Roy Acuff - Nationally Known Artist:
Roy Claxton Acuff was an American country music singer, fiddler, and promoter. Known as the "King of Country Music," Acuff is often credited with moving the genre from its early string band and "hoedown" format to the star singer-based format that helped make it internationally successful.
Acuff began his music career in the 1930s, and gained regional fame as the singer and fiddler for his group, the Smoky Mountain Boys. In 1932, Dr. Hauer's medicine show, which toured the Southern Appalachian region, hired Acuff as one of its entertainers. While on the medicine show circuit, Acuff met legendary Appalachian banjoist Clarence Ashley, from whom he learned "The House of the Rising Sun" and "Greenback Dollar", both of which Acuff later recorded.
In 1934, Acuff left the medicine show circuit and began playing at local shows with various musicians in the Knoxville area. That year, guitarist Jess Easterday and Hawaiian guitarist Clell Summey joined Acuff to form the Tennessee Crackerjacks, which performed regularly on Knoxville radio stations WROL and WNOX. Within a year, the group had added bassist Red Jones and changed its name to the Crazy Tennesseans after being introduced as such by WROL announcer Alan Stout. The popularity of Acuff's rendering of the song "The Great Speckled Bird" helped the group land a contract with the ARC, for whom they recorded several dozen tracks in 1936.
In 1938, the Crazy Tennesseans moved to Nashville to audition for the Grand Ole Opry. Although their first audition went poorly, the band's second audition impressed Opry founder George D. Hay and producer Harry Stone, and they offered the group a contract later that year. On Hay and Stone's suggestion, Acuff changed the group's name to the "Smoky Mountain Boys," referring to the mountains near where Acuff and his bandmates grew up.
He joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1938, and he remained one of the Opry's key figures and promoters for nearly four decades. In 1942, Acuff co-founded the first major Nashville-based country music publishing company—Acuff-Rose Music—which signed acts such as Hank Williams, Roy Orbison, and The Everly Brothers. In 1962, Acuff became the first living inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
In 1972, Acuff appeared on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The appearance paved the way for one of the defining moments of Acuff's career, which came on the night of March 16, 1974, when the Opry officially moved from the Ryman Auditorium to the Grand Ole Opry House at Opryland. The first show at the new venue opened with a huge projection of a late-1930s image of Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys onto a large screen above the stage. A recording from one of the band's 1939 appearances was played over the sound system, with the iconic voice of George Hay introducing the band, followed by the band's performance of "Wabash Cannonball".
In the early 1980s, after the death of his wife, Mildred, Acuff, then in his 80s, moved into a house on the Opryland grounds and continued performing on stage. In 1991, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts and given a lifetime achievement award by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the first Country music act to receive the esteemed honor. He died in Nashville on November 23, 1992 of congestive heart failure at the age of 89.
Uncle Dave Macon - Pioneer Artist:
Uncle Dave Macon was the first superstar of the Grand Ole Opry and an immortal in the annals of old time and country music. In a continuously active entertainment career which spanned more than thirty years, “The Dixie Dewdrop” recorded nearly two hundred records and appeared at venues nationwide. In his time, Uncle Dave was the most popular country music star of the day, and his importance within the American entertainment industry cannot be overstated. Uncle Dave’s most significant and enduring legacy is the preservation of a huge collection of traditional and old time music from a bygone era, ever preserved in his many recordings. He was also vital to the development and maturation of the Grand Ole Opry and the country music industry.
David Harrison Macon was born on October 7, 1870, in Smartt Station, Tennessee. He came from a long line of successful politicians and entrepreneurs with roots in North Carolina which predated the American Revolution. Dave had a pleasant childhood. As a youngster, he received piano lessons and learned to play the guitar. Economic hardship eventually prompted the Macons to abandon their homestead in rural Middle Tennessee and to move to Nashville, where they purchased and operated the Broadway House hotel. The Broadway House was a favorite stopover for traveling minstrels and entertainers. Dave was fascinated with the musicians, and at age thirteen, begged his mother to buy him a banjo, which he quickly mastered. He developed a passion for old, traditional music, including sacred and black genres. At the same time, he began to perform in public, putting on shows for overnight guests at his mother’s establishment.
In 1899, Dave married Mary Matilda Richardson of nearby Kittrell, where the couple soon settled and started a family. For the next two decades, the couple successfully farmed and raised a family of seven sons. Dave also operated a thriving freight line. But Dave and his banjo were inseparable, and as he started playing at local events, his popularity grew by leaps and bounds. By 1920 trucks were replacing mules and horses, and instead of upgrading his freight line to trucks, Dave decided to close the business and try to make a go as an entertainer.
Dave Macon initially entertained at venues throughout Middle Tennessee, northern Alabama and southern Kentucky. Adorned in his plug hat, gates-ajar collar and gold teeth, Dave picked his banjo and sang of the people and country he loved, gathering much of his song material from personal experiences and local lore. His natural talent as a musician, singer, comedian and social commentator captivated audiences. He soon adopted the stage name “Uncle Dave Macon”, a title meant to endear him to fans as though he were a familiar, family member. Appearances at theaters in Nashville soon led to a major contract with Lowe’s Theaters, a national chain. By 1923 Uncle Dave was playing in theaters across the South and in the Northeast. The following year he traveled to New York City for his first recording session, and his increased popularity led to repeated recording sessions throughout the 1920s and 30s. Uncle Dave eventually recorded nearly two hundred songs.
WSM began broadcasting in the summer of 1925, and before the end of that year, the Grand Ole Opry took to the airwaves. Uncle Dave had played previously on WSM, but his debut on the Grand Ole Opry came in April 1926. For the next fifteen years, he was the undisputed headline act of the Opry and eventually played on the show continuously for twenty-six years.
He continued touring throughout the 1940s, but age and infirmity finally took their toll. On March 2, 1952, Uncle Dave made his last appearance on the Opry, and he died from cancer three weeks later at age 81. In 1966 he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. The Uncle Dave Macon Days music festival, held in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, each July and now in its 37th year, still honors his memory. Even today, his recordings garner respectable sales, testimony to the fact that no one aided the transformation of the folk music of the nineteenth century into modern country music more than Uncle Dave Macon.
Jeff Little - Sideman and Regional Musician
With few exceptions, the piano does not play a prominent part in Appalachian or Americana music, and is rarely the lead instrument. But Jeff Little is an exception – and a remarkable one. His distinctive two-handed style, much influenced by the mountain flat-picked guitar tradition, is breathtaking in its speed, precision and clarity.
Little’s involvement with fiddle tunes, old time country, and traditional blues dates to his growing up in Boone, North Carolina, where his family, owned a music shop. The shop was a regular gathering place for musicians who would just stop by to pick a few tunes. Beginning around the age of six Jeff would regularly sit in with many of the musicians from the region, including one of America’s most influential musicians: Doc Watson. These influences helped shape Jeff’s approach to the piano which is based on these deep musical traditions. But there is also an echo of more contemporary mountain tradition in Jeff’s performances.
A professional musician since the age of 14, Jeff is conversant with traditional old-time country, bluegrass, rockabilly, and blues. With a rack-mounted harmonica and vocals, he can also be a one-man show. Jeff settled in Nashville for a while, where he worked as a session man in between stints on the road. He also worked with a wide range of commercial country artists as a musician or manager most notably Keith Urban. In 2004, Jeff and his family returned to the Blue Ridge where he is the Director of the Music Industry Program at Guilford Technical Community College in Jamestown, North Carolina.
Today, Jeff continues to have a very busy concert schedule. Performances include The Smithsonian Institution, The National Folk Festival, American Piano Masters, Merlefest and many festivals, performing arts centers, colleges and music venues throughout the US. Jeff has released four CDs, and been featured on National Public Radio several times. He has taken his traditional piano style around the world on U.S. government goodwill tours, performing in Sri Lanka, Bahrain, Oman, France and Tanzania.
“Jeff Little never fails to convey his love for his region’s music and his love of performing it. The keys of his piano evoke old-time fiddle tunes, precious hymns, country classics, traditional blues and folk. His energy is infectious: clapping hands, patting feet, and sold-out rooms are typical fare for Jeff Little.”
Mountain Home Music
Carolina Tar Heels and Dock Walsh - Master Musicians and/or Tradition Bearers
“Dock” Coble Walsh was a teacher by profession but music was his legacy. The self-proclaimed “Banjo King of the Carolinas” was born July 23, 1901 in the Lewis Fork community of western Wilkes County, North Carolina. Dock’s love for music began at an early age. His first banjo at the age four was a gift made by his older brother from an axle grease box. His teenage years found him playing music each opportunity he had. He became known for playing the banjo in the “claw hammer style”, “three finger style”, and for placing pennies under the bridge of the banjo and playing the strings with a knife.
As a young man in the early 1920s, Dock was determined he would make a record and was willing to do whatever it took to make his dream come true. Leaving the teaching profession behind, he moved to Atlanta with hopes of making a record for either Okeh Records or Columbia Records. Working in the cotton fields by day and playing music at night, Dock’s determination paid off. In 1925 he made his first recordings for Columbia Records that included “I’m Free at Last”, “East Bound Train”, “Bulldog Down in Sunny Tennessee”, and “Educated Man”. Dock was the first to record “bottle-neck” slide style by placing pennies under the bridge of his banjo. Once these recording sessions were completed, Dock walked a distance of 300 miles back to Wilkes County from Atlanta.
In 1926 Dock again returned to Atlanta to record “We Courted in the Rain”, “Knocking on the Henhouse”, “Going Back to Jerico”, and “Traveling Man”. It was during these sessions that Dock made the first recording of “In the Pines” for Columbia Records.
During the years of 1926 through 1929, Dock also found success as a member of the Four Yellowjackets and the Carolina Tar Heels. Along with Dock, Gwin Foster, Garley Foster, Tom Ashley and Dave Fletcher made up the Carolina Tar Heels. Together, this group recorded over 40 songs for Victor Records. Dock and Gwin recorded four duets for Victor Records. The song “Going to Georgia” showcased Dock’s three-finger banjo picking style and his lead vocals were seconded on the chorus by Gwin’s harmony and harmonica playing combining blues, slides, and wild improvising that resounds of both swing and early jazz. This early recording is much the way of modern bluegrass and a true example of bluegrass music being in place some twenty years before bluegrass was made more popular by artists like Bill Monroe.
Dock’s last solo recording session took place in 1929 for Victor Records. Four songs were recorded during these sessions, “Bathe in that Beautiful Pool”, “Laura Lou”, “A Precious Sweetheart From Me is Gone”, and “We’re Just Plain Folks”.
That same year, Dock married Annie Church and they raised four children (Drake, Dean, Libby and Judy) in the Lewis Fork community of Wilkes County. Dock continued to play music with Garley Foster by “bustin” or “ballying” in the streets and playing for spare change.
With the end of his recording career in 1932, Dock worked on a poultry farm to support his growing family. Later he became an outside salesman for C. D. Coffey and Sons Auto Parts in his hometown of North Wilkesboro. His music playing continued, however, with his good friend Garley Foster and Dock’s son, Drake, in local bluegrass bands.
The revival of folk music in the 1960s brought Dock in contact with Gene Earle and Archie Green who tapped Dock, Garley Foster and Drake Walsh to record several remakes of the Carolina Tar Heels recordings along with a few original compositions to release on a Folk Legacy Album.
Gwin Foster died November 25, 1954. Dock Walsh died May 28, 1967 with Tom Ashley passing shortly after on June 2, 1967. Garley Foster died October 5, 1968.
The musical legacy and tradition of Dock Walsh and the Carolina Tar Heels continued to be played by Dock’s son, Drake, who honored his father and the band playing beloved songs until his death in 2010. At the time of his death, Drake was a member of the Elkville String Band who today continues to carry on the legacy of honoring the music of Dock Walsh and the Carolina Tar Heels.
Wayne Henderson Festival - Promoters and Organizers and/or Special Contributors
On the third Saturday of every June at Grayson Highlands State Park in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, the Wayne C. Henderson Music Festival and Guitar Competition features some of the region’s best traditional musicians. From time to time, they have shared the stage with bluegrass bands from Europe.
The event takes its name from National Heritage Award recipient Wayne C. Henderson, a musician and instrument maker who lives in nearby Rugby, Virginia. Henderson’s top-notch finger-picking is a source of great pleasure and pride to his friends, family, and neighbors in Grayson County, Virginia. His guitar playing has also been enjoyed at Carnegie Hall, in three national tours of Masters of the Steel-String Guitar and in seven nations of Europe, Asia and Africa.
Wayne and many of his musical friends are featured performers at the festival, with bluegrass and old-time music dominating the program. The Wayne C. Henderson Music Festival and Guitar Competition was established in 1995 to express appreciation for this living legend. A portion of the proceeds from the festival are placed into a scholarship fund to aid local young musicians in continuing their educations. More than $100,000 has been awarded through the 2014 festival.
Green Grass Cloggers - Traditional Dance
Dudley Culp first saw clogging in spring 1971 at the Old Time Fiddlers Convention in Union Grove, NC. When he saw the Smoky Mountain Cloggers perform, he knew he wanted to learn to clog. Evelyn Smith Farmer of Fries, VA, showed him a basic step that he took back to friends in Greenville, NC, hoping to start a team. Dudley and Toni Jordan (now Williams) took a square dance class at East Carolina University and later learned more figures from Betty Casey, an internationally experienced square dance caller then living in Greenville. At the 1971 Autumn Square-Up at Fiddler’s Grove, festival organizers Harper and Wansie Van Hoy encouraged Dudley’s hopes for a clogging team. In December 1971, with the local Flatland Family Band, the new dance group gave its first performance under the name Toni suggested—Green Grass Cloggers, a reference to Greenville, bluegrass, and the counterculture.
With their energetic dance style and somewhat informal costumes—calico dresses for the ladies and jeans and western work shirts with calico accents for the gents—the GGCs transferred their offstage personalities to their performances so that they were a team, yet all still individuals. In 1972, the hippie cloggers, many wearing thrift store shoes, debuted at Union Grove on April Fools’ Day, and they later won ’72 and ’74 World Championship titles at the Square-Up against polished teams. After they all met in 1973, flatfooter Willard Watson from Deep Gap, NC, and fiddler Tommy Jarrell from near Mt. Airy, NC, were attracted to the GGCs’ youthful energy and said the early GGCs’ spirit on and off stage reminded them of the way dancing used to be, before competitions so heavily influenced clogging. The GGCs had used square dance figures they knew and created steps as they needed and wanted to—and that improvisation itself makes what they were doing a folk art form. They felt validated in knowing that what they’d created, while trying to be different from the norm, was actually recapturing a more earthy spirit of the dance.
To follow the increasing performance invitations, in 1977, some of the GGCs formed a Road Team of full-time dancers for the circuit of large U.S. and Canadian folk festivals, with some trips overseas. Those who couldn’t travel became the Home Team. Travels led them to a new mentor—Robert Dotson of Sugar Grove, NC—whose Walking Step helped the GGCs enhance their footwork. Both the Home and Road groups were based in Greenville until the Road Team relocated to Asheville, NC, in 1980. That group traveled internationally to such places as South America and Asia, released the album Through the Ears marking the GGC fifteenth anniversary in 1986, disbanded soon afterwards, and later re-formed in Asheville to do occasional performances. Meanwhile, the Home Team created new routines in the eighties, and in the nineties adapted the earlier choreography for a smaller membership.
While both the eastern and western groups of GGCs kept dancing the same routines, they didn’t have much interaction outside of reunions until the early 2000s when several dancers from the early-1970s GGCs moved to the Asheville area and began dancing again. Their return led to a large thirty-fifth anniversary reunion in 2006. Since then, the eastern and western groups have danced together at more festivals so the routines can remain similar. The Green Grass style has maintained partner-based choreography and prioritized live music. The traveling and teaching that the group did in the seventies and eighties had such a wide influence that much of the clogging around the world that isn’t the competition precision style can be traced back to the Green Grass Cloggers through the spin-off groups that started among people who saw the cloggers and attended workshops at festivals.
Recent recognitions for the Green Grass Cloggers include Western Carolina University’s 2008 Mountain Heritage Award, the Charlotte Folk Society’s 2011 Folk Heritage Award, and a 2012 Community Traditions Award from the North Carolina Folklore Society. During the fortieth anniversary tour in 2011—named the Year of the Possum as a reference to the group’s 1978 pet possum Alfred—the GGCs grew to include three squares of dancers on stage together at venues such as Fiddler’s Grove, Greenville’s Sunday in the Park, Asheville’s Shindig on the Green, and the official reunion at the Hoppin’ John Old-Time and Bluegrass Fiddlers’ Convention at Shakori Hills. The November 2011 homecoming celebration at East Carolina University’s Wright Auditorium marked an onstage first for the group: they performed the earliest Green Grass routine with four squares of dancers. Presently, out of about one hundred seventy members throughout the group’s history, the combined eastern and western rosters include nearly forty active dancers who joined during each of the four decades.
Ward Eller - Dr. Bryan Award
Ward Eller was born in Wilkes County on May 24, 1930 and began playing the guitar and singing as a teenager with his cousins, the Church Brothers, Bill, Edwin and Ralph Church. Their professional music career began using the name “The Blue Ridge Ramblers.” This group performed on the local radio stations WILX and WKBC in North Wilkesboro. They did many public appearances in schools, theaters and other venues in western North Carolina.
In 1949 the band, using the name “The Church Brothers” signed a five year contract with Rich-R-Tone Record Company in Johnson City, TN.Several records were cut with this label. Later the Rich-R-Tone contract was purchased by Blue Ridge Label in North Wilkesboro. Ward Eller recorded his solo record entitled “You’re Still the Rose of my Heart” under this label.
Ward served his country in the army during the Korean War from 1951-53. After his discharge, he earned a BS degree from Appalachian State University and a MA from East Tennessee State University.
He spent 33 years serving as a teacher, coach and principal. Ward represented his professional orginazation, North Carolina Teacher’s Association, at two national conventions.
In 2008 Ward was recognized as a Bluegrass Pioneer for his early recordings. He received life membership in the International Bluegrass Music Museum Association in ceremonies at the International Bluegrass Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky.
Ward continues his music career weekly with the house band at the VFW Hall in North Wilkesboro. This had its beginning in 1955 and continues to be the longest continuous country music entertainment in the area, occurring every Saturday night.
Ward lives in the Mount Pleasant Community with his wife Kate. They have two children, a son, Douglas Eller and wife Alisa, and a daughter Karen, and husband Ty Worley, and three grandchildren, Kendall, and husband Travis Steelman, Brittany Eller and TJ Worley.