Category Archives: Old-time music

Start Young

If you don’t know who Ricky Skaggs is, then you really don’t know anything about bluegrass and old-time music. It’s important to distinguish those two terms. “Bluegrass” technically didn’t exist before the 1940s. It was literally invented as a form by Bill Monroe, recasting the traditional old time music of his Kentucky and Appalachian roots with a new sound built around his unique mandolin playing. The mandolin took a new role as a centerpiece performing lead instrument in

Ricky Skaggs and Bill Monroe

Monroe’s vision. He was truly a unique American music phenomenon.

Monroe inspired an entire generation of musicians and his influence lives on in all the varieties of bluegrass, newgrass, swing, jazz and a hundred other variations of playing involving the mandolin, but no one has embodied that variety more than a kid from Kentucky named Ricky Skaggs. His father started him out with a mandolin around age 6 and before he was out of his teens, he played on stage with Monroe himself, with childhood buddy Keith Whitley, Flatt and Scruggs and toured with the Stanley Brothers.

Bluegrass and its predecessor, the “old time” music, that was originally the dance music and music played in homes and small communities of the South that had traipsed across the Atlantic from the border regions of Scotland through Ulster and Ireland as immigrants to the New World, settling in the mountains of the South. They brought with them the instruments of their folk music, and it underlay their common life for generations.  Like all immigrants, their music was a powerful identity that helped buffer them against the hardships of fitting into a new and strange country that did not always want them.

Like all people, the love for their children motivated their work, way of life, and the sharing of their music. Today, like few other music forms, you will see men in their eighties at a bluegrass festival sitting in a circle jamming with teenagers strumming guitars and 6 year old fiddle and mandolin players. Ricky Skaggs was one of those children.

It gives hope to look at our children and imagine what they might do. They are not jaded yet by our own deep prejudices and ignorant opinions

about “how it is.” So today, I share this video I came across of little RIcky Skaggs, age seven, playing on television with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Teach your children well. And maybe their elder’s failures will give way to something wonderful, unexpected and new.

Doesn’t conflict at this moment in Lent to me at all, when we are wringing hands, troubled in mind, struggling with hope and anxious to the gills, to pick up my mandolin at home, play a tune, and feel something lift out of the room. Wherever that sound came from (and as a man of faith, I think I know), it says, “There’s still something unexpectedly beautiful up ahead. Go on, and don’t give up.” If you don’t know any seven year olds, I suggest you enlarge your life and bit, get out of yourself, and look for hope in the strings and paintings and delightful voices of the young.

Come to the Virginia Mountains With Me! Sept. 28-30

Vickie and I are leading a Fall Senior Adult Trip to the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia September 28-30, 2017. We will leave Birmingham on Thursday and return on Saturday eveningt.  I’ll be doing a little playing and singing of old time music and gospel songs as we travel to the beautiful setting of the birth of country music and the location of the State Theatre of Virginia to see some topnotch plays by an outstanding professional ensemble. We have traveled there before and had a great time.

Your payment includes:
Three Plays at the Barter Theatre! “Sherlock Holmes and the
American Problem”, “Clementine” and “The Music Man”.
Backstage tour of the Barter Theatre by Katy Brown
The Barter is the State Theater of Virginia and opened on June 10, 1933 making it the nation’s longest running professional theatre. In 1946,

Katy Brown

Barter Theatre was designated as the State Theatre of Virginia. Today, Many well-known stars of stage, screen and television have performed early in their careers at Barter, including: Gregory Peck, Ernest Borgnine, Patricia Neal, Ned Beatty, Hume Cronyn, Gary Collins, Frances Fisher, Larry Linville, and Jim Varney Katy Brown is an
Associate Artistic Director of Barter Theatre and is pleased to be in her eighteenth year at the theatre. She has directed more than 90 Read the rest of this entry

COMING UP SMA on Dugger Mountain Theater

Shades Mountain Air on “Dugger Mountain Music Hall,”

ALABAMA PUBLIC TELEVISION (APTV) Tuesday, June 27 at 10:30 pm

Back in May, Shades Mountain Air (myself, Nancy McLemore, Don Wendorf, Greg Womble and Melanie Rodgers) loaded up and traveled to Dugger Mountain Music Hall in Piedmont, Alabama. It sits in as unlikely a spot as the crossroads where the boys in “O Brother Where Art Thou” picked up Tommy Johnson on the way to Tishomingo. DMMH came from the vision and ministry of Bob McLeod, a talented and charismatic former professional musician and studio engineer.  Following a profound personal spiritual crisis, Bob McLeod began to seek to minister to people in trouble–in prisons, jails, streets, and those caught in addiction.

Eventually he established Dugger Mountain Music Hall as the public face of Our Father’s Arms, where they take in people in need of help.   He describes the place as “a Christ centered family.” It is located in the middle of open country north of Anniston, Alabama in a former Baptist church that had ceased to exist. The building was given to him for a ministry, and he brought together his love of music with the ministry.  Fast forward, now the facilities include a 30 acre farm with a home for men; a 3 acre home nearby for women, mothers and their children known as Eagles Nest; and a state-of-the-art recording studio, offices, fellowship hall and the Dugger Mountain Music Hall. In 2010, the television program was born.  On the nights of performances, they open the doors to welcome the community, enjoy supper and bands and performers, some touring through and others from nearby places in Alabama, perform. Read the rest of this entry

Benefit Concert Saturday, March 4

Please join Shades Mountain Air, Drexel Rayford and Friends and Southern Harmony for a night of music in the warm, comfortable listening venue of Moonlight on the Mountain. Get a good taste of Bluegrass, Gospel, Folk, Barbershop and other musical styles in this well-known Birmingham acoustic venue.

The event is a benefit for Cognitive Dynamics, and proceeds will go to support the 501c3 foundation’s programs that improve quality of life for people with dementia and their caregivers through the arts and storytelling (for more information, please see

The cost of admission is $20, CASH ONLY. Please bring your own food and drink sma(except coffee), and arrive early to get a good seat (doors open at 7 pm)

For more information, please see Moonlight on the Mountain’s website at

Last year our band played for one of the Foundation’s programs. Read the rest of this entry

Thou Shalt Love Thy Bandmates

Anyway, riding in a van for a week turned us from “Friends

and Brothers” to angry inmates who couldn’t wait to bust out.

Fifteen Years.  That’s how long Shades Mountain Air has been together, at least the core of Greg and Nancy Womble, Gary Furr, and Don Wendorf.  We have spent a couple hours a week most of that fifteen years weekly at Greg and Nancy’s house, practicing, horsing around, composing, arranging, learning and growing from one another.  We’ve only had one personnel change in all that time–Don’s son, Paul, our outstanding fiddle player, left us to move on with wife, kids, career, to Texas, and so, we were four again for a while, then found Melanie Rodgers.  Mel has added dynamic new joy to our sound, and is now a part of our 15th Anniversary Live Album that is now available.     (Go to the website store for our new CD click here!)


Shades Mountain Air at Moonlight, 2013

The album sounds great!  We hired Fred Miller of Knodding Off Music to record and engineer our live concert.  Fred did a fantastic job and we are so happy with the result.  He captured our live sound and energy.  It sounds like us!  There is NOTHING like live music, and though it’s fun to be in a studio and monkey around with something until you get it “perfect”, there is a corresponding loss of that spark that performers-audience and a venue provide.  We did it at our favorite gig–Moonlight On the Mountain in Bluff Park in Hoover, Alabama, with Keith Harrelson, as always, handling lights and sound.

I say all this because Shades Mountain Air is more than a band.  We have become family together.  We love playing together, singing, creating, whether anyone is listening or not.  Greg and Nancy’s kids grew up having to hear us every week in their house. We have been through life crises, griefs, and changes Read the rest of this entry

Gary and SHADES MOUNTAIN AIR live at Wald Park tonight


N:ancy Womble will be OUT IN THE YARD at Wald Park! 7-8 tonight

I don’t go anywhere Jesus wouldn’t go,” and if I read the gospels right, that doesn’t exclude much at all. 

Well, speaking of music, last week Nancy and I sang at the funeral I conducted for a dear, dear friend and fellow church member, Mr. Hack Sain.  Hack loved our music and encouraged me in it.  He got us front row seats at the Grand Ole Opry while we were in Nashville leading a prayer retreat for the church years ago.  nThe retreat finished, people had free time, and a bunch of us went to the Opry, thanks to Hack’s good friend Joe Thrasher.  Well, Joe got us front row seats, and there I was, staring up at Lorrie Morgan, who was hosting.  She is a beautiful woman, and a great singer.  It was a fine time.  Of course, I forgot we were on TV, and after I drove home, preached, and was standing out in the foyer, members came up and said, “Hey Preacher, we thought you were leading a prayer retreat, but I cut on the Grand Ole Opry last night, and there was Lorrie Morgan in a miniskirt and there you were on the front row.”  Blush.  Hack loved it.

My rule about playing music is I don’t perform where the venue isn’t about the music.  My rule is, “I don’t go anywhere Jesus wouldn’t go,” and if I read the gospels right, that doesn’t exclude much at all.  Might keep me out of a few religious gatherings, but if sinners are there, I have the green light from the Boss…

HEY, all of our bama and Birmingham friends, we will be at WALD PARK tonight for the resxcheduled I LOVE AMERICA series for Vestavia Hills.  Kids activities, free swimming and a family movie, along with our concert at 7-8 pm.  Hope you can come out!!!!!



Banjo Harmonies

The truth is, the banjo, like all the indigenous music of the South,

is another of those curious shadowy meeting places of black and white people.

Surely by now you’ve seen that bumper sticker that says, PADDLE FASTER—I HEAR BANJOS PLAYING.  It’s an allusion to the worst movie for the banjo’s image since the minstrel era—“Deliverance.”  Despite the wonderful “Dueling Banjos” song, which was written by the talented Arthur Smith, whom I used to watch on TV from Charlotte, NC as a boy (and who also wrote the “Guitar Boogie.”), it was an image I’d as soon forget.

The banjo is associated with rednecks, hillbillies, and racism in the American mind.  We think of it as an instrument of uneducated mountaineers in the rural South.  We remember white people in blackface mimicking the music of the plantations that makes us wince in pain now.   And that’s too bad.  The banjo is an instrument that contains a shared history in black and white.  It is an African instrument that white people—especially the poor–came to love.

Unfortunately, the searing history of the plantation, slavery, with all of its terrible damage to the people brought here against their wills, left us with a bizarre and tragic legacy of contradictions that perhaps reflect in our music.  The notion that an African instrument, the banjo, would embody racism is odd indeed.  The truth is, the banjo, like all the indigenous music of the South, is another of those curious shadowy meeting places of black and white people.  From the painful memories of the minstrels to the accusations against Elvis as “race music,”  the musical inventions of southern culture—jazz, gospel, rock, soul, R&B, blues, country, folk and bluegrass—all formed bridges across a divide that was stupidly attempted by law and cultural taboo.

A couple of video explorations that will open up that world for you differently.  One is “Give Me the Banjo” NARRATED

Steve Martin is a lifelong devotee to the banjo

BY Steve Martin on PBS.  You can watch it online here CLICK  It is a wonderfully told narrative of the instrument through its  complex history and cultural settings.  It will introduce you to a lot of players you’ve never heard of, black and white, blues, old-time, folk, bluegrass and other styles.

Like so many cultural artistic expressions, you will find yourself realizing that all your surface shorthand stereotypes are nearly worthless.  Finding the worlds under the music is like the difference between taking a tour of a country and living there.


Finally, I recently found Bela Fleck’s wonderful documentary, “Throw Down Your Heart.”  A camera crew follows the master banjo player and his sound man as they traipse through Africa to reintroduce the instrument to its home and play along with native folk musicians across the continent.  Movie reviewer Lou Novacheck wrote of it in 2009:

The main story covers their trip, beginning with Uganda in East Africa, and ending up in Mali in West Central Africa, and includes hundreds of African musicians from the countries they spent time in, Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal, Gambia and Mali, from the famous to unknown. I’m sure neither Fleck nor Paladino saw the complexities and immensity of the project ahead of time, and I’m equally certain that there will be at least one additional similar

Bela Fleck with new friends

trip in the future. The origin of the banjo and its concomitant history are subjects that music scholars have been chewing on for years.

Early in the ninety minute film there is an astounding clip of a group of men playing what is a gigantic “xylophone” made of small logs calibrated to different notes.  Fleck, the great jam musician he is, finds a place to play along.  The music is haunting, joyful, and you see as many smiles as any film ever has, genuine and pure.

Truth is, most music through time was not primarily entertainment as we have created it in the last century but participative.  Music was a way that common people found relief from the dreariness of life and connected in their sorrows, joys and hopes my sharing the gift of music.  The image for the banjo to me is not the “minstrel” or the sinister condescension of “Deliverance” at all.  Those terrible truths existed and still do.  But the image of the banjo is the jam, where people sit together and make music.  There is an etiquette to old-time and bluegrass jams about taking turns, learning a canon of tunes, being invited in, and initiating the newcomer.

This year I finally broke down an bought a banjo (to go with my guitars, acoustic and electric, mandolin, harmonicas, keyboard, violin, dobro, bass, two ukuleles and penny whistle, among other things.  I just love sounds—any and every.  I have a Gold Tone BG-250, a gorgeous instrument that prices at the beginning of the high end banjos.  I bought it from my good friend and banjo wizard, Herb Trotman, at Fretted Instruments of Homewood Alabama.

And playing it is not a political event to me at all.  It is simply soothing, a connection to ancestors and the mystery of all life.  When I sit alone and play, I am not alone.  I connect to the ages and to all things.  While I’m not very good yet, here is an MP3 I came up with as a first composition, called, “Dynamite Hill” with banjo and keyboard on my recording.    LISTEN TO GARY PLAY “DYNAMITE HILL”

In a time when people sit, docile, in front of Blueray screens and passively watch other people live life, the jam seems pretty healthy by comparison.  So I offer, in closing, a wonderful group from North Carolina, “The Carolina Chocolate Drops,” play “Cornbread and Butter Beans,” who keep alive that this music belongs to all of us.  In the weary, tiresome deadness of current politics and economics, we desperately need the arts to help us find our souls again.  A good jam is a great start.

Farewell, Earl Scruggs, and Thank You

1964, on top of the world, with Lester Flatt

Earl Scruggs, “pioneer” as the Huffington Post put it,  of the Three-finger Banjo style, has died.  For some of us, he has been a mentor and inspiration our whole lives.   He was not merely a pioneer, he was the King.  And there are many legends on the banjo–Bela Fleck, Ralph Stanley, Jens Kruger, Don Reno, J. D. Crowe, and many greats.  But no one like Earl.

As a displaced North Carolina boy moving around the country, my Dad kept me connected to music.  He had a Silvertone electric guitar from Sears and a Harmony archtop acoustic guitar.  The electric would shock you if you played in bare feet on the garage floor so I tended to play the acoustic.  I didn’t know much about Earl Scruggs, but I kept running into him over the years.

When we moved to Irving, Texas in the late Sixties, I learned to play very slow rhythm guitar to a very slow “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” (LISTEN) with my seventh grade friend,  Brad Phillips, who was the odd combination of a banjo playing Episcopalian. Read the rest of this entry

Weather or Not

Weather.  Someone said to me not long ago, “It is humbling to consider that when you come to die, the crowd that day will be determined by the weather and they’ll sum your life up in twenty minutes or less.”  Humbling.

“Shelter” is such a “taken for granted” in America that we live more disconnected from the fragility of life as it is exposed to the elements.  It breaks in on us now and then—in California, by earthquake, in other places, snow or tsunami.  Here in the South, we live chronically subject to the tornado and hurricanes.

Hurricanes are different in that they are coming for days.  There’s always time to get away if you want to skeedaddle, even though it is some sort of honorable foolishness in this part of the country that there is always some guy named Leonard or Dude who never leaves and is filmed with a cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth while he grins and nails up plywood on his flimsy house and shrugs his shoulders.  “I’m going to ride ‘er out.”  Sometimes Leonard is never seen again, but often he makes it.

I don’t have any expertise on weather, but this global warming issue seems persuasive.  How could billions of us NOT have an impact?  Now, what we can do, or whether it’s too far gone, who can tell?  We’re going to have to ride ‘er out.

If a hurricane is like watching an approaching army from a mountaintop, a tornado is more like running

Take shelter!

into Jack the Ripper.  Here in Alabama, when our local weatherman star says, “The sky is falling,” the local Publix grocery store looks like the aftermath of a locust plague and everybody heads for the house and their safe place.  My wife and I have sat through more than a few in the dark, sitting down in the basement where my office-studio is, listening to the weather radio and praying for strangers nearby.  After last April, the anxiety only went higher.

The closest I ever got to death out in the elements, other than almost drowning when I was six (I got hit by a car crossing the street that year, too, so I have to say, vulnerability I do know as a friend), was out in a rainstorm on a mountaintop in Colorado in the summer of ’73.  It came on quickly, and we were surveying in a remote area where there wasn’t even a road.  All we could do was crouch under a little hollow in a mountainside and wait.  By and by, a bolt of lightening and a thunder clap came simultaneously.  I saw the lighting hitting the ground about 100 feet away.  My arm hair was standing straight up.

The three of us on that survey crew hollered.  I think I yelled, “Whoa!”  Surely the most useless word I ever spoke, but I didn’t have time to compose any elegant thoughts.  As fast as it came, it was over.  And, Lord, we were glad to be alive, we were.  Exhilarating.

That’s what tornadoes are like—Jack the Ripper comes down the street and goes on by, and you are so grateful.  Missed it this time.

Reminds me, like the time I huddled in the rain, that life is very precious, never guaranteed, and worth treasuring every day. Electric lights, indoor plumbing and the delusion of endless electricity have fooled us.  We’re riders in the rain who still have to take cover when the siren sounds.

Since the weather Chicken Littlin’ is going on today, thought I’d post a couple of storm songs.  Bluegrass, country and folk have always written songs about duststorms, avalanches, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes.  Take a listen to two if you’re huddling down somewhere.  “Galveston Flood” by Tony Rice and “California Earthquake,” a Rodney Crowell song performed by the Seldom Scene.

This earth is where we live.  You have to respect it.  Like Clint Eastwood said, “Man’s got to know his limitations.”

The Seldom Scene

“Just a Little Talk With Jesus”

“Just a Little Talk With Jesus” is a famous old gospel song.  Last night, our band, Shades Mountain Air, had a grand time at the American Gospel Quartet Convention in Birmingham and sang this crowd favorite.  I knew that it was a song that black and white audiences in the South had shared since it was written.  It’s been covered by just about everybody—Bill Gaither, Elvis Presley, the Stanley Brothers, and innumerable mass choirs, quartets and Sunday night gatherings around the piano in little country churches.   (click this link to listen to the song by Shades Mountain Air)

It’s so heartfelt, so soulful—are you in trouble?  Look in and up—just a little talk to Jesus will make it right.  This song first found me in my seminary church, where I was minister of music and youth (a lofty, long title for a part-time staff member in a blue-collar white church).  My church was southern, small-town North Carolina Southern Baptist folk, barely scratching to stay above the black folk in the town—marginal at best.  Ever Sunday night we gathered around the piano and pulled out our “Number 8s” our name for the red songbooks we loved full of familiar gospel music.  Anyone who wanted to be in the “kwarr” (choir) would gather with us, and people would call out a favorite.  “My God is Real,” was the one Mr. Jernigan always requested.  “They Tore the Old Country Church Down,” “Whisper a Prayer,” “Troublesome Times Are Here,” Mansion Over the Hilltop,” “If That Isn’t Love,” “Hide Me, Rock of Ages,” and, of course, “Just a Little Talk with Jesus,” because the bass singers got to show out.

I’ll never forget the day that a black family showed up at our church door and one of the men sent his little boy back to tell them they couldn’t come here.  I tried to get the church to put up a basketball goal in our parking lot for the little black children who were always playing when we drove up for Sunday night church.  But it was 1978, and our world was cracking but the walls hadn’t come down.  I lost my first church vote of my career as one family who barely came to church brought their entire extended clan to vote my proposal down.  It was a hard lesson for a 24 year old future preacher.

It was our little church, where we came for comfort.  We didn’t want change, just the comfort of “a little talk with our

Rev. Lister Cleavant Derricks, author of "Just a Little Talk With Jesus"

Jesus.”  Lawd, we loved that song.  What a trip to find out that this white gospel favorite was written by an African American composer named Cleavant Derricks.

The website “Southern Edition” has a fine biography about Rev. Cleavant Derricks.  He was a wonderful musician who was born in Chattanooga in 1910 and had a stellar career as a minister, musician and pastor.  A gentle, kind man, his songs were sung by tens of thousands.   The website says that

The same songs that ministered to impoverished blacks enduring discrimination in the Jim Crow South spoke to the hearts of disadvantaged whites whose lot seemed similarly dismal due to hardships spurned on by the Great Depression and the World War II years. Like Dorsey, Tindley and Morris, Derricks would write songs that addressed daily hardships, praised a loving, sustaining God and spoke of the heavenly reward believers would gain following their labour on earth. Butler adds, “And, too, his songs were sung in the Pentecostal churches back in those days. Those people were considered the poor class—you know, the common man. They were struggling, and so his songs were accepted very rapidly because they did have that hope.”

Butler points out that “most people didn’t know [Derricks] was a black man when his songs first started being published by Stamps-Baxter.” James R. Goff Jr. concurs in his book, Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel, stating, “With an unmistakable influence from the shape-note convention arrangements and a style that often featured the bass part on the chorus, Derricks’s songs found their way into Southern shape-note hymnbooks, though few in the South would probably have guessed the author’s racial origins.”

The colossal stupidity and sinful ignorance that was racism kept us apart, but music and common suffering ignored what our systems and conscious minds erected to supposedly “protect our way of life.”  We always were one and the same.  Thank God we at least sang his songs.  So today’s song, in honor of Rev. Derrick, is “Just a Little Talk With Jesus.”  Thank God Almighty, we are further down the road to being “free at last.”  Free to love one another and sing the songs of Zion.

Shades Mountain Air last night at the More Than Conquerers Church in Birmingham, hosts of the American Gospel Quartet Convention