CLINTON, Tenn. -- Curtis Byrge has spent his entire life singing and playing on the streets. His eyesight is so poor, he has never driven a car. Walking is his primary form of transportation, and at 71 years old, he still can cover 15 miles a day with his fiddle and guitar.
Byrge grew up playing at old church houses and on street corners. Lately, he has been playing and singing for tips on Saturdays at the Oak Ridge flea market. Fame and notoriety have never come his way, yet, on a recent morning, Byrge received the undivided attention of a 27-year-old photographer named Rachel Boillot, who is spending the summer documenting old-time musicians on the Cumberland Plateau.
Before taking photographs, Boillot sat down in a living room and listened to Byrge's life story — how he was born on Christmas Day in 1942 in Devonia, a former coal mining camp in Anderson County, and how he didn't get his first pair of glasses till he was 21 years old.
"My father worked for the railroad," Byrge said. "I didn't start school till I was 13 years old, and I had to quit after the second grade because of my eyes. I was born legally blind. I guess that's why I know a lot."
When it was time for photos, Boillot and Byrge stepped outside to the front porch. A recent graduate of Duke University's master of fine arts program in experimental and documentary arts, Boillot is working under a grant from the Riverview Foundation (an offshoot of the Lyndhurst Foundation) to shoot portraits of the artists who embody the rich musical traditions of the Cumberland Plateau.
Her photos will help launch Sandrock Recordings, a digital record label put out by the nonprofit Friends of the Cumberland Trail. Proceeds from Sandrock Recordings will benefit the musical artists as well as Cumberland Trail State Scenic Trail, a 300-mile footpath from Cumberland Gap National Historical Park to Chattanooga that is managed as a state park. So far, volunteers have completed more than half of the Cumberland Trail, including the New River Segment, which passes through the coal mining region where Byrge was raised.
Some of the Sandrock Recordings will feature never-before-heard traditional artists who live in proximity to the Cumberland Trail corridor. Other offerings (some now available online) will draw from 30 years of field recordings made by Bobby Fulcher, an old-time banjo player and folklorist who also happens to be the manager of the Cumberland Trail for Tennessee State Parks.
"Rachel has the talent and conviction we need," Fulcher said. "Her photography can create everlasting stories and symbols for us to carry into the future. The thing she has that's so important is her commitment and energy and love for humankind."
The same Riverview Foundation grant that's funding Boillot's photography this summer also is funding a group of University of Georgia students who are working with record sales and audio mastering on behalf of Sandrock Recordings.
Like her musical subjects, Boillot is a traditionalist when it comes to her tools. She uses a Toyo 4-by-5 view camera, and she captures her images on color film.
"There's something magic to shooting film and using a view finder," Boillot said. "The old-time musicians see this little blond girl running around with this antiquated technology, and it becomes a great ice breaker. Also, I love the results."
In addition to playing fiddle and guitar, Curtis Byrge has a fine, strong voice. As he played for Boillot on his porch, his singing was loud enough to project over the highway traffic that rushed by his front yard. Boillot has a long list of musicians she wants to photograph this summer. Like Byrge, many are getting up in age, which makes the timing of Boillot's work all the more critical.
Boillot grew up in New York. Over the course of the summer she'll be traveling from Chattanooga to Cumberland Gap, living in state park cabins and mobile homes. Part of her mission is to document the family history and personal biographies of the musicians she photographs. On some visits, she just brings food and leaves her camera behind.
"The musicians have been wonderful and have made me feel part of the community. Sometimes when I'm working, I feel like a stranger on the road, but then I get this feeling that people are looking out for me. What I do puts me in adventurous situations at times. I feel very lucky."