An evening of good local traditional music Thursday nite at the Library in Sparta. Arts Council supports these free shows of regional music at the library. Before, the budget went to the NC Pops Orchestra from Raleigh area. Back in those years I wondered often what mind would spend state funds for art in the region on NC Pops in the mountains where culture is abundant and everywhere, unless you're from Away and don't appreciate mountain culture. Then there's nothing but television, like everywhere else. I'd think, for a whole lot less, a whole lot less, they could get the Whitetop Mountain Band, the Slate Mountain Ramblers, Freeman and Williams and put on a couple of free shows in the school auditorium, one show for all the kids in school, and one for the community. NC Pops is not culture in the mountains. The Central Blue Ridge is a fountain of traditional American music in its own living culture. The band at Mt Rogers school is a mountain string band of traditional music. That strikes me sensible in the mountains. Why make parents who can't afford them buy trombones and saxophones and clarinets, then put them on a shelf in the closet and there they stay for the rest of one's life. Always intended to pick it up again and learn to play it better, but it never happened. When somebody plays fiddle, banjo, guitar or bass in the school string band, they don't lay the instrument down after school. They look for other musicians.
The Arts Council now provides these entertainments at the library regularly, good regional music. Willard Gayheart has played there before with his musical partner Bobby Patterson of about 40 years with their Galax bluegrass band The Highlanders. Willard played rhythm guitar in the band and did the vocals. Willard's singing is as good as any, to my ear. I've been listening to Willard's singing since the time of his band Alternate Roots and cds from his earlier band Skeeter and the Skidmarks, since 2003 when I met Scott Freeman who was also with Alternate Roots and Skeeter. Because I let Scott give lessons in my store one afternoon a week and charged him nothing, he gave me a free pass to Alternate Roots shows. I went to fourteen and then to their last show at the Carter Fold. Skeeter and the Skidmarks have come together again and now I hear Willard pick and sing with the band. Every week he and Scott open the show at Willards frame shop and gallery with two songs before they introduce the night's guest. By now I've heard a lot of Willard's singing and a lot of Scott's singing. The music Willard and Scott make together, the particular sound that is theirs has become the music that satisfies my ears totally. I tell them they are my new Rolling Stones. That's not an exaggeration. It's just a subtler time of my life. I drive to Woodlawn every Friday I'm able because to my ear there is no better music playing anywhere, no better to my personal satisfaction that, like everything else, is subjective. By that I mean I'm not trying to missionarize you into hearing music as I do. I'm not saying Willard is better than Ricky Martin, only that I prefer listening to Willard who satisfies my ear better.
Harrol Blevins and Willard discovered each other not many months ago. Harrol picks and sings and Willard picks and sings. They take turns singing. They're becoming an interesting duo. The balance each other. They don't yet flow together musically like Willard and Scott, who have been picking together since late 1980s. Scott is married to Willard's daughter Jill. They've made so much music together they're bonded musically. The flow between them is seamless. Willard and Harrol have been making music together a matter of months. The guy sitting next to me said, "They haven't played together much." I told him they'd just met musically a few months ago. It shows that they haven't made music together so much they play as one, but it's because they're new together. They play very well together as two very good guitar players who are getting used to each other's sounds and how the other approaches any given song, like Mid The Green Fields Of Virginia, that beautiful Carter Family song Willard sang. It's one of my all time favorite songs, a homesick song, where I spent life's happy hours in the vale of Shenandoah, mid the green fields of Virginia far away. Willard and Harrol sang another Carter Family song that is one of my top favorites, When The Band Was Playing Dixie. It brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it, like Jimmy Arnold's song, The Rebel Soldier. Evidently an American GI in Europe after possibly ww2 telling of watching a parade with a marching band. When the band was playing Dixie, I was humming Home Sweet Home. It's a love song to the South.
Willard sang a couple of his songs, one called Kentucky Memories, and the other, Ern and Zory's Sneakin Bitin Dog. In Kentucky Memories he sang, Take me back to the homeplace of my childhood, to those hills and green valleys I did roam. It's a song I carry in my mind quite a lot. A lot of Willard's and Scott's songs with their bands and them together have taken over the songs that play in my mind much of the time. This is what I mean saying they've become my new Rolling Stones. I don't go around with songs like Honky Tonk Women, Street Fighting Man, Brown Sugar in my mind any more. It's Carter Family songs sung by Willard and Scott that inhabit my mind's airwaves in this time of my life. Willard singing Bob Wills' western swing song, Won't You Ride In My Little Red Wagon, delights me every time I hear it. He gives it a pep that is just right for it. All of the guys will be jealous when they see my playmate so sweet. It's hard for me to believe about myself that Skeeter and the Skidmarks have me liking I Love You Nelly. Unbelievable. Every time I hear Skeeter play it I love it. Standing in the moonlight by the old garden gate, Nelly my darling.... These old songs are beautiful poetry. Old-time Primitive Baptist songs are powerful, deep and take one through a beautifully worded meditation on a given aspect of life. Mountain people have loved powerful meanings in their music and their sermons. Certain of these old traditional songs bring tears to my eyes regularly, every time I hear them, tears for the beauty in them, just about anything by the Carter Family and the Stanley Brothers. Ralph Stanley too. Hazel Dickens singing West Virginia My Home tears me up.
These are the kinds of songs I have come to appreciate in my maturity. I hold the Stones' Wild Horses, Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone, Brian Ferry's Taxi, Stevie Nicks's Rhiannon, as songs I like an awful lot, songs that used to play in my head, the songs that have been a part of my life. Then I discovered the Carter Family. For quite awhile I didn't listen to the Carter Family due to a pre-conceived notion that was based in nothing. Then I heard them one day. I read the biography, Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone. From then on I held them in reverence. When I played them on the radio show I sat with tears running down my face for the beauty of the music and knowing that my listeners were in bliss similar to mine hearing those beautiful songs sung by Sara Carter and sometimes AP. If I were to put on a Carter Family cd, I'd stop writing before the first song was over and I'd be sitting back listening with tears running down my face. That's what they do to me. No rock & roll ever made me cry for the beauty of it. The only time a classical piece got to me with tears was hearing Jascha Heifetz play Scottish Fantasy on his violin with orchestra. First time I heard that, I laid down on the couch and bawled it was so beautiful. It was old-time fiddle music with orchestra.
Willard has introduced me to a whole new appreciation of singing. Willard, Scott, Harrol and Bobby Patterson, another of Willard's singing partners, sing as naturally as natural can be. It's a mountain characteristic to sing a song natural, without tricks that call attention to the singer. In mountain music it's the song, not the singer, the reverse of how it is in rock. The mountain musician does not call attention to the singer or the picker. All attention goes into delivering the words to the song and the music as natural as it can be done without embellishments that point to the singer. Natural doesn't mean boring and dead. It's a loyalty to the purpose of singing to render a song so others can understand it. And singing from the heart doesn't necessarily mean acting like Janis Joplin. Sara Carter sang expressionless, no movements, no facial or verbal expression of feeling. The only evidence given that she sings from the heart is that her singing goes straight to the heart in the listener. Jumping around and emoting is more of the mind than the heart. Willard and Harrol sat in chairs in a small room without mics and speakers. It was so right hearing them singing folk style in the center of a small room with maybe 30 people gathered round. The music was so good the people standing around talking afterward appeared to feel like I felt, like I'd just heard some good music. The pictures above of Harrol and Willard were made last May at Willard's gallery.