scott freeman, edwin lacy, jimmy zeh, willard gayheart
Last Friday night at Willard Gayheart's Front Porch Gallery, the Fiddle and Plow Show featured the banjos of Jimmy Zeh (bluegrass with resonator) and Edwin Lacy (open-back) with Scott Freeman's mandolin and Willard's guitar. Everybody did vocals. Jimmy Zeh plays with the Highlanders with Willard and Bobby Patterson, a Galax bluegrass band of 40 years. Jimmy is an easy-going kind of guy it takes a good bit to incite a problem with. I've an idea if Jimmy were threatened he'd come out of his corner doing some serious damage. Give him a banjo and Jimmy Zeh is about making music. Both he and Edwin were asked to tell how they started playing banjo. Jimmy told a story similar to mine, in that he had been listening to rock and other music when one day he went to the Galax fiddler's convention without much anticipation. When he heard the music it was a question for him similar to mine: where have I been? This music has been in the world all my life and I'm just now hearing it! I heard my first mountain music at the Independence fiddler's convention. I remember hearing Kyle Creed, Albert Hash, Ernest East, The New River Ramblers (James Burris fiddle) and a fun old character from Zephyr NC, Melvin Slaydon. He danced while he played the fiddle. Sent the crowd into a roar. Slaydon later became mentor to Jacob Bowen of Zephyr Lightning Bolts, who grew up next door to Melvin. Jimmy's response was to start learning how to play a banjo. Mine was to put my mountain music interest on hold because punk had just started in rock and I was following its progression.
edwin lacy of skeeter & the skidmarks
I knew if I started paying too much attention to mountain music it would swallow me whole. So I stayed focused on rock for the music I listened to. The late 1970s. Patti Smith was happening, Nina Hagen, The Clash, Siouxsie & the Banshees for the start of a very long list. What I heard first time I listened to mountain music (old-time) was acoustic punk. No kidding. In punk there is no lead guitar. No long solos. Punk is everybody in the band playing all out. Few of the old-time tunes were familiar to me, so they were as fresh to my ears as a new punk album by the Ramones. In every band I heard at the fiddler's convention, acoustic, everybody in the band played all out. It was hard driving mountain music. Punk is hard driving. The only difference I was hearing was acoustic and electric. Also, in punk, the bands write their own songs, whereas in old-time they play traditional songs, each band in their own way. I was seeing pop music coming full circle, starting with old-time, then country, then bluegrass, then rock, then punk, then old-time. I can go to a Papa Roach concert or a Thrice concert with the same enjoyment I get at a Crooked Road Ramblers show or Skeeter & the Skidmarks. To my ear, it's all the same. In late Seventies I mentioned to a few people in conversation that I saw a link between punk and old-time. No Way Ho Zay! A quarter century later punk rockers around the country were discovering old-time, acoustic punk, and put away the electric guitars, took up acoustic instruments and became very respectable old-time bands. It's been something of a trend ever since, electric rockers taking up acoustic traditional music, even jazzing it like the Avett Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show.
willard and his new henderson guitar
Anyway, that's why it took me awhile to come to mountain music after first discovering it. Later, when punk became mainstream and was no longer interesting, I started listening to mountain music and, like I knew it would, it reeled me in like something I had no control over, like destiny. For the first time in my life I found music that made me weep for the beauty of it. The Carter Family and the Stanley Brothers consistently tear me up. I have wept through an entire Ralph Stanley concert for the beauty of it. On my radio show I wept every time I played Carter Family. I could never say anything. I'd mention Sara's name and would choke up, silence, push the button to play the next song. On Carter Family days I played music without talking except weather at the half hour. Couldn't say anything. Didn't need to say anything. All my listeners loved the Carter Family. At the time I started the music store I became acquainted with Scott Freeman who needed a place to teach in Sparta. He'd been at one place that didn't work out. He offered to pay me for the time spent there, but he wasn't making any money. He made a little bit, but it went to gas. I couldn't take what little pocket change he had left. I wasn't about money anyway at the store. I wanted it to be a place where mountain music could be available. I wanted to give people who love the music a chance to have some for their home sound systems. As it is, to find a cd by the Slate Mountain Ramblers, you have to go to one of their shows. That's not a problem, but they don't play all the time. For my part with Scott, I was honored to have him using my store's space. I felt like we were both doing the same thing.
scott and willard of skeeter & the skidmarks
Scott's band at the time was Alternate Roots, to this day my favorite band. He gave me a pass to get in at Alternate Roots shows. I saw them fourteen times, and drove to Hiltons, Virginia, to the Carter Fold to see Alternate Roots' last show. I found a Carter Family tshirt that night, my anti-cool tshirt. Willard played with Alternate Roots. I think of Alternate Roots an art band, like in rock I think of Garbage as an art band or Patti Smith Group or Mazzy Star. By art band, I mean full of truly excellent musicians making original superb music; in Alternate Roots' case, some traditional, some their own compositions. I later came to think of the Alternate Roots sound as another form of "bluegrass," or jazzed old-time. Bluegrass is Bill Monroe's jazzing of old-time, and Alternate Roots was Scott and Willard's particular jazzing of old-time, which doesn't have a name yet. Unless it might be Skeeter. Their band before Alternate Roots was Skeeter & the Skidmarks, a band that was called "progressive old-time." That's another way of saying they were jazzing old-time like Bill Monroe jazzed it, but their own way, which is not bluegrass. The band has a sound of its own that is the composite of each individual in the band. When they take on a new song, they "Skeeterize" it. Skeeter is a high-spirited rhythm and an acoustic sound assault by musicians that blow the mind with their musicianship and the music itself. When the Skeeter sound is happening, it is fully alive. That might be what characterizes Skeeter, makes their sound their own. Their music is the equivalent of a Merriam-Webster audio to define the word music.
edwin and jimmy
Edwin Lacy picked banjo with Skeeter & the Skidmarks, an early l990s band. Anyway, that's when their two cds were released. They'd been playing together quite awhile before recording. By the time they recorded they were solidly a band used to playing together. Edwin was called to a Presbyterian seminary because the Presbyterian church needed soul. Edwin is soulful in the pulpit as he is singing and picking his banjer. He's a soulful man. He has a great deal of silence within. Skeeter without Edwin was not Skeeter. No other banjo could be the Skeeter sound. Scott and Willard put together Alternate Roots and took a leap into a new sound that also was their own. They made four great albums and then the band went *poof* and was no more. Soon after, Edwin got himself stationed in Bristol TN/VA. There wasn't much traditional music in the Indiana sea of corn. Edwin ached to be making music with Scott and Willard again, and to make music with other musicians in the mountains where they play the music he loved. Skeeter & the Skidmarks got back together. They've played several shows since Edwin's return. They've played I think seven times at the Fiddle and Plow Show. When it's Skeeter night, the audience is ready. We all love the Skeeter sound. We feel blessed that it's twenty or so of us given the privilege to hear this band we all love as much as we love music itself. It is indeed a privilege to have this music happening an hour's driving distance from home. Scott and Willard's music resonates with my soul in whatever band they're playing in as well as together.
The bell on the door rang not long into the music. In the corner of my eye I saw a man sit in the empty seat with cushions the cat used to nap on. Later, at intermission time I saw it was Raymond Oakes. I'd met him twice at Bobby Patterson's music store in the building almost connected to Willard's shop. I remember my first impression in conversation with him that he talked freely for a man of his generation from the mountains. That was the musician in him. Jr Maxwell, the banjo player could talk freely with people he didn't know. I suppose it comes from stage experience, people you don't know coming to you after the show, having to talk with all kinds of people in the music business, people in bands, a wide range of people. Bobby told me Raymond had played guitar with the Lilly Brothers at the Hillbilly Ranch in Boston for a year, and played on a country music show on tv in Richmond, Virginia, for several years. Raymond told me Everett Lilly asked him to stay with them, but Raymond had to get back to Virginia. That yankee world didn't suit him. Virginia is home and he loved his family, wanted to be close to them. This was what it took to provide for them, and he did. It just meant he had to be away a lot. That's a musician's life. I sat and spoke with him during intermission. He accompanies himself and sings country songs. The Blue Ridge Parkway produced a cd of Raymond Oakes singing some classic old country songs. I hear of him playing every once in awhile someplace in SW Virginia, close to home, like the Floyd Country Store and at Flat Ridge Community Center. I felt like he was the show's special guest. Not because he's a star, because he's not. He's an interesting man of these mountains to talk with who has a lifetime of experiences.