As a founding member of the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers — one of Tennessee’s most hard-driving and highly-skilled string bands — Janice Birchfield holds a revered place in the old-time music community. For nearly fifty years, the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers have shared the repertoire and culture of a rural Appalachian musical style that predates radio and the phonograph. Followers have described their music as “mesmerizing, raw, rapid-fire, and trance-inducing.” Musicians from around the world have taken up the Hilltopper’s tunes and sought the band members out as musical masters. As the last surviving original band member, Janice is today one of the very few remaining links to pre-commercial Tennessee folk music.
Formed in 1974, the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers featured the fiddle and banjo playing of brothers Joe and Creed Birchfield. The Birchfield brothers had learned their music mostly within the family, especially from their father and uncles. Joe’s wife Ethyl played percussion in the band, and their son Bill played guitar and later the fiddle as well. Janice—Bill’s wife—was the original washtub bass player. The Hilltoppers repertoire consisted of a wide variety of traditional tunes, many of which date to before the Civil War, and several that are particular to the mountain region of East Tennessee. From the beginning, the band played regularly at community dances and social functions. They soon became known at contests, festivals, and concerts in the wider region and across the country. Janice has always served as the spokesperson for the band and has remained a consistent and articulate advocate for the music and stories of the southern Appalachians. “We play the way our family always has,” Janice says. “Straight, traditional sounds.”
The Roan Mountain Hilltoppers have been recognized outside the region for their approach to traditional music. In 1983, prolific British music documentary filmmaker Jeremy Marre featured the Hilltoppers in his televised feature, Beats of the Heart: Chase the Devil- Religious Music of the Appalachian Mountains. The band also appeared in the 1987 Smithsonian Folkways film Talking Feet: Solo Southern Dance: Flatfoot, Buck and Tap, the first documentary to feature rural dancing styles. The Hilltoppers also appeared in Tradition: Tennessee Lives & Legacies, a book, and DVD project produced by the Tennessee Arts Commission’s Folklife Program. In 2019, Janice was prominently featured in the New York Times as part of a photo exhibition by photographer Lisa Elmaleh.
Several professional old-time musicians have apprenticed with members of the group, most notably the Old Crow Medicine Show, who sought out Janice and Bill in an effort to connect more deeply to the origins of old-time music. Many others have spent time in the Birchfield home absorbing not only the tunes but also ways of thinking about traditional music and its importance in the community. Many come away from a visit inspired and eager to find new ways to bring the Hilltoppers’ raw vitality into their own playing and performing. Since Bill’s death in 2015, Janice has continued to host young musicians in her home and employs the more promising of them in the most current version of the Hilltoppers. Janice has ensured that the band, and its traditional music, will play on well into the future.