I am laughing at myself quite a lot lately over the change in my musical tastes. Willard Gayheart has me liking songs like My Little Red Wagon, I'm Only Blue When It Rains, Silver Dew On The Bluegrass, I Love You Nelly, Kentucky Memories, Coney Island Washboard and others of the like. Gene Autry and Sons of the Pioneer kinds of songs I've never paid the least bit of attention to. Now I go about with them in my head. I have to watch it filming the music at the Front Porch, because I catch myself singing unconsciously along in the soundtrack. It's never good. Now that I've heard Willard make music almost every week for a year, there has been plenty of time to note that Willard is a great musician and a great singer. I don't say great lightly. I mean it the way I'd mean it saying Ralph Stanley is great. Willard doesn't have Stanley's stage experience, which is the only thing that keeps him from being Stanley's equal, and Willard doesn't have a big fan base, because he's never set out to gather a fan base.
Willard makes music because he loves making music. There's the old New Age quip, "Do what you love, the money will follow." Not necessarily. Marsha Sinetar, who wrote the book, answered when somebody said he did what he loved and didn't make much money at all, "I didn't say how much." That remark did it for me. There was no substance to her subject anyway. Willard does what he loves and very little money follows, gas money is about it. Yet, he has made a business of doing one of the art forms he loves, making pencil drawings, framing them and selling them in a framing shop of his own. He makes a living, nothing special, doing what he loves. I have a feeling he never pursued professional musicianship because he didn't want to turn what he loves into a situation that would make him tired of it and never want to make music again. This way, he makes music every chance he gets and jumps at the chance.
Edwin Lacy, banjo picker, and I have been talking about the need to get Willard recorded playing those old songs he loves so much that don't come under old-time or bluegrass. They're in the same kind of groove as the songs he writes like Robin D, Ern And Zorie's Sneakin Bitin Dog, The Shootin, which are very much of the Willard sound. Of all the songs he sings, I feel like the one he delivers to my best satisfaction is I'm Only Blue When It Rains. He sings that song with soul. He sings everything with soul, but this one especially. When he sings it, he seems like his voice loves to go to the places where the song takes it. He sings My Little Red Wagon with a western swing that brings what I've always thought of as that corny old song to life. He makes it a song I carry in my head much of the time. The rock songs that have previously lived in my head have been replaced by Willard songs. Edwin mentioned that the Parkway Music Center would surely fund a recording of Willard singing his Willard songs that no one else does now.
Also, by now I've heard so many recordings of Willard along the way, like with his bands The Highlanders, Alternate Roots, Skeeter & The Skidmarks, the 2 cds he made with Bobby Patterson, plus a year of hearing him make music every week, I perhaps know Willard's music better than even Lucinda Williams, Taj Mahal and Muddy Waters. And I can't say I prefer any of those people's music to Willard's. Willard makes music. When he's in the band, music is made. His musical partner, Scott Freeman, plays music too. When they play together music gets made. I mean music, not just something that sounds like music. I've noticed that Willard sings better live than in a studio. In the studio he tries to make his voice sound the best he can make it sound, when the fact is, he sounds best when he's singing out to an audience. That's when Willard sings his very best, in front of an audience. I think about setting up a tape recorder or probably a digital recorder and get good sound of Willard singing at the Front Porch, make a live album, calling it something like Willard Live at the Front Porch Gallery. It would make a wonderful album of 15-20 or more songs.
The dvds I make of the shows from my little ole Japanese fujifilm camera that picks up sound by little pin holes in the side sounds pretty good, but is not what you'd call sound quality. I've been playing the dvd made from Willard and Scott's show Friday night, noting in my mind what a great album this would make. It wouldn't sell a great deal. Mountain music of any kind doesn't sell very well. Selling well is not the point. The point is breaking even and getting Willard's music on record so it's not lost when Willard is no longer able to make it. I'd like to see him go on and on like Wade Mainer and Doc Watson, and he may. Now that my head has become a concert of Willard's music, I feel like we really do need in the body of mountain music a recording of Willard singing these songs with Scott, who accompanies him just right. Scott has some songs he could sing on the album too, like Roly Poly. Again, a song I'd have never listened to, Scott took hold of it and brought it to life. Now I go about singing in my head, "baby's gonna be a man some day."
Willard's historical importance in the music of the Central Blue Ridge is enormous. His band the Higlanders played at the World's Fair, Knoxville, 1982. The bands Willard has been associated with are always among the better bands in the region, bands important to the region. His bands haven't had a following like Britney Spears, but that doesn't negate them. It rarefies them. Friday night it came to me and I told Scott that there is coming a time Alternate Roots will be discovered for the great band it is, and it will be a very big deal. Only everybody in the band is dead but one, who's in a nursing home with Alzheimers. We had a good laugh at the fickle finger of fate. One thing about fame after death, it doesn't go to your head, a core principle among mountain musicians. And when it comes to humility, another principle important among mountain musicians, Willard's automatic humility is the match of Jr Maxwell's, who had a humility like I'd never seen before. This is why Willard is no more widely known than he is. Self-promotion doesn't feel right to him. He's learned as much of it as necessary to keep at what he loves doing, making music with a guitar and singing.
If you want to hear some good music, go to YouTube and write his name in the search box. A long list will come up. To be more specific, you might put his name, then the song title, like My Little Red Wagon or The Yellow Rose of Texas, which Willard made his own.