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Monday, March 3, 2014


the little river boys by tj worthington
oil and acrylic on plywood, 5'x3'

Day three of the blogathon, first question: What is my favorite of my creative work? And how would I describe my feelings about it?

That one is easy to answer. I don't even have to think about it. This is it, The Little River Boys. They were the first bluegrass band in this area. I made the image from a b&w polaroid, the old ones that used a squeegee. The polaroid and the narrow ties date it circa 1960. I asked Jr Maxwell, the banjo picker, when it was and he had no recollection. The photo was taken of the band backstage after a show they'd done in Johnson City, Tennessee. My friend Milly Richardson lived in her apartment above my music store in Sparta. I used the back of the store for my painting studio. Painted this in the store, 2006 maybe. One day Milly came through with an old sheet of plywood she'd taken from the barn at the farm and wanted to use it for a temporary table to put paperwork on of some sort. Lumber had been stacked on the plywood, leaving vertical lines stained, 4 vertical panels, like a Japanese screen suggestion. The moment I saw the piece of wood, I fell in love with it. I asked Milly if there was any way I could get it from her. She said she'd be using it for a short time and I could have it when she's done. Great. I wanted to do a four-piece band on it, or maybe the Carter Family with one panel empty. The Little River Boys came to me right away, remembering the photo I'd seen in Jr Maxwell's photo albums. I asked him if I could take it to a drugstore in town to have a print made from it and replace the original. Sure. Milly brought the wood to me when she was finished with it. I needed that sheet of plywood. Initially, I wanted to put each of the figures in each of the vertical rectangles. Right away, that seemed stilted. I like having the banjo player leaning out of his panel over into the fiddler's panel. Jr's banjo played so closely with the fiddle, it seems right to have them shoved up against each other.
fiddler fred McBride
oil and acrylic on wood
I only knew one of them, Jr Maxwell, the banjo. Cleve Andrews, the fiddler, died several years before I came to the county. He had spent some years in a WW2 concentration camp. Paul Warren, who became Flatt & Scruggs' fiddler after the war, was Cleve's friend in the concentration camp. After the war, Cleve took up fiddle, I suppose from hearing Paul talk about it. Jr told me that years later when Cleve was in the audience at a Flatt & Scruggs show, Paul Warren saw him from the stage and called him to the stage. He asked Cleve to play a couple tunes. This moment was Cleve's self-validation. He could play a fiddle if he could play onstage with Flatt & Scruggs. Jr got his self-validation hired by Jimmy Martin to play banjo with the band. A month on the road, living on coffee and indigestion, Jr went home. Wasn't any money in it. Jr needed to make money, at least enough to live on with a wife. Having his moment in Jimmy Martin's band gave Jr his own credibility that he could pick a banjo with the big league. Jimmy Martin was his favorite bluegrass singer all his life. He liked Jimmy Martin as a man. Jimmy Martin was a coon hunter and used to hunt coons in this county with friends of Jr's. He was a hillbilly from east Tennessee. Jr Maxwell and Cleve Andrews were dynamic when they made music. Since Jr died in 09 I have found two recordings of them together playing at Galax Fiddler's convention as the Little River Boys in early 1960s. It was made as a field recording at the time, somebody there from Germany with a tape recorder. A fiddler friend who is active in making field recordings of musicians around in the hills who have never recorded, Kilby Spencer, emailed them to me after he'd found them. Those two songs are a treasure, all there is of the Little River Boys. I felt immense joy first time I heard the recordings. I never Imagined I would ever hear the Little River Boys.
cleve Andrews fiddle / jr maxwell banjo by tj worthington
oil on canvas
The two guitar players are Estal Bedsaul on the left and Paul Joines on the right with white hair. Estal Bedsaul used to sell used cars in the Choate used car lot across the road from what is now the Japanese restaurant. He is a face I remember seeing in my early years, but I never met him or knew his name. He was the guy working the used car lot. Jr praised his guitar playing. Paul Joines I never met before he died, either. I know his son Bill. Bill Joines is a good guitar picker and singer too. He can flat get-er-done pickin a gi-tar. Bill is a good man. These are good people. The best kind of good. Just who they are. The best compliment I had on the piece when it was done was when Bill saw it. He walked up to Paul and looked at him awhile. He said, "It's just like he's a-standin there." He blew my circuits. The day Jr Maxwell died, Bill blew my circuits again, "You get into any kind of trouble, all of Whitehead will back you up." I had taken care of Jr in his last year and round the clock in his last months drifting into dementia, keeping him out of a nursing home. He wanted to die at home. I wanted it for him. The very greatest experience of my life. I had known Jr over thirty years. He was one of the first people I met when I was new in these hills. I was getting Social Security, and I could not allow Jr to waste away in a nursing home staring at the ceiling day and night, eating mush, being treated like lumber. By the time he started getting feeble I had known for a few years that Jr was the only man I had ever known I could call wise without hesitation. Jr had wisdom that he lived by. For five years I stopped by to see him on the way home from work and had a drink with him. We are both sippers. Two drinks over two hours. 140 proof. Then I'd go home. In that time, he told me his entire life. Strangely, I find my fondest memories of him are from the time when his mind was gone, running around the house in the wheelchair in the middle of the night just riding, putting clothes on, taking them off, putting on others, taking them off, putting on others until he ended up with both legs down one leg of the pants and his head sticking out a sleeve hole in a tshirt and an arm through the neck hole. He'd bound himself so he couldn't move. I had to untie the knot he'd made.
fiddler howard joines by tj worthington
oil on canvas, 16"x20"
A month or so before Jr's mind went away, I told him, "Your county will never forget your name. I'll see to it." Before he died, we did not know there were any recordings of him existing. Soon after he died, old recordings made at jam sessions began to surface. Some of my friends involved in field recordings started finding old reel-to-reel recordings with Jr playing with different local fiddlers. I put together a cd of everything we'd found and had a hundred copies made, which I took around in one week, giving one to each of his relatives and all his friends. It was the best week of my life. I'd drop in on them at home to deliver it and we'd sit and talk for awhile. All his friends became my friends the day he left the body. One bit of wisdom he passed to me: Don't believe what you think. Another he gave me to live with: Stay away from important people. I took that for sound counsel. I had lived by that, but had never put it into words. He chose the path of suffering for this lifetime. He had five major blows, such that would put a charging rhino on its knees. He let all that stay in the past and kept a cheery attitude through it all. I am grateful with my whole life for the opportunity to have Jr Maxwell in my world. He was what I call a true human being. It's hard to explain what I mean. You just have to intuit it. Both Meher Baba and the Dalai Lama have said that helping others is more important than prayer and meditation. I felt it. It took a little while getting back into my life. Momentum in the house was shut down. I took my time and let my new life slip into place naturally, let time take care of it. And it did. I felt like I came into a new level of understanding, have felt like I'm living in my own flow for the first time ever. In the time his mind was going away, he said, "I wish I could pay you for all you've done for me." I said, "You done paid in advance. Five years of sharing with me the best liquor made on this earth is worth something. It's worth a lot to me. I'm paying you back." I didn't know where that came from, just heard myself say it, and meant it more than if I'd thought first to say it.
jr maxwell, age 86


  1. LOVE! LOVE! LOVE these paintings TJ and what you capture with them. The spirit of the musician & their legacy. What a gift to the world. Thank you.

  2. Your hill country friends have been blessed to be able to call you friend. The love you expressed in writing and paintings about the musicians in your life and the tribute you paid to jr maxwell is heartwarming.Thank you again Tj for being part of my life...