A new set of strings
By Ralph Berrier Jr.
Part 3 of a six-part series
Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times
Clarence Henley, and Annette Thomas, both from Galax, Va., dance together in a parking lot hosting the Old Time Stage during the Galax Leaf and String Festival.
GALAX Ben Hill polished off a nimble-fingered mandolin break, stepped to the microphone and sang a sad chorus about the consequences of wrong choices and his nostalgia for the good old days:
Oh, what have they done to the old home place
Why did they tear it down?
And why did I leave a plow in the field
To look for a job in the town?
The bluegrass song's theme of sadness and loss is enough to bring tears to a glass eye even if the singer is only 10 years old.
Ben is the youngest member, though not by much, of the Galax Little Leaves, a quintet of bluegrass-playing whippersnappers that embodies an undeniable trend in this cradle of mountain music: When it comes to bluegrass, the kids are all right.
More than all right. The Little Leaves have earned a banjo case-full of attention and acclaim after only a few years of playing music. As I stood in the shade of trees along Main Street, listening to the band's set during the Galax Leaf and String Festival in early June, I was awed by how good these kids are and the fact that they will continue a musical tradition that began when Europeans first settled the Blue Ridge two centuries ago.
*High-speed connection recommended
"Most of my friends like Green Day," admitted Little Leaf Houston Caldwell, 13, a banjo prodigy with all of three years' playing experience. He said he wants to start a bluegrass appreciation club at his school.
"I want to keep the heritage alive," he said, sounding quite philosophical for somebody in braces and barely out of Little League.
The kids are taking over this factory town, whose best-known exports for generations have been furniture, glass and mountain music. The boosters of bluegrass and old-time music like to remind you that music is the one industry that can't be outsourced.
As the Old Fiddlers Convention celebrates its 70th birthday this August, its fastest-growing competitive category is the Monday night youth competition, which last year swelled to more than 100 competitors, many barely taller than their instruments.
I grew up not far from here "below the mountain" as the locals say and my grandfather and great-uncle were well-known bluegrass musicians. I, however, did not care much for bluegrass. The only kids I remember who played bluegrass were Brad Hiatt, Tony Jones and my brother Ricky. They formed a little outfit called the Cana River Band, which I always thought was hilarious because our hometown of Cana didn't have a river.
I wish I had been more like Houston, Ben and their bandmates Makenzie Neff, Grace Wilson and Asa Gravley. They're immersed in the music. Their talents were recently rewarded with a trip to New York City, where they joined other area musicians in a performing mini-tour of the Big Apple. Reviews were enthusiastic.
"It's great to see the kids playing the music," said Scott Freeman, an excellent musician who teaches guitar, mandolin and fiddle to more than 50 young students. Freeman gives lessons at the Galax art and frame shop owned by his father-in-law, Willard Gayheart, whose ornately detailed pencil portraits of country life and bluegrass musicians are highly sought in these parts.
Freeman isn't the only music teacher for kids. Down at Barr's Fiddle Shop on Main Street, owner Tom Barr's clientele of aspiring musicians includes one who's only 3 years old.
"When I was a teenager, rock 'n' roll was taking over," said Barr, who I must point out played music with my great-uncle, Saford Hall, for years.
"In the '50s when I was growing up, this kind of music wasn't very popular. It was on the way out. Now it's still here. It's bigger than ever."
In a parking lot just a block away, siblings Martha and Kilby Spencer led their band, the Crooked Road Old-Time Band, in a set of fiddle tunes and vocal songs. The Spencers' parents, Thornton and Emily Spencer, are well-known musicians who played for years with the legendary Albert Hash in the Whitetop Mountain Band.
Hash was a well-known fiddle player and maker from just across the line in North Carolina who passed his love of music on to the likes of the Spencers, Wayne Henderson and Tom Barr. In these parts, it's true that everybody seems related, at least musically.
Outside Barr's shop, young Houston Caldwell played tunes beneath a canopy as admiring teenage girls stood nearby. Houston took banjo lessons from Tom Barr's son, Steve, who was something of a prodigy himself. Still kid-like even as he nears 30, Steve Barr once got a brief lesson from the father of bluegrass banjo, Earl Scruggs, backstage at a show in Charlotte, N.C. We know this because Willard Gayheart depicted the scene in one of his portraits, and Willard doesn't make things up.
On Friday night during the Leaf and String Festival, Steve Barr led his band, No Speed Limit, during a sold-out performance at the Rex Theater that also featured the popular Lonesome River Band. No Speed Limit features mostly youngsters, including a fantastic 12-year-old fiddle player named Montana Young.
The lone exception to the "Kids Rule" rule in Barr's band is 40-year-old mandolin player Greg Jones, a childhood friend of mine whose brother Tony was one of the guys who played with my brother, Ricky, many years ago in the Cana River Band.
Although I got a late start, I finally got around to learning to play the fiddle. I even play in an old-time band that features my high school buddy Mike Gayheart, who happens to be Willard's son.
I can't swing a banjo without knocking somebody in the head who has played music with somebody in my family. That's the way it is down here.