music. Emily grew up singing around Arlington, Virginia. “My parents just liked traditional music,” she says, noting some of the first songs she learned were “Shortening Bread,” “Alabama Gals,” and “Barbara Allen.” Shortly after high school, Emily’s interest in traditional mountain music inspired a move to Southwest Virginia. “I followed the music here,” she says, and she soon met Thornton while living in Dungannon. “There were a lot of musicians in the area then,” she recalls.
Emily and Thornton moved to Mouth of Wilson in 1977. They joined Albert Hash‘s Whitetop Mountain Band, and the three started an old-time music program at Mount Rogers School, a small K-12 public school in Whitetop. They taught students to play fiddle, banjo, guitar, and bass, and to dance, and the program has drawn national attention.
The program also attracted attention in North Carolina, and a few months after they started the program at Mount Rogers School, they started a program for the public in Ashe County. Two nights each week, they offered three hours of lessons and jam sessions for $2-5 a lesson. Nearly 60 people came to learn tunes, jam, and socialize. The program continued in Ashe County, and soon expanded to Wilkes and Alleghany counties. For more than 20 years, they taught students from all over the region, and the jam sessions that evolved became a venue for older traditional musicians.
In addition to their long-standing presence in northwestern North Carolina teaching music and leading jam sessions, the Whitetop Mountain Band has been a regular dance band across the region. For about 14 years, Emily and Thornton played a weekly dance in Sparta, and they have been mainstays at the Burgess Barn and Mountain Music Jamboree dances in Ashe County. After Emily took a full-time job teaching music at the Mount Rogers School, they put their music lessons in North Carolina on hold, but they make frequent visits across the state line. “We still play dances in North Carolina,” Emily says.
Thornton Spencer passed away in fall 2017. Emily Spencer continues the Whitetop Mountain Band and remains an active member of the local and regional traditional music scene.
Emily Spencer is available for performances and to play for dances with Whitetop Mountain Band. She is also available for occasional lessons, demonstrations, and school programs.