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Saturday, December 17, 2011


     the highlanders

     scott freeman, fiddle; jimmy zeh, banjo

     jimmy zeh, banjo; marvin cockerham, bass; willard gayheart, guitar

     scott freeman, fiddle; jimmy zeh, banjo

       bobby patterson, mandolin; scott freeman, fiddle

The Fiddle and Plow show happening at Willard Gayheart's Front Porch Gallery, Woodlawn, Virginia, featured tonight the Highlanders, a Galax bluegrass band of almost 40 years. Willard plays guitar and sings with the band. When the World's Fair took place in Knoxville, Tennessee, back in the 80s, the Highlanders played there for a week. Buddy Pendleton was their fiddler. Pendleton recorded an album playing fiddle with Larry Richardson & the Blue Ridge Boys, a classic mountain bluegrass album recorded in 1965, Buddy was a youngun then. He had a great career started as a fiddler with Bill Monroe for awhile and then the Greenbriar Boys, a New York City folk revival old-time band. From there he returned home and worked to retirement at the Floyd, Virginia, post office. He's a frail, honest, thin, seemingly weightless man now with gray hair. Oh, but he can play a fiddle. He played at Fiddle and Plow a year or more ago. I spoke with him a few minutes before the show, asking permission to make video of him playing, and wondered what this frail little guy would do with a fiddle. It didn't take long to find out. Once he started playing, I knew this was a master.

Buddy wasn't with them tonight, so Scott Freeman played fiddle in Buddy's absence. I was hoping Buddy would show up, but he didn't. Scott played a beautiful fiddle. Musically, Buddy wasn't missed, but I would like to see him and hear him play fiddle again. His fiddling has an airy quality about it. By airy, I suppose I mean like an apple tree pruned such that birds can fly through it. I put up several videos of Pendleton on YouTube, which I was very happy to do, to make his fiddle playing available to whoever might chance upon it or find it by looking for it, whoever sees it. Buddy Pendleton is too great a fiddler to overlook. I don't mean to imply Scott's fiddle wasn't up to Pendleton's. Scott is so close, it doesn't matter if one is better than the other. I like to hear both of them play a fiddle. I don't know if it communicates a sound to say Scott's fiddle playing has a full bodied sound. He bears down on the strings and makes them work. Visually, I see Scott's manner of fiddling in VanGogh's and Edvard Munch's paintings of women. I can't explain it. It's a subjective feeling. Where Pendleton's fiddle might be of the air, Scott's is of the earth. He uses his bow to dig the notes out of the strings, he takes charge of the strings. Again, I'm not saying one is better than the other. It's different styles of playing a fiddle.

Willard was the lead singer for the band, and such a good singer Willard is. There is quite a number of songs of Willard singing on YouTube. Write his name in the search box and everything with him on it will come up. Willard's singing is good mountain singing. By "good" I mean like Sara Carter was good at mountain singing. Willard is that kind of good at delivering a song. He doesn't dramatize the song with his voice, he delivers the words and lets the words tell the story. He keeps ego out of his singing, out of his guitar playing, out of his performance, in the mountain way. I and several others see Willard as the best kept secret in SW Virginia. Willard doesn't know how good he is. He doesn't promote himself. Scott Freeman married Willard's daughter, Jill. Scott and Willard have been musical parnters ever since; first with Skeeter & the Skidmarks, then Alternate Roots, then Skeeter & the Skidmarks redux. Willard and Scott make a great duo. Willard also plays duo with Bobby Patterson.

Bobby Patterson is a good singer too. He plays mandolin with the Highlanders. He plays guitar and banjo when he and Willard play together. Bobby Patterson is best known, for me anyway, on the album June Apple with Tommy Jarrell on fiddle, Kyle Creed, banjo, Audine Lineberry, bass, and Bobby Patterson rhythm guitar. He was young then, playing with the old fellers, the masters. Audine Lineberry played bass with Whit Sizemore's band, the Shady Mountain Ramblers. She sang Ruby the way it was meant to be sung. I personally hold Bobby Patterson as the most important man in SW Virginia, for what he has done for the music of Grayson County, in particular. He has a small label and a recording studio. He recorded local old-time bands and some bluegrass. He recorded the Shady Mountain Ramblers, Whitetop Mountain Band, Otis Burris, Art Wooten, a mess of others and made collections from the Galax fiddlers convention every year for cd. He started with LPs, then cassettes, then CDs. Bobby is a great musician and a noble man. 

Everyone in the band I could say is a noble man. Noble is a word not used any more, and that's a good thing. Now it is free of connotation, and it's meaning can be what I mean without sentiment mixed in. I mean they are noble in that they, each one, is who he is. Each one has worked hard all his life, has raised a family and made music on weekends. They are, every one, what we call here in the mountains good people. Give them a chance to make music and they're happy. Jimmy Zeh came to Galax from West Virginia. Willard came to Galax from a little township 10 miles outside Hazard, Kentucky. Scott is from MtAiry, lives in Woodlawn, Marvin Cockerham from Meadows of Dan. Bobby Patterson has lived at Galax all his life. Willard lives in Woodlawn. Bobby Patterson's Heritage Shoppe and Heritage Records is right there by Willard's framing shop.

From the moment the band started they played straight ahead mountain bluegrass and they never let up. Scott's fiddle came forward from time to time and raged for us. I think it might have been Katy Hill he cut loose on. I wasn't prepared with the camera when he started up, I missed the beginning, so I used the time to get still shots, wishing I'd got that fiddle on video. Then I always tell myself it is not at all necessary to have it all on video. It is not necessary at all. Enjoy it raw, straight from the fiddle to my ear. It gets to be like a Warhol fixation to want to record everything. I do it to archive this moment in time in the evolution of mountain music. I believe it needs doing. Nobody else is doing it. Then it's mine to do. I get to do things like this because I don't do it for money. I don't care about copyrights. I just want to share this mountain music with anyone around the world who wants to hear it.


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