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Thursday, September 2, 2010


bobby patterson and willard gayheart
Music at the Sparta library tonight, Bobby Patterson and Willard Gayheart of Woodlawn, Virginia. If I remember correctly, Debbie told me when it was over 48 people were there. And there was room for more. A comfortable number of people for the space. A small few of the people in the audience know of either one of them. Before they started, I was talking with people, looking about seeing who was there to hear this music. I was thinking, y'all don't have any idea you're in the company of 2 masters. By the end of the first song, everybody knew the music we were hearing was the real deal. Bobby can pick a guitar and banjo, both with mastery. And he sings well. Willard's music is his guitar and singing. They've known each other 40 years and more, have played in the same band about all that time too, the Highlanders. Their businesses are the nearest thing to adjoining buildings, just a driveway space between them.
For all that Bobby Patterson has done in the course of his lifetime, I have no hesitation to call him the most important man in SW Virginia. His record label, Heritage Records, started doing lps, then cassettes, then cds of the old-time music of SW Virginia and some bluegrass. His recording studio is in the basement of his Heritage Record Shoppe in Woodlawn. He keeps a good supply of cds of music of the central Blue Ridge. Some of the bands he's recorded are fiddler Whit Sizemore's Shady Mountain Ramblers, The Bell Spur String Band, fiddler Otis Burris, early Whitetop Mountain Band when Albert Hash was the fiddler, Laurel Fork Travelers, New Ballards Branch Bog Trotters and a long list more. All the music he has put on record might never have been recorded if Bobby Patterson had been born someplace else. He played guitar on the most classic old-time album there is, June Apple, with Tommy Jarrell, fiddle, Kyle Creed, banjo, Audine Linebury, bass. He was a youngster then, in his twenties. He was with the big dogs, the old guys of his early life who have been dead 30 years by now.
Old-Time Herald began in the basement of his shop when it was in Galax, the 1970s. Grayson County has a music association Bobby moderates. He records the fiddlers conventions and puts selections onto cd for each year. He has given all his fiddlers convention tapes to Ferrum College's Appalachian music collection. At the Galax fiddler's convention, he is the one to come out and announce the banjo giveaway. He'll pick a tune on the banjo to show how it sounds. That's where I first learned Bobby could pick. The music is in him. His daddy was a fiddler, John Patterson. Bobby grew up in the Galax area old-time music world. I'm in awe of the benefit to his world Bobby has been all his life. A man who has made his world, southwestern Virginia, a better place than it would have been without him. He has contributed what seems like an unlimited amount to the music of his region.
Willard grew up about 10 miles outside Hazard, Kentucky. He came to this area more than 40 years ago, possibly close to 50. He's been with the Galax bluegrass band The Highlanders for about 40 years, Bobby too. Bobby plays mandolin with the Highlanders. Willard plays guitar and sings. When I listen to their music I hear Willard's sound. Willard is a good song writer and a good arranger. After hearing Willard's bands, Alternate Roots and Skeeter & the Skidmarks, I heard the Highlanders and there was Willard's sound again. He won't take credit for it, but Willard is a creative individual. He writes a good song. He can pick an acoustic guitar with the best. He is also known for his pencil drawings of mountain people. He keeps at that like a medieval monk. Thus a book of his drawings was published a few years ago. He gets better as he goes along. It's the same with his music. The music is effortless for him. He and Bobby had played at the Blue Ridge Music Center from 10 to 3 today, then to Sparta to play 3 hours at the library.
Willard is a good musician and a good performer. He has experience with every size of audience there is. With Alternate Roots and Skeeter, as well as the Highlanders, Willard has played a countless number of shows. He talks well between songs, sometimes telling the story behind one of the songs he wrote. He's personable with the audience such that when you're in the audience he's talking to you. Willard's vocals are such that you understand the words as articulately as the notes on his guitar. Willard's music has what is called heart and soul in jazz. When the music gets hold of Willard while he's singing, he feels it and you feel it. He has played his guitar and sung for so many years it appears automatic in this time of his life. Willard's music has mountain drive that keeps it moving along. The Carter Family had that drive too. Willard says in his song, My Henderson Guitar, the one thing he'd rather be doing by far, of all the things in the world he might be doing, is playing mountain music on his Henderson guitar.

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