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Saturday, July 26, 2014

RETURN OF ALTERNATE ROOTS

 
alternate roots
 scott freeman, mark freeman, katy taylor, tony testerman, willard gayheart
 
alternate roots

Friday night, the Fiddle And Plow show at Willard Gayheart's gallery and frame shop in Woodlawn, Virginia, the core of the band, Alternate Roots, played a reunion. Plus Scott's brother Mark, who came to hear the show, had a banjo in the car, and Scott asked him to join the band. He's a good picker, plays in the Freeman brothers band, Pathway, a bluegrass band emphasis on gospel. Alternate Roots started in the 1990s with Scott, Katy, Tony and Willard on their first album, Tales of Love and Sorrow. They added Randy Pasley on dobro, who appeared on their second album and the others following. Steve Lewis came in next with bluegrass banjo and lead guitar for their third and fourth albums. It became a dynamic band. The show Friday night seemed like a combo of the full orchestra that Alternate Roots became. After the fourth album, Planted In Tradition, the band went away, their last show being at the Carter Fold off hwy 58 a half hour or so beyond Bristol, VA/TN. I made several photographs and a few videos of the Friday night show. Caught myself while holding the video camera singing along and had to be conscious of my own unconscious singing. I've not been there in probably seven to eight months. Stopped going in winter when the dark came early and Galax headlights made my eyes crazy at a time everybody is going home from work. I fell out of the habit of going, and missed several shows I might have gone to, but let them go, dreading the drive. When I saw that Alternate Roots was playing, I made it a point to be there. It was good to be back after so long a break to see familiar faces who go every week. My friends visiting from Atlanta, Lucas and Judy, intended to go, but Lucas had a spell of not feeling well, so Judy went along and had a stellar musical experience.
 
katy taylor, tony testerman, willard gayheart
 

katy and tony
 
Katy and Willard did most of the singing. I always like hearing Katy and Willard sing. I know all the songs and sing with them inside my head. Tony plays a bass with quite a lot more going on than just keeping rhythm. He keeps the rhythm so well the musicians don't have to think about the rhythm, and he plays it in such a way it enhances the song flowing with the melody as well as the rhythm. He is not a thump-thump bass player. There were times I would like to have heard just Tony's bass, not necessarily a solo, but to hear better what he was doing with the strings. We tend to think of the people who keep rhythm as secondary to the band. But they are as integral to the band's sound as the banjo or fiddle, lead guitar or dobro. Willard's rhythm guitar playing is amazing picking when I pay close attention to what he is doing. He does not strum. He picks two strings, individually, each swipe of the pick. His noting fingers change chords without thought. He's 81 and been picking since childhood. Katy picks a good rhythm guitar too. Katy's delight was visible having a chance to pick with Willard. She told me some years ago she loves making music with Willard. There were times I saw her watching Willard sing like she was in awe. And for good reason. She hears Willard. Willard's singing and picking do not draw attention to themselves. He sings a song to deliver the words. Pay close attention to Willard's singing once and you'll always pay attention thereafter. Willard has taken the Hank Williams song, Mama Tried, and made it his own. To my ear, he has made The Yellow Rose of Texas his own. Before I heard the words Willard goes by, the original lyrics before it was changed to be the Texas state flower, I wondered why old-time fiddlers of the past liked the song. It makes a beautiful fiddle tune, and with Willard's lyrics it makes a beautiful song.
 
willard gayheart
 
willard  a-pickin and a-singin
 
Willard sings in the mountain tradition of, it's the song not the singer. In pop music, like in the Rolling Stones lyric, it's the singer not the song. In hillbilly music the singer delivers the song in his own style of singing. Being true to the integrity of the song applies to vocals as well as to the instruments. Willard sang lead vocals with his Galax bluegrass band, The Highlanders, over forty years. He sang with the bands he and Scott made together, Skeeter and the Skidmarks and Alternate Roots. He likes Texas swing, too, makes good music with Bob Wills songs, Take Me Back To Tulsa, Little Red Wagon. Scott likes Bob Wills, says his dad played Bob Wills all the time he was growing up. Willard and Scott play often and have recorded some Texas swing. Scott does a good version of Bob Wills' Roly Poly, and makes it his own, to my ear. Scott and Willard don't slow the Texas swing down, either. I used to care nothing for Texas swing, then heard Willard and Scott playing it. At an Alternate Roots show in Jefferson, the next town to the west of Sparta, I heard Willard sing Catfish John. They never put it on a recording, but that night Willard brought Catfish John to life for me. Katy's vocals gave Alternate Roots its own special sound. Her first song at the show was the John Prine song, Hello In There. Katy makes that one her own. I've heard John Prine sing it, and it's good. But after I've heard him sing it once, that's enough. I can hear Katy sing it over and over. It is on Alternate Roots first album. She sings it like a gospel song. Come to think of it, Katy sings everything with the reverence given a gospel song.
 
katy a-pickin and a-grinnin
 
katy a-singin
 
I was glad my friend Judy had a chance to hear Katy perform. Judy played guitar and sang in her school years and let it go preoccupied with being a wife and mother while having a full time job. Now that her baby is grown and gone with a baby of her own, Judy has retired from her work and needs something to occupy her attention. She is taking up the guitar again and singing. Katy was an inspiration for her. Judy was appreciating her singing to the full. Judy bought Alternate Roots first album, the combo that played Friday night, and spoke with Katy some about singing. Judy is a good singer. I'd like to see her bring it out in the open again. So what if she hasn't played and sang in over thirty years. Tommy Jarrell and Pop Birchfield, both by different circumstances, stopped playing fiddle for forty years. When they took it up again, they were the great fiddlers of their time. Evidently, not playing for such a period of time must be to the good for the individual musician. I'm thinking of an experiment where one participant threw a basketball at a hoop half an hour a day for a month. Another threw a basketball in his mind at a hoop half an hour a day for a month. At the end of the month, both had improved the same. It tells me Jarrell and Birchfield played the fiddle quite a lot, probably every day, in their minds while working in the fields, making liquor, whatever they were doing. I imagine Judy has continued to play in her mind. Scott played the fiddle and the mandolin. His brother Mark played Scott's mandolin some while Scott played fiddle. They grew up making music together, they play in a bluegrass band together, they know how to flow together making music. It was combo music the band made, relaxed and flowing free, music made by people who have flowed together musically for a great many years. 
 

scott freeman and mark freeman
 
scott and mark
 
 
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