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Wednesday, June 3, 2009


Alternate Roots

In the Clinch Mountains of SW Virginia, near Hiltons, on the AP Carter Highway, mountain music enters the atmosphere from The Carter Fold on a Saturday night. Janette and Joe, daughter and son of AP and Sara Carter created the place for regional bands to play on Saturday nights next door to AP's old country store that is now a Carter Family museum that charges 50c to get in.

To the people who go there, the Carter Fold is akin to a holy place. I felt it the moment I stepped in the door to pay my $5. It's not a subtle feeling either. It's the same feeling as stepping into a sanctuary, a real one . That was the first moment I knew the people in there loved the Carter Family as much as I do. I, myself, felt awe stepping in there, almost to tears. It's the same feeling as at a Ralph Stanley concert in the mountains.

From time to time I'd get into conversation with someone and the subject was always the Carter Family. Outside for a smoking break I saw the moon over the Clinch Mountains. The Carters and the Stanleys made the Clinch Mountains as legendary in traditional American music as Wordsworth did the lake country in England.

I was thinking how this view of the Clinch Mountains from where I was standing is the view of the Clinch Mountains they saw every day. It seemed like ordinary mountain landscape in the daylight, but the mountains with the moon above them seemed more like the image in my mind, navy blue mountains and a middle blue sky with the golden moon and a halo around it.

The band that night was Alternate Roots. With my friend Jean we traveled two and a half hours getting there because we both wanted to see the band and both wanted to see the Carter Fold. If you listen to my radio show, you've heard Alternate Roots fairly often. It's a band of excellent musicians who played together beautifully from the start. I even think of them as a kind of art band of mountain music. They play a song because they believe it's beautiful in its way and don't lean toward standard crowd pleasers and getting the audience worked up.

Steve doesn't get everybody hoopin and hollerin over his banjo, until it's time. Scott makes nothing of his mandolin artistry, until, again, it's time. The night of the day Scott won the mandolin competition at the Wayne Henderson Festival, a new mandolin made by Wayne, he arrived at the Blue Ridge Music Center just in time to go on stage. When it came his time to take his mandolin break he smoked that thing. He was all over it. At a certain point, Steve looked at him like to say, what got into you? I'd seen Scott play several times, but never like that.

Scott is a mandolin and fiddle player, who plays every note at whatever speed is required. Pee Wee Lambert, who played mandolin with the Stanley Brothers is a mandolin player who brings Scott to mind when I hear him, the crystal clarity of every note and it always right.

Steve Lewis, banjo and lead guitar, is Scott's equal musically. They play together like one mind. Each one is a musician who wants to play the artistry of the music and their instruments. And best of all, they like to make music. When they're at it, it's music being made, and you feel it. I wouldn't say less of anyone else in the band.

Katy Taylor is a bluegrass singer the equal of any one of them on the bluegrass charts. Everyone in the band is too. That includes Willard Gayheart, singer and I believe musical hub of the band. They don't get any better than Randy Pasley playing dobro. And Tony Testerman, bass. I don't mean to slight any of them by saying more about Scott and Steve. Every member of this band is a good bluegrass musician.

They made four stellar albums and went poof. When Alternate Roots disbanded I fell into a state of grief like one of my friends had died. Scott has a new 'solo project,' Carolina Welcomes You. It has everyone from Alternate Roots but Tony the bass player. Mike Gayheart, son of Willard, plays the bass this time. Hearing it the first time was like having Alternate Roots back, their 5th album the best of them all, like each one before it.

Next Saturday night, the 13th of June, Scott's band with his brother who plays banjo and his brother's boys, Pathway, will be playing at the Lincoln Theater in Marion. They play good bluegrass Freeman style.

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