On Sunday, June 23, the annual Singing On The Mountain Gospel music program will celebrate 95 years on Grandfather Mountain. For nearly a century, the free gospel program and picnic open to folks of all faiths has taken place in nature on McRae Meadow on one of the most beautiful mountains in western North Carolina.
In 1924, Joe Hartley, a farmer born in 1870, decided to create a get-together where various church choirs could join each other in fellowship, food sharing and song on Grandfather Mountain and it quickly turned into a yearly event. Over the years, folks such as Johnny Cash and Bob Hope and others have attended the gospel show.
Hartley was known to be “an authority on Shakespeare and the Bible,” and he was a judge, a fire warden and a part of the building of the road from Linville to Blowing Rock. He was also a friend of the owner of Grandfather Mountain Hugh McRae, who bequeathed the world-renown mountain to his grandson Hugh Morton. It was Morton who built the Mile High Bridge and turned Grandfather Mountain into a sustainable park. He was also an environmentalist, educator, photographer and supporter of the yearly Singing On The Mountain event.
This year’s Singing On The Mountain picnic and concert will take place from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and will include performances by Adam Beard, The Cockman Family, The Collective, Michael Combs, New Covenant, and Patricia Smith. At 1 p.m., the guest speaker will be radio host and author David Chadwick.
The Cockman Family is one of the most musically talented groups to ever come out of North Carolina, specifically Sherrills Ford, N.C. Led by John Cockman Sr., this bluegrass gospel group features top musicians including son Ben Cockman, who has won the prestigious National Flatpick Guitar Championship in Winfield, Kansas, along with many other competitions, and brother Billy Chapman who won the National Banjo Championship, also held in Winfield, Kansas.
With a local connection, fiddler extraordinaire John Chapman Jr. is also a professor in the Physics and Astronomy department at Appalachian State University.
The Cockman Family became regulars at the Singing On The Mountain show due to an interesting turn of events.
“George Beverly Shea was the long-time gospel singer for Billy Graham and UNC-TV was filming a TV show called ‘The Wonder of it All — George Beverly Shea and Friends’ and we were one of the guests on the program,” said John Cockman Sr. “We had never met George before the show, which was filmed in 1998 in Black Mountain at Montreat College. Hugh Morton, the owner of Grandfather Mountain, was at the TV show taping. After we sang two or three songs, Hugh came backstage and he introduced himself to us and said, ‘I’d like for your family to be on top of Grandfather Mountain this year to perform at Singing On The Mountain.’ I didn’t know Hugh from Adam’s half cat, you know. But, we met him that day and he was a great guy, a nice person and a great photographer. So, we have been playing at Singing On The Mountain for 22 years now.”
Since beginning their two-decade run of annual performances at Singing On The Mountain, the Cockman Family has grown to appreciate the overall experience of the gathering.
“We love it,” said Cockman. “What is unique about this is that many people who go to it have come year after year. There is a woman that attends Singing On The Mountain that is in her ‘90s and she has gone there every year of her life. Other people take their vacations around Singing On The Mountain and they will camp on the grounds on the days before it happens. It is like a family reunion to many of the people. But, there are always new people as well. It is unique because it is so old and because it is well-run and it is received in a positive way by the community. With Grandfather Mountain always there and nature and the quietness of the area along with the gospel music; it is inspirational to me.”
The Cockman Family is the host family of the annual Fiddler’s Grove Music Festival that takes place in Union Grove, N.C., every Memorial Day weekend.
That event just held its 96th annual festival.
Locally, the Cockman Family also used to perform at the now-defunct Doc and Rosa Lee Watson Music Festival that was held in nearby Sugar Grove. The Cockman Family was lucky enough to have spent time with the late local music hero Doc Watson before his death in 2012.
“I got to talk to Doc quite a bit through the years,” said Cockman. “We also played with him several times. The first time we ever went to the Fiddler’s Grove Festival was in the spring of 1988 and Doc Watson was there that year. Doc was leaning against a car near the stage and Harper Van Hoy, who owned and ran the festival, took us over there and said, ‘I want you to meet Doc Watson.’ So, we shook his hand and I asked him if we could get a picture and he said sure. Doc held out both of his arms and put them on two of my boys on the left and two more sons on the right. They were just young and little, and I still have that picture somewhere. “
More information on the event can be found at singingonthemountain.org.