2010 Nationally Known Artist
By 1940 Reno was performing on WSPA radio each morning for Farmer Gray’s Early Morning Farm Hour. He and his music friends also played for local radio stations and dances originally calling themselves Tex Wills and His Smoky Mountain Rangers but changed their band’s name to the Saddle Pals, then to Bluegrass, the Carolina Hillbillies and finally to Don Reno and His Tennessee Cut Ups. For those few years members did not change and consisted of Don Reno on banjo and vocals, John Palmer, Walter Haney and Howard Thompson all on guitar and Jay Haney on fiddle.
Reno put music aside to join the army in 1944. After returning to SC he worked in the grocery store business and only performed on weekends for dances. Music kept calling so he left the grocery business to play again on WSPA and started the Carolina Hillbillies. According to Reno’s autobiography, about this time he heard Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs on the radio and was so inspired that he drove to Nashville only to find they had left for Taylorsville, NC. When he got to Taylorsville, he went backstage but they were already onstage performing. He took his banjo from its case, tuned then walked onstage with Monroe and Scruggs playing as he walked. Reno’s story went that Bill Monroe said, “Boy I’ve been trying to find you” and Reno responded “Well I finally made it.”
In 1951 Reno recorded his first album for Federal Records and in 1952 his second for King Records featuring Reno and Red Smiley who became a regular with Reno. His first hit was “I’m Using My Bible for Road Map”. Later he said that even though he recorded over 500 songs that remained his favorite. Around 1953, Reno began playing with Arthur Smith and the Cracker Jacks on Smith’s radio station and television show from Charlotte, NC. In 1955 Reno and Smith recorded “Feuding Banjos” on MGM and it immediately became a hit. The song was later used for the movie “Deliverance” but the name was changed to “Dueling Banjos”. From 1955 into the early 1960s he and the Tennessee Cut Ups performed throughout the south on radio and television. In 1965 he again when into the studio to record for DOT and by1965 had gained a reputation as a premier banjo player. In 1984, Reno went to the University of Virginia Hospital for a simple operation which turned out not to be simple and he remained in the hospital for five months with his life ending October 16, 1984. He was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 1992. Family and friends remembered him for his fun loving attitude and enthusiasm for music.
2010 Pioneer Artist
Clarence “Tom” Ashley was born September 29, 1895 in Bristol, TN but soon moved to Ashe County, NC. Although his birth name was Clarence Earl McCurry he was known as Clarence Ashley since he was raised by his mother and grandfather. The “Tom” came from a nickname given to him by his grandfather as a child. This caused and still causes a lot of confusion when researching his life. Many people thought that Tom Ashley and Clarence Ashley were two different people. Ashley was born into a musical family and was about eight when his grandfather gave him his first musical instrument, a “peanut banjo”. Two aunts taught him how to play and at the age of twelve he learned to play the guitar and sing. Men often gathered for barn raisings and the harvesting of various crops often referred to as “lassy-makin”. Ashley called his oldest tunes “lassy-makin” tunes and his tuning “saw mill key” or “lassy-makin” tuning.
At the age of sixteen, Ashley joined Doc White Cloud’s medicine show as a banjo picker and singer originally posing as a full-blooded American Indian. He continued to tour with medicine shows in summers from 1911 until 1943. During the rest of the year he would join with friends playing wherever they could earn anything. To supplement his pay he would work at any job available. While working for a lumber company he met his future wife. She would stay at home raising a garden while he traveled. At times he would sing and play on the streets, outside carnivals and outside the main building of mines on pay days. This is often referred to as “busting” and was common during this time in hour history. This is how he met many of the other performers he often played with.
In 1925, he met Dock Walsh at a fiddler’s contest in Boone and The Carolina Tar Heels were born but he continued to play with other bands. It was with a group called The Blue Ridge Mountain Entertainers that he was first recorded. His first solo recording was with a group called Byrd Moore and his Hot Shots. It was October of 1929 when he had finished a session with the Moore group and volunteered to do a “lassy-makin’ tune.” “The Coo-Coo Bird” was recorded with Ashley being offered a chance to go to New York to make further recordings but Ashley refused to go without his band friends. Others that Ashley played music with during his career included The Kentucky Partners, Clint Howard, Fred Price, and Doc Watson. After 1925 he did not return to the recording business until 1960. The depression years were hard on the family as no one had extra money for entertainment in the Blue Ridge. For a time Ashley even worked the mines in West Virginia.
By the early forties, times were beginning to get better and musicians began earning again. He worked with a comedy group called The Kentucky Partners and met Tex Isley. In the late forties Ashley injured his index finger and did not think he would be able to play again. He started teaching songs to Clint Howard who played guitar and Fred Price who played fiddle. He also continued going to fiddlers’ conventions to talk and visit with his “old cronies.”
A meeting with Ralph Rinzler at the Old Time Fiddler’s Convention at Union Grove, NC in 1960 brought Ashley’s music to a new era. Rinzler had been trying to get in touch with Clarence Ashley for some time because he was trying to catalogue and preserve traditional music but all his letters and telegrams have been returned. Learning that “Tom” was Clarence, Rinzler wanted to hear him play and sing because he had liked the early recording of “The Coo Coo Bird” so much. After a lot of phone calls and letters, Rinzler convinced Ashley that a whole new audience wanted to hear his music. Ashley agreed to sing some of the old songs for Folkways Records and later picked up his banjo again. The group that performed in the 60s with Ashley included the now world-famous Doc Watson from Deep Gap, NC. In May of 1966, the highlight of Ashley’s career came when he and Tex Isley, a talented guitarist from Reidsville, NC, made a musical tour through England with eighteen engagements. He was planning a second trip to England when he found out he had cancer. Clarence “Tom” Ashley died in 1967, two days before he was to return to England.
2010 Sidemen and Regional Musicians
Bobby Hicks was born in Newton, NC and learned to play the fiddle at an early age. Self-taught, his determination paid off when he joined Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in 1954 to play bass but later changed to fiddle when Gordon Terry was drafted into the military. In 1960 he moved to work with Porter Wagoner for three years then settled in Las Vegas working as the bandleader for the Judy Lynn show until 1970.
In 1975, Hicks returned to North Carolina and developed a friendship with Ricky Skaggs. He joined the Skaggs band while it was one of the major country bands in the 1980s. While with them they were three time winners of the CMA “Instrumental Group of the Year”, three time winners of the Music City News “Bluegrass Act of the Year” and five time winners of the Academy of Country Music’s “Touring Band of the Year.” The Skaggs band became Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, twice winning the IBMA and SPBGMA’s “Instrumental Group of the Year” as late as 2000. His latest albums with Skaggs was History of the Future and Live from Charleston Music Hall.
In 1977 Hicks released the well-regarded “Texas Crapshooter” and often played music with Tony Rice and others. He continued to do session work and in 1998 did a solo set, “Fiddle Patch”, where he used his standard five-string fiddle. This was a star-studded success. Hicks continues to play and perhaps his finest hours are spent teaching young fiddlers to continue the musical traditions of which he is so attuned.
Albert Hash was a founding member of the White Top Mountain Band, a recording artist and a skilled instrument maker whose work inspired generations of craftsmen in the Appalachians. His fiddling and repertoires of tunes is known as the Grayson County style and was a massive inspiration to other musicians in an area of Virginia that has become synonymous with old-time string music. The internationally famous Galax Fiddle competition is held only 20 miles from his old home.
When Hash took a personal interest in a fiddler, he could contribute a great deal to their progress often building them new instruments as well as teaching them personally. He taught several prominent fiddlers including W. S. Mayo whose fiddle he also built. In later years, he taught members of the younger generation of fiddlers such as Brian Grim and Bruce Molsky.
One of Hash’s fiddles is on display at Grayson Highlands State park. He was involved in a unique educational experience involving the Mt. Rogers School, which was established in 1932 as a four-room rock building with about 100 students. Hash and his daughter Audrey Ham began a string band in the school; the first time an American school has had such a musical combo associated with it. It was entitled Mt. Rogers Band and the students performed on instruments donated by Hash. Albert Hash died in 1983 but his daughter carried on by creating the Albert Hash Memorial Band.
2010 Special Contributors
“B” Townes, IV was born in Danville, Virginia and educated at the North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He has served as the Executive Director of MerleFest for many years. The festival began in 1988 when Townes, Ala Sue Wyke from the Wilkes Community College Gardens Board, and Bill Young, a banker at Northwestern Bank, first approached the Doc Watson family about doing a concert in memory of Doc’s son Merle Watson who had recently died in a tractor accident. They suggested doing the concert to raise money for the “Eddy Merle Watson Garden for the Senses”. During a meeting with the family, Rosa Lee, Doc’s wife, and Nancy, his daughter, suggested a festival be held at the end of April. A friend of the college, “Mule” Ferguson handled promotion and the festival grew from one stage and a day to two days and two stages. Almost everyone volunteered their services because of their love and respect for Doc and Merle Watson. This included such artists as Earl Scruggs, Jim Shumate, Tony Rice, Chet Atkins, Grandpa Jones, Marty Stuart, Mike Cross, New Grass Revival, David Holt, Jack Lawrence, John Hartford, Mark O’Conner, Jerry Douglas, and George Hamilton IV to name a few. With this hardy start, the Eddy Merle Watson Memorial Festival later to be known as MerleFest presented by Wilkes Community College, was born.
From its two-stage beginning, the festival has grown to more than ten stages with a huge outreach for schools, daycare centers and nursing homes. Some of the stages are now permanent and during it’s time, the popular Midnight Jam on Saturday night was added. After the death of songwriter Christ Austin, the Chris Austin Songwriter Contest was developed with many top songwriters represented going on to fame in the music industry for their work.
With its practice of giving back to the community it is a great additional to the local economic and cultural world. One person who worked with the festival for twenty years stated, “by watching a gardener learn so much about the music and festival world, just soaking it up, we all can learn what drive can accomplish and be inspired to learn ourselves.” In 2010 MerleFest will celebrate twenty-three years and under the direction of “B” Townes MerleFest has grown to be one of the premier music showcases of Traditional Plus Music.
2010 Master Musicians and Tradition Bearers
Etta Baker was born in Caldwell County, NC in 1913 of African American, Native American and European American descent. She was the product of a musical family taking up the guitar at the age of three. Taught by her father, she played traditional blues and folk songs. Her style of blues, often referred to as “piedmont blues” made her the foremost practitioner of acoustic finger picking using an open-tuning style not much different from bluegrass banjo picking. In 1956 she joined her father and other family members in a field recording titled “Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians” while visiting Cone Mansion in Blowing Rock. A chance meeting with Paul Clayton, folk singer, and her father asking Clayton to listen to his daughter play led to his going to her home in Morganton to record her.
While in her 60s, Baker was “discovered” and began pursuing music professionally, hitting folk and blues festival circuits. In 1991, 35 years after her first recording, she did “One-Dime Blues”. Many felt that her performance at MerleFest in 1996 was the best performance at the renowned festival that year. Some of her favorite stories were about taking lessons from her father as a child and gaining inspiration from him and going into the mines where John Henry actually worked. Her music has inspired artists like Bob Dylan and Taj Mahal. Some of Baker’s favorite times included changing “licks” with Taj Mahal.
Baker received the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award from the North Carolina Arts Council and in 1991 was a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship followed in 2003 with the Heritage Fellowship from North Carolina. She and her sister, Cora Phillips, received the North Carolina Folklore Society’s Brown-Hudson Folklore Award in 1982. Baker lived in Morganton, North Carolina, but died at the age of 93 in September 2006 while visiting a daughter who had had a stroke in Fairfax, VA.