These were the people sitting in front of me at the Amantha Mill show Friday night. They enjoyed the music, no two ways about it. It was a happy audience. The audience at the Front Porch is always a happy audience, especially among the people who go every week or almost. We (I'm one of them) know that whoever it is playing, it's going to be good music. We walk in the door, one at a time, ready to hear some more good mountain music every week. I have to say some of the shows are less good than others. However, the standard there is so high that not quite as good as the best is still pretty dern good.
A few years ago a somewhat pompous man I know announced to me in the clear-the-throat English way that precedes the voice of authority William Buckley did so well, "Wayne Henderson is the best." I've come into a place within where best is meaningless. My first thought was Scott Fore from West Virginia wins Galax every other year, and Wayne wins it every other year, as a rule that sometimes gets broken. In that competition way of pickin, it looks like they're equal. Both are the best. Then pickers like James Allen Shelton, who plays guitar with Ralph Stanley. And Ricky Lee, who played guitar with Ralph in the mid 70s. Snake Smith of the Fishers Peak Timber Rattlers can pick around just about anybody. Steve Lewis can give Wayne a run for it on the guitar too. Dave Vaught of the VW Boys is also an amazing picker. Willard Gayheart, who plays only rhythm guitar, is an awfully good picker, one that the musicians all around him love to pick with for his extra good pickin and his solid rhythm. Johnny Gentry of the Mountain Park Old Time Band, and before that he picked with the Whitetop Mountain band for several years, can pick a guitar like nobody's business.
Among these people I've mentioned, I'd hate to be put in a position to proclaim one of them The BEST. I can say each of them is among the best. One thing I can say definitively is, Eric Clapton is not the best. I bought the Clapton acoustic MTV Unplugged dvd because someone had said he played his Henderson guitar on it. I wanted to know for certain, because I didn't quite believe it, thought I'd have heard it before now it it were so. I was disappointed by Clapton's acoustic picking. Yes, what he does takes the g on the end. I wish I'd never heard him play Layla acoustic. It was one of those great anthemic songs in rock, like Angie, Jane Says, Money. It its time, I loved it even better than Whiter Shade of Pale. Clapton's acoustic was such a major let-down I've not listened to it again. I may want to with a new mind. Before, all I could hear was all the guitar pickers I've heard who are indeed better, and this is what's called the best?
Clapton, himself, would say with certainty that he is not the best, that is in private, where he's comfortable he won't be quoted in the rock press. In like manner, Wayne Henderson knows he is not the best. I believe he could say with some satisfaction after all the years and unthinkable number of hours and attention he's given to practicing, that it's good for his self-esteem to be called the best, but it is devoid of meaning. Even if you really are the fastest gun in the west, somebody can shoot you in the back. I don't mean to take anything away from Wayne Henderson, because his stature as a guitar picker speaks for itself. My favorite way to hear Wayne play is after he has done the round of contest favorites the audiences expect of him and settles into making music with Carter Family songs and other traditional mountain music, as well as bluegrass. That's when I hear the pickin that satisfies my own ear. Even if someone can dance his fingers all up and down the frets at the speed of light, if there's no music in it, in the old way of putting it, it aint nothin. Wayne knows that. Whatever he plays has music in it. In the picture of Willard above, that's Wayne with the guitar in the picture on the wall, a drawing made by Willard. All the pencil drawings in the gallery are Willard's.