The hills of Southeast Tennessee are alive with the sound of music.
The acoustics of the banjo, mandolin, fiddle and harmonica hover over the landscape like the smoky haze known to float above the region’s mountains and valleys, and voices rise from its waters. Musical roots here are deep, and a new generation of musicians is building upon that foundation.
Carrie Hassler of Pikeville, Tenn., is one of those voices. Her pure vocals launched her into bluegrass stardom in 2006 with the release of the album "Carrie Hassler and Hard Rain" on Rural Rhythm Records; and today, she is one of the region’s leading ladies of bluegrass, with a voice that is often compared to Etta James, Patsy Cline and Alison Krauss.
Growing up in Pikeville, Tenn., Hassler began singing gospel music at First Baptist Church when she was just 9 years old. The town hosts several bluegrass festivals each year, so Hassler was nurtured in bluegrass and gospel from an early age.
"I come from a very musical family," said Hassler, whose father, Philip "Winkie" Cagle, is the current mayor of Pikeville. "I have always been a fan of Allison Krauss, and I love the acoustic sound of bluegrass in general."
Hassler said she had some vocal training in junior high with gospel singer John Blassingame, but after he passed away, she relied on her own musical sense for her vocal style. She began performing bluegrass at local and regional venues in 2000.
Hassler meet fiddler Jim VanCleve of Mountain Heart, who offered to produce "Carrie Hassler and Hard Rain." Even before the recording sessions for her first CD were over, Rural Rhythm Records expressed interest in her project.
Some of the songs on her first CD were cut with her band and some with musicians VanCleve recruited. Five musicians became part of Hassler’s regular band: Kevin McKinnon, mandolin; Keith McKinnon, guitar; Travis Anderson, bass; Josh Miller, banjo; and Dennis Harper, Dobro. The song "Hard Rain" was one of the strongest tracks they cut for the album, so it became the name of the band. Shortly after her CD was finished, fiddler Jamie Harper stepped in to replace Dennis Harper, who left to play with Doyle Lawson’s band.
After production, Hassler and her band began performing across the nation and around the world. One of her favorite shows, she said, was performing in Europe with Jo Dee Messina and Eric Church. Another favorite was performing at Riverbend in Chattanooga in 2009.
"So often, we are so far away and we don’t know anybody, so it is always fun to perform close to home with family and friends," she said.
In 2008, the band cut "Carrie Hassler & Hard Rain 2," produced again by VanCleve. It entered Billboard's top 50 Bluegrass Chart at No. 5. The first single, "I Can Go Back Anytime," hit No. 1 on the May 2009 Bluegrass Unlimited top 30; and the second single, "Faith & Hope," hit the No. 1 spot on the Power Source Magazine list of top 35 bluegrass songs.
Hassler’s most recent project is a song on a new series of albums about the Civil War, "God Didn’t Choose Sides: Civil War True Stories about Real People," produced by Rural Rhythms President Sam Passamano. The album features stories about real people, places and events from the Civil War, pairing top artists with original songs written by some of today’s top songwriters. Accompanying the music is a 16-page booklet filled with historical notes, photographs and lyrics.
On the album—which debuted at No. 6 on Billboard’s top 10 Bluegrass Chart in 2013—Hassler performs the song "Carrie’s Graveyard Book," the remarkable story of Carrie McGavock, who commandeered a field hospital from her home plantation in Williamson County, Tenn., during the Battle of Franklin in 1864. McGavock and her husband, John, treated wounded soldiers after the bloody battle and buried nearly 1,500 Confederate soldiers in a graveyard on land adjacent to the family’s cemetery. She recorded each name in her graveyard book so that each soldier’s family could know the fate of their husband, son or brother.
Today, the McGavock Confederate Cemetery is a lasting memorial honoring fallen Civil War soldiers and the Battle of Franklin. It is the largest privately owned military cemetery in the nation.
"The Civil War album stories are true and so beautifully done," said Hassler, who recorded the song at Curve Recording Studio in Cumberland Gap, Tenn. "I was very glad to be a part of it."
Hassler was nominated for three years in a row—2010, 2011 and 2012—for Female Vocalist of the Year in the International Bluegrass Association; and her songs "Country Strong," "Luxury Liner" and "Seven Miles from Wichita" have brought her global notoriety. However, Southeast Tennessee’s leading lady of bluegrass is on a sabbatical of sorts in Crossville, Tenn., for the moment. After touring nationally and internationally for six years, she and her husband are awaiting the arrival of their latest project: a baby boy, due this December.
The family of four (their son Halen is 12 years old) will hit the road again in the spring.
"Music is completely a family affair," Hassler said. "My husband and I have been married for 14 years, and he has only missed three shows. We do this as a family or not at all."
Hassler’s 2014 tour schedule will be announced in coming weeks on her website.
Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a Chattanooga-based writer and naturalist who enjoys bringing to light all that makes Southeast Tennessee unique, from the region's outdoor recreational opportunities to its rich historical and cultural heritage. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.