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Saturday, February 4, 2012


willard gayheart

bobby patterson

the audience

many the resident cat

Another evening of stellar music from Woodlawn, Virginia. Willard Gayheart and Bobby Patterson made music and sang good old songs at the Fiddle and Plow Show at Willard's gallery and frame shop, the Front Porch. Bobby Patterson came from the Heritage Record Shoppe next door, brought a bluegrass banjo, old-time banjo, and his #6 Henderson guitar made when Wayne was in high school. Bobby is the mandolin player in the Highlanders, the bluegrass band he's in with Willard. They've made music together over 40 years. They're musical partners like Willard and Scott are musical partners of about 25 years. Willard is held very highly by traditional musicians all over the region. He thinks he's nothing at all, but when others talk about Willard, you hear about a man who is such a good rhythm guitarist that musicians love making music with Willard. Bobby too. I came to realize tonight that they are now the old generation of the great musicians in the region. They are now what Luther Davis and Tommy Jarrell once were, the great old master musicians of the region.

It was an audience of 9 tonight, but that didn't slow anything down. A father and son were visiting from Arlington, Virginia, where the boy is doing a school project of the Crooked Road phenomenon,
highway 58. They'd been to a few other events around and showed up for Willard and Bobby. I filled them in at the beginning that these are important characters in the tradition. The magazine Old-Time Herald was started in Bobby Patterson's basement. Bobby has recorded quite a number of SW Virginia old-time and bluegrass musicians, some truly classic albums among them, The Shady Mtn Ramblers (Whit Sizemore, fiddle), Whitetop Mtn Band (Thornton Spencer, fiddle / Albert Hash before him), Art Wooten's bluegrass album in his later years, fiddler Otis Burris, and selections from Galax fiddlers convention every year for quite a lot of years. Bobby is a busy man. Bobby's work is the musical heritage of SW Virginia. First time I met him, I told him I believed him to be the most important man in SW Virginia. I still mean it. He's been at the heart of Galax music all his life. His papa was fiddler John Patterson.

Bobby and Willard also play at the Blue Ridge Music Center through the summer months on Tuesday afternoons for a few hours. Willard plays there on Thursdays with Scott. It's an open space outdoors with a roof. It's music that gets made when Willard and Bobby get together. They do some good picking, but it's all in service to the music. The good picking is not about itself, not saying look how good I can play a guitar, not saying that at all. It's about making music first. That's the thing about mountain music: it's music first. They never do any flourishes to show off how good they are. These are masters of their instruments and understatement is their style. When they sing, the words are in service to the song. It's not about how well they can sing. It's about delivering the words in the song. Good mountain singing can seem expressionless to an ear new to it. Like Sara Carter's singing was a nearly deadpan delivery of the words, but she told the words from the heart and they touch the heart of the listener as if she were emoting like Janis Joplin, and all the better because she's not. From the heart is the key to mountain music. Played from the heart in the musician, it touches the heart in the listener. Therein, is the art in mountain music.

Throughout the show, sitting there listening to their music, their talk between songs, I felt awe the entire time. I was in the presence of two bluegrass masters of the Galax music world in the Central Blue Ridge. I'd like to write a biography of Willard. I feel like his story needs telling. Bobby too. Both are carriers of the tradition through their time on earth. Both their lives have been devoted to the music of SW Virginia. They are both major figures in the evolution of the traditional music of SW Virginia. I am honestly in awe of both of them as human beings. Of people I know, I have always felt comfortable in the company of both of them. They don't play rooster games at all. They don't play any games. They'd rather be making music. One of the feelings I feel in the presence of both men is absence of judgment. I very clearly never have a feeling of being judged by either one of them in all the times I've been around them. They're people who don't drain your energy. They both have a clarity of spirit about them. Both are lovers of God. I'm grateful for the opportunity to know them, each of them and both.

First time I met Bobby Patterson, I felt the awe that I might feel meeting Ralph Stanley, somebody really important. I'd known of Bobby Patterson several years before I met him. I especially knew him as guitar player with Tommy Jarrell and Kyle Creed on the old-time album, June Apple. I knew him as his role in the music of SW Virginia, recording so many good bands that otherwise might not have recorded, and he seemed so small and humble when I met him. He was a giant in my imagination. Bobby is not important to a lot of people's ideas about what's important, but in my own personal notion of what's important, Bobby is up there among the most important. What I respect in Bobby after getting to know him is his character. Willard, his character too. Like when I watch Scott Freeman and Steve Lewis make music, both are master musicians I respect as human beings as well. It's the same kind of respect I have for Willard and Bobby, their humanity, in the best possible meaning of that multi-faceted word.

We had a visitor tonight, David Williams, once with the Red Clay Ramblers. Bobby and Willard asked him to come up and sing a song he'd written about the furniture factories in NC going away, in reference to a film he'd been involved in making, a documentary, WITH THESE HANDS. It can be streamed at . Looks like an interesting site. I could spend a lot of time watching documentaries there. I look forward to seeing With These Hands. Evidently, it covers the social consequences of furniture factories leaving North Carolina and Virginia for Asia. He did some respectable picking and sang a good song.

Scott Freeman was in Nashville with Jeanette and Johnny Williams over their new album, the 3 of them, a bluegrass spgbma awards night.   


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