Friday night Willard Gayheart and Bobby Patterson picked guitars and sang traditional songs. Sometimes Bobby played old-time banjo and sometimes a bluegrass banjo. Both sing very well. I was telling my friend Justin earlier that I would rather hear them than Doc Watson. Not to throw off on Watson, he draws a huge crowd and it's a good show, but he's so big and famous, that fans cried and waxed emotional when he died. I was asked by somebody same day how I felt about Doc Watson dying. I said, Nothing. Why nothing? I said, I didn't know him. I only know his singing; he has over thirty albums I can listen to any time whether he's living or dead. I saw him in concert once and felt very cool about seeing DOC WATSON in person, live, on stage. Yet it was no different from hearing Bobby and Willard picking and singing when it comes to good music and enjoying what I'm hearing. I enjoy Bobby and Willard more because I know them, which is far from the only reason. I've heard them half a dozen times in concert and declare them Doc's equal when it comes to performing good old songs. Bobby picks a good lead guitar and Willard picks good rhythm guitar. Together they made some music that makes me happy I'm nowhere else.
Bobby and Willard have made music together in their bluegrass band THE HIGHLANDERS for 40+ years, they make music together at the Blue Ridge Music Center through the summer months once a week. Bobby has made some cds of them that sell pretty well to people passing through wanting a mountain memory to take home. Bobby plays mandolin in the band, and other places plays banjo and bass, too. Willard came to Galax from Kentucky about ten miles outside Hazard. He managed a five and dime store in Galax awhile, his pencil drawing took off and he opened a frame shop \ gallery, The Front Porch in Woodlawn where the music happens Friday nights. Minnie, the twenty year old white Maine Coon, was with us as always, it being her home. At first she didn't like all the people filling up her space and making such a racket on Friday nights. Eventually, she settled into the routine and by now seems to enjoy having all the people around. I always pet her and talk to her telling her she's a beautiful cat. Being a Maine Coon, she doesn't like much physical attention. She'd actually prefer not to be touched, so I limit my petting to a finger on the top of her head between the ears. She likes that, but only so much. I know not to push her too far, so I stop after a short time. There is a time she likes it, then a time she does not. Keep it up and she'll bite. Not hard, just enough to say, Cut it out! My friend Caterpillar is a Maine Coon, so I have good training.
These two seasoned musicians, Bobby 70, Willard 80, have a relaxed maturity in their music making that lets the music breathe. They know so well what they're doing with the strings that the music flows free of thought about what they're doing. I watched their fingers move with amazement at how freely their fingers of their left hands danced about noting the strings, too fast for thought from chord to chord, never missing a lick with their right hands picking individual strings. To hear Willard tell it, he can't do any better than basic picking. To hear Willard's guitar and see his fingers in motion tells me Willard is quite an advanced guitar picker. After thirty to forty years of his pencil drawing, he has become a subtle artist. Bobby Patterson has a music store in the next building where he sells mountain music cds and he has a recording label, Heritage Records, where he has recorded old-time and bluegrass music of SW Virginia for the same period of time. Alice Gerrard started the magazine Old-Time Herald in the basement of Bobby's shop among all his recording equipment.
Bobby's singing is a good example of good mountain singing that draws no attention to the singer, puts all attention on the song. Where other singers might raise their voices, Bobby goes lower instead of higher. First time I heard him sing, I thought it a little odd, but only because I'd never heard anybody do that before. By now, after hearing him as much as I have, I call it excellent singing. Willard's singing is different from Bobby's and they fit like hand and glove. Willard even seems to get emotional in his singing compared to Bobby. Bobby is straight old Primitive Baptist delivery, where Willard sometimes gets to shaking his head, bending his knees, moves with the music, which is a bit out of the ordinary for his generation of musicians. Such motions used to be frowned upon by musicians and audiences. By now, the younger old-time bands are jumping about like rock stars. How music has changed from Bobby and Willard's generation to present. The young musicians have rock in their growing up and they bring into old-time a new freedom to move with the music. Willard I suppose got it from being lead singer with the Highlanders on stage for so many years. Then with Skeeter & the Skidmarks through the 90s and Alternate Roots in the 00s.
I see in Willard's stage presence an intimacy with the audience like Doc Watson had, though each in his own way. I felt in a Doc Watson concert like he was sending love to everyone in the audience and everyone sent their love to him. It became a big flowing circle of love that I found awe inspiring. Willard addresses his audience with the same loving familiarity as Watson. No matter how many times Willard sings his own songs, they're the ones the audience wants to hear most, especially Ern and Zorie's Sneakin Bitin Dog. Hank Williams' song Mama Tried is one of Willard's songs that to my ear he took away from Williams and made it his own. Willard sings it like he wrote it. Bobby is best known in my mind playing guitar with Tommy Jarrell and Kyle Creed on the classic old-time album, June Apple. To my ear that is one of the great old-time albums with Bell Spur String Band and Whitetop Mountain Band's album Bull Plus 10%. Can't leave out the Laurel Fork Travelers. Hearing Bobby and Willard make music is more than just hearing music. They're the present manifestations of mountain music carrying the flame to the next generation.