Cumberland Trail manager honored for folklife preservation

Bob Fulcher, park manager of the Cumberland Trail State Park, talks about his efforts to help record an oral history from local residents' stories of the Cumberland Trail.

Cumberland Trail and Great Eastern Trail travelers heading south toward Chattanooga through a preserved landscape in the coming decades also will travel through a preserved culture, thanks to Bobby Fulcher.

Fulcher, park manager for the Cumberland Trail State Scenic Trail, received the Folklife Heritage Award during the Governor's Arts Awards in Nashville last week as a recognition for his decades of work documenting and preserving the music, crafts, culture and idiosyncrasies of life off the state's beaten paths.

The 40-year state park service veteran launched the Tennessee State Parks Folklife Project in 1979 to document the fizzling folk traditions of rural Appalachia. He has continued with some form of that mission ever since, even as he has worked for the last several years to facilitate construction and maintenance of the sprawling Cumberland Trail.

"To me, it's inconceivable that we would try and create a 300-mile-long corridor and not take within that corridor all those memories, all that knowledge, all that music, all those beautiful ideas and have them, too, along with the waterfalls, wild birds and caves," Fulcher said Thursday night while in Chattanooga for an event honoring local groups working to maintain the trail. "We want all of that. It's always been there together."

The State Parks Folklife Project produced more than 500 hours of audio and thousands of pictures, helping bring recognition to some of the best folk musicians in the country, whose talents had been bottled up in the state's hills and hollers until Fulcher showed up with a tape recorder. Musicians like Dee and Delta Hicks of Fentress County and Clyde Davenport, also of Fentress County, gained regional and national acclaim once they were discovered.

Charlie Tate, who worked with Fulcher in the state park system starting in the 1970s, said Fulcher has an "incredible ability to show you what's uncommon about the common man."

"When you'd go into a community or a restaurant while traveling, you could see he was always trying to talk to local people about local artists, musicians," Tate said. "He would ask them if they knew anyone locally who played music or did crafts."

Tate attended this week's ceremony honoring Fulcher and other recipients of the Governor's Arts Awards and said it was a fitting tribute for someone who "knows a lot about a lot."

Celia Garduño, a Mexico-born needleworker and resident of Chattanooga since 1998, and Allan Benton, the owner of Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Madisonville, also received the Folklife Heritage Award.

Country musician Vince Gill, Christian musician Amy Grant and opera singer Kallen Esperian received the Distinguished Artist Award.

Fulcher plays folk music, too, but Tate said his greatest talent is finding others who played.

"Bobby would always take these layers away from individuals in rural communities," Tate said. "His talents and knowledge about the old ways, old music and old songs, that's his passion. Beyond that, he's an incredible naturalist who knows a lot about nature."

Cumberland Trail organizers hope to have the nearly 300-mile trail complete within the next five years. It will stretch from the state's border with Kentucky to its border with Georgia in Hamilton County. Large sections are already complete, but organizers are still looking for local groups willing to construct and maintain sections of the trail. It is also part of the developing Great Eastern Trail that will stretch from New York to Alabama.

Fulcher is working on land acquisitions to help piece the last stretches of the trail together. All the while, he's keeping his ears alert for a banjo picker. He may have missed one or two over the last 40 years who he could include in the Cumberland Trail History Project.

"We want to be sure that we don't let that get swept away," Fulcher said. "That doesn't come back like the leaves come back every spring. If you let that stuff go, you're not getting it again."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at [email protected] or 423-757-6249.