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Saturday, June 2, 2012

THE HIGHLANDERS BLUEGRASS THE FRONT PORCH

     bobby patterson, scott freeman, jimmy zeh, marvin cockerham,           willard gayheart


     bobby patterson, scott freeman


     bobby patterson, scott freeman, jimmy zeh


     jimmy zeh, marvin cockerham, willard gayheart


The show at the Front Porch last night was the Highlanders, a Galax bluegrass band that started around 1970 and grew into a spot onstage at the 1982 World Fair in Knoxville. It was something of a CD release concert as Bobby Patterson, mandolin player in the band, has a label where he publishes old-time and bluegrass bands of SW Virginia. His catalog has some of the finest music of this region that can be found; Whit Sizemore's band The Shady Mountain Ramblers, The Rock Mountain Ramblers, early Whitetop Mountain Band with Albert Hash on fiddle, Otis Burris, Tommy Jarrell, Kyle Creed, The Bell Spur String Band. When Bobby was much younger, he played rhythm guitar on the album JUNE APPLE with Tommy Jarrell playing fiddle, Kyle Creed banjo, Audine Lineberry bass. It's about the finest old-time album I've heard. In the time of my store selling regional music, somebody would come in and ask for "the best" of the old-time, somebody new to the area. I handed them June Apple and they always returned wanting more "like that." I'd have to say, "There isn't any more like that. That's it. There are plenty of close seconds." Bobby will forever be a star in my eyes for being a part of that album.


Knowing a little bit about the music of SW Virginia, the list of musicians he's recorded is impressive. In several cases their only recordings are with Heritage. Bobby tapes the Galax Fiddlers Convention every year, makes a compilation CD of selections from what happened on stage. He has recently given all his fiddlers convention tapes to Ferrum College at Martinsville VA for their Appalachian music department. If you've been to the Galax Fiddler's Convention, you might remember Bobby as the man who tells about the banjo to be given away to the lucky one chosen from tickets sold for a dollar apiece for some benefit. He gives a demonstration picking that knocks my sox off every time I hear him. He doesn't set out to be impressive; it's just that the man makes music with whatever instrument he plays. Bobby is presently with a gospel group, Sugar Creek. The Highlanders recordings were all in the time of LPs. Bobby has now put a selection of 20 songs from their albums onto a CD called BIG SHOW TONIGHT FEATURING THE HIGHLANDERS. Of course I bought one. I've wanted it quite awhile. I jumped when he said he'd brought copies like a firecracker went off in my seat. The feeling inside was like in the late Sixties waiting for the new Bob Dylan album.




The bluegrass the Highlanders play is Galax style with musicians of the region with no inhibitions about making music. Bobby gave out a sheet of paper with the CDs with a list of the names of the original Highlanders, and a long list of names of SW Virginia musicians who have played with the band in one capacity or another, from a guest at a show to played in the band a number of years. I've listened to the first half before I started writing. It wasn't long after putting it on that I had to crank up the laptop and satisfy the craving to write you about last night at Woodlawn. Several of the songs they played were written by Willard. These songs are on the CD. Willard has recorded them with his band Alternate Roots as well. He and Scott sing them at the Front Porch to entertain his fan club of about 20 who return every week for some of the finest music in SW Virginia and NW North Carolina. Ern and Zory's Sneakin Bitin Dog is one of Willard's compositions we all love to hear him sing. Robin D is another, possibly my favorite of Willard's songs, the story of a man in West Virginia who built a river boat to go up the New River to the Ohio to the Mississippi "to the sea." In my head, the tune is wed to Randy Pasley's Dobro in the Alternate Roots recording.


The songs Willard wrote I know "by heart" after hearing Alternate Roots in concert 15 times, Willard and Scott opening shows with them, listening to Alternate Roots CDs like I used to listen to Rolling Stones LPs. I don't hear as big a difference as many who would compare AR and the Stones might. A great difference in instruments and volume. Both are ass-kicking bands with musicianship as good as it gets, people in the band playing as one. After listening to Alternate Roots, I could easily put on something by the Clash or Jane's Addiction and feel no shock from one to the next. In my ears, both rose out of old-time. It's old-time electric, new songs instead of traditional, new ways of playing instead of traditional. Same energy. Bluegrass same energy. I'm inclined to see the Highlanders historically, like from a hundred years from now, when the people in folklore studies say WoW when they hear it, or a thousand years from now, no matter what the music is like then. Anybody with ears hears truly superb music with the Highlanders. I love the way they did on the album with Willard's song Ballad of a Minstrel. Willard sings it beautifully as I've heard him sing it at least a hundred times. The instrumental accompaniment was light and percussive, sounding very much like dance music out of central Africa. It was incredibly beautiful. I'd never heard any bluegrass band approach a song so lightly, almost like making the notes with wind chimes, though only by suggestion.


Willard doesn't believe he is much of a song writer. Guess what. I beg to differ. I just look at the titles and see song after song I know the words to: The Shootin, The Salad Song, The Working, Sweet Virginia, Kentucky Memories, plus the ones mentioned above, Ern and Zory's Sneakin Bitin Dog and Robin D. Every one of them is a beautifully worded song. Willard sang them as well back in the time they were recorded as he sings them now. Automatically I feel inclined to mention Robin D may be my favorite. Then, I have to say, No. The Sneakin Bitin Dog. No. Kentucky Memories. No. The Workin. No. All of them. Yes. I feel blessed that I've had the opportunity to put all these songs on YouTube with Willard singing them. Some of them are on there several times because he sings them differently according to circumstances. Sit-down with guitar on knee, he sings in a folk manner. With Skeeter and the Skidmarks stand-up he sings another way, the same though with different energy. I like the different subtle ways he presents a given song per manner of delivery. Some may think it overkill that I upload so much of Willard and Scott on YouTube, but I am entering into the archive Willard's different deliveries of The Yellow Rose of Texas, a song that Willard made his own simply by revealing it's inner beauty.


To find Willard at YouTube, write his name in the Search box. There is a lot to pick from, as I believe it necessary to archive Willard and Scott and all the rest that play in the Fiddle and Plow series at the Front Porch Gallery. It's easy, it's free, I believe it's important; therefore, it's mine to do.


To give you an idea of the energy of the music last night, at the end when they realized it was time for the last tune. Somebody said Orange Blossom Special. In a yelp of desperation, Willard said, "No!" Remembering Willard's 80th birthday is this coming Tuesday. He had just played guitar with gusto and sang for two hours. He was worn out. Different ones talked about it awhile, then the band started playing Orange Blossom Special. Scott ripped it to shreds with his fiddle. Willard was right in there with them on the rhythm guitar keeping that train in motion. He gave it everything up to the finish line. Scott was all over the fiddle from first note to last. Mostly he plays a fiddle in his most excellent manner, not showing off, just playing fine fiddle. On a couple of the tunes he let loose and wrung every note out of the fiddle it had in it. Again, the word privileged comes to mind in relation to hearing this music every week. Privileged that I live in these mountains. Privileged to have found the music world in these mountains. Privileged to hear Scott and Willard make music almost every week. These are the musicians of the region I want to hear anyway. They play every week. I'm there. Privileged is the only word that feels right when I'm there. Hit don' git no bettern'at.


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