scott freeman and willard gayheart
Yesterday, Tuesday, I learned the band I love beyond all others will be playing in Woodlawn, Virginia, this coming Friday, Alternate Roots, a regional bluegrass band. Four of the band members live in Ashe County, NC, two live at Woodlawn, VA, and one in Alaska. Like other great bands, Jane's Addiction and Rage Against The Machine, they made four great albums and disbanded due to circumstances. Bands breaking up is as intimate to members as a divorce. It's rough on everybody concerned and they don't talk about it. I learned never to ask why a band broke up, because nobody can give an answer that matters to anyone outside the band. Like after a divorce, it's hard to explain beyond a few words, a nutshell assessment. But the rest of it can't be told. It's too intimate and often too irrational to attest to. The band goes back to my time in the music store, Backwoods Beat Music, in Sparta that lasted four years. It is a rule of thumb in Sparta that if a business lasts three years, it has a good chance of lasting awhile. Finally, downloads happened, gas prices went up appreciably, work became harder to find. My local customers didn't have pocket change anymore and they were half my business. The other half was people passing through, visiting family, touring, driving, new people to the mountains. Gas prices shut down tourism in the mountains and real estate. Then in January of 07, radio and television news told every day for two weeks that the cd business is over. That was it. Shut it right down. Doctor told me I had a heart attack, though I had no recollection of it. He said it could have happened while sleeping. I don't know if that was it, but something changed. I had fallen into a state of watching the store go away, so without humor I was glad to shut down, box everything up and go home. I had achieved my purpose. I'd put thousands of copies of mountain music into the sound systems of a lot of people, spread the gospel of hillbilly music at home. Made it available to the people who love it and people discovering it.
It was during the first months of the store that Scott Freeman came in one day and asked if he could use the space to give music lessons one afternoon a week. I was all for it; this was what I was there for, to advance the music in whatever ways I could. I couldn't charge him rent. He drove from Woodlawn, an hour drive one way, and didn't make much from students. This was somebody giving himself to advancing the music. I felt like we had the same purpose. How could I charge him rent? He was making little and dependent on what he made. I couldn't take anything from him. Besides, he brought life into the place. I felt like I ought to pay him. Scott played mandolin and fiddle with Alternate Roots and sang. He's as good a singer as a musician. Scott I call a master musician without fear of contradiction from any musician in the region. He is an artist more interested in his own musicianship than being popular. He has written so many good songs, really good songs, and recorded them, he could be called a "singer-songwriter," though he thinks of himself more a musician playing in a band, or, in his case, two, three and four bands at a time. Like me, he makes no effort toward self-promotion. No self-advertising. He wants his musicianship to carry him, and it does. In the time of the radio show I had a computer I could make cds with, and made one with I think 18 songs on it, all songs written by Scott and performed by him with his bands and solo recordings. It made a great album. I gave it to Scott, as he had never put them together on a disk. As an artist, he is one who lives in the now. Whatever band he's playing with is where his focus goes. He worked laying cinderblock several years until he hurt his back and couldn't do it anymore. He makes his living teaching kids to play old-time and bluegrass all day every work day. He's as good a teacher as a musician, too. At a certain point in their training, he puts some of them together and teaches them how to play in a band. They give themselves a name and he teaches them how to make a recording by doing it. He also gives them experience playing for an audience.
His number of students in Sparta dried up about the same time the store faded away, and soon after, the radio station shut down. I gave my collection of regional music I'd collected by way of the store to the library. Now they have a good collection of regional music. With both store and radio show in the past, the core of what they were about continues for the community. I feel like the store and the radio show were a success while they were happening and continue by way of the library to be a success. Neither one failed. It was circumstances coming in from outside that shut them down. Why did I start a business in a working class mountain town three years into the Bush-Cheney Depression? I did not believe it would get better any time soon, only get worse, as it did. I was jumping on the last chance to do what I felt I had to do and could do: remind the county of its own music, which was being quickly forgotten. My feeling was that people come together in community during hard times, and hard times is a-comin. When the poorest people are unable to pay electric bills or phone bills anymore, the music will thrive. Can't play country or heavy metal cds anymore, but we can make our own music. In the old days it is said on a Friday evening you'd hear a banjo ringing somewhere in a holler and people started walking to it, some with instruments. A band and dancers just come outta the woodwork. The old people I knew who are gone a long time now all said, without exception, the hard times were the best times. They were happy. Early on, I suspected different ones of looking back to the Golden Age, like the past is always better. I became convinced they knew what they were saying after several years of knowing several people, all of them in agreement that the old days of carrying water in a bucket, using outhouses, eating year-round what you grew in the summer, heat from a wood stove, men hunting rabbits and squirrels. A great old-time song comes to mind, Squirrel Heads And Gravy. My favorite title of old-time fiddle tunes, that often have beautiful titles, is Grasshopper On a Watermelon Vine. I can see a fiddler practicing his fiddle on the porch or someplace outside, sitting on a stump where he split wood by the barn, the garden close by, working out a new fiddle tune he had in his head. Having a hopeless time trying to think of a title that is right, not good with words, eliminating everything that came to mind for one reason or another. Gazing off into space, playing the tune, looking inside his mind, distracted seeing a grasshopper land on a watermelon vine and stand there. The rhythm in the fusion of these words might have sounded just right with his tune as he heard it in his fiddle.
It was becoming acquainted with Scott that I learned about Alternate Roots. Kept their cds in the store. When they recorded what turned out to be their last cd, Planted In Tradition, I put ten copies in the store on a table. When somebody asked, "What's the best?" I'd hand them a copy. "This is it." To my ear, it is a magical album. Scott said they just threw it together, didn't get anxious about it, just let it happen. He was thinking it was their worst, and I was saying it was their best. I'd put it on now and play it, but I'd never get anything written for listening. It would take me over like Prince or Patti Smith. I checked amazon and found all the Alternate Roots cds are available either new or used. I asked Scott by way of facebook if Randy, the dobro player living in Alaska now would be there. No, he won't be there and Steve Lewis, banjo and guitar, won't be there. That's ok. Willard Gayheart, guitar and vocals, Katy Taylor, guitar and vocals, Tony Testerman, bass, and Scott Freeman, mandolin, fiddle and vocals, will be there. I call Alternate Roots my favorite band and Katy Taylor my favorite bluegrass singer, not exaggerating. A moment came to mind, possibly ten years ago, I had been visiting friend Jr Maxwell after work, was leaving to come home. Turned on the car, the radio came on, WBRF, the Galax station. A song I knew was just beginning, Out Of The Blue. The female voice was familiar. Rhonda Vincent? Almost, but not. Allison Krauss? Almost, but not. I could only think, Who is that? I know the voice, who is it? I couldn't think of any female bluegrass singers it could be. It almost could have been Vincent or Krauss, but it was not. I puzzled and puzzled with it, listening to a song I knew the words to. At the end of the song, the dj said it was Alternate Roots. I knew the song better than I knew any song by Vincent or Krauss. I'd been to fourteen AR concerts, had all their albums, listened to them, played them on the radio show. It was Katy Taylor singing a song Scott wrote. I was looking in my mind for Nashville bluegrass names, never thinking local. Nothing about the band sounded anything short of Nashville musicians. It was that moment I heard Katy and Alternate Roots the first time without associations of knowing them. In that moment I declared Katy my favorite bluegrass singer. Katy, to my ear, was the same as any that might be called the best, though with her own voice, her own way of singing. I so look forward to hearing Katy, Scott, Willard and Tony play Alternate Roots songs again.
scott and willard between songs