cleve andrews (fiddle), jr maxwell (banjo)
Above is the most recently finished painting. It's waiting for signing. It's in the process now of being looked over, studied minutely looking for something I missed. Like after I put the bow in the fiddler's hand, I thought it looked fine. A couple days later I noticed the end of the bow in his hand came out the other end of his hand at a different angle, like it bent where he was holding it. A couple days I looked at that without seeing it. When I saw it, it was so obvious I almost questioned my sensibilities. But it's something like that in every painting. Easy to fix. Oil paint is wonderfully forgiving. I think I'm about satisfied there's nothing more. That's how I know when they're done, when there's nothing more to be done to improve it. There comes a point when it starts getting worse, and I like to stop before that point.
Jr told me that when he was playing at a dance, he'd keep some liquor nearby and would drink while he played. Liquor greases the joints and helps get the mind out of playing the banjo or anything so the fingers can play without mind. The more you drink, the better you play. Until. There's that point. Beyond that point you play worse and worse. He would drink up to that point and hold it there. Mountain music and liquor go hand in hand. That's changing, but as it changes the sound of the music changes. Drunk driving laws have probably done more to change the sound of mountain music than about any other social change. Fiddlers conventions changed the sound. Every time a new instrument was introduced, like banjo, then guitar, then bass, the music changed. Old-time is a changing music like all other pop musics. Old-time is a slower changing pop than rock or even bluegrass that has changed a very great deal along the way.
The painting is itself, but its purpose is to honor these two musicians of Alleghany County. Cleve died several years ago, before I could have known him, and I knew Jr for a long time. I know Cleve through Jr, because he told me so much about Cleve, who at the end of his life he assesses as the fiddler he liked making music with the best. Art Wooten is there too. Cleve and Jr played as one. I've only heard two recordings of Cleve, both with Jr, caught at the 1966 Galax fiddler's convention by somebody from Germany visiting with a tape recorder, who got some very good sound quality. These two fiddle tunes, Back Up And Push and Panhandle Country, are the only traces we have left of the Little River Boys---Cleve and Jr plus whoever they can get to play guitar. The full band was with 2 guitars, Paul Joines and Estal Bedsaul. I've already made one rather large painting of the full band. They were the first bluegrass band in the county. An Appalachian music historian called Jr one day and told him that in the conversation---his was the first bluegrass band in the area. That didn't mean any more to Jr than telling him January has 31 days. He didn't care. That had nothing to do with it.
Cleve spent some years of WW2 in a concentration camp. I've heard German and I've heard Japanese. I don't know which. He was there with Paul Warren, who later became fiddler with Flatt & Scruggs. Paul was a fiddler before the war and in their years together there, evidently Paul inspired Cleve. After the war, Cleve took up the fiddle. They kept in touch over the years. Jr told me of a time Cleve was in the audience at a Flatt & Scruggs show and Paul saw him. He called Cleve to the stage and asked him to play a few tunes. That meant something to Jr. Being first bluegrass band was nothing, but Cleve playing with Flatt & Scruggs was something indeed. Nothing to make a fuss about, but something, nonetheless. One thing it told was the quality of Cleve's fiddling. That's all that mattered.
Jr once was hired by Jimmy Martin, Lois his wife encouraged him to go with the band, but after a month, Jr wasn't making any money, living on a bus, living on hamburgers and coffee. It wasn't in him. He came home, didn't want that life. Got his look into it, was satisfied it wasn't for him and never wanted to play his music beyond locally. He wanted to stay at home. He liked home. Jr was driving a banana truck in Florida at the time. Jimmy Martin was in Tampa. He was looking for a banjo player and Jr auditioned. He got the job. He was like me in the way he got the job, then left it, didn't need it any more. It told him he could do it, and that's all he needed to know. It gave him a measure of his pickin. He'd aimed to be that good and he made it. That's enough. He found he could do it and that was that. I'm the same way. A psychic once told me I will take something up to see if I can do it; when I see I can, I'm done. To see that I could do it was the purpose. I said, That's me.
Jr played banjo with fiddler Art Wooten with Jr's band The Green Mountain Boys for some years. Art is the Alleghany County fiddler who recorded 9 songs with Bill Monroe, 8 songs with the Stanley Brothers, and 4 songs with Flatt & Scruggs. He was Bill Monroe's first fiddler and the only musician to record with all three of those first bluegrass bands. First time Monroe was on Grand Ole Opry, Art was with him and they played Mule Skinner Blues, making Art the first bluegrass fiddler. He was one of the great bluegrass fiddlers. He also played some with Earl Taylor, but I've not been able to find if he recorded anything with Taylor. It was in Taylor's beginning when he was getting a band going in the Baltimore area. Jr and Art made good music together. I think we have about 22 titles found on an 8-track Art Wooten either gave or sold to Whitetop Mountain Band fiddler Thornton Spencer. Green Mountain Boys was a bluegrass band with mountain drive.
These are a few details I know about the lives of these two musicians. Cleve worked at the Dr Grabow pipe factory in Sparta and had an 11 acre farm just outside Sparta. Jr was a sawmiller since he started sawmilling with his daddy when he was 14. He was sawmilling alone at 18. He figured out a banjo at 14 and played dances with his half brother, 30 years older, Welter, who played fiddle. His first wife, Maggie, played guitar. The three of them played a lot of dances. He said Maggie was a good singer too. Both Jr and Cleve made music about every weekend through their adult lives, not always together. Jr had a good life as a musician. He'd played with people like Otis Burris and Jim Shumate at dances. Gene Mead was his favorite guitar player to make music with. Jr was also a heavy equipment operator, esp a "bull-noser," and a tractor mechanic, known around NW North Carolina as the one you took your tractor to when nobody else could fix it. He had an intuitive knowing about tractors.