Hooked on Bluegrass
I was born April 20, 1944 in Sullivan County Tennessee just outside Kingsport in a place called Ford Town. We moved to the southeastern part of Kentucky for a while, and then moved back to east Tennessee in 1950. That’s when I first got my love for music. When I was four or five years old, we listened to WCYB out of Bristol Tennessee, and of course the Grand Ole Opry. Listening to the radio was the entertainment venue at that time. One night I heard a sound that really got my attention. The music just knocked my socks off. I asked my momma “Who is that??!!!” “That’s Bill Monroe” she said. He was playing the mandolin and singing really high. I said “That’s what I want to do when I grow up!” I knew from that point that when I became an adult, I was going to be a bluegrass picker and singer. Not a doctor, not a lawyer… I was going to play bluegrass.
When I was six or seven years old, I would go along with my dad when he practiced with a gospel quartet. At that time we were living on a farm in Hancock County Tennessee. Life was pretty simple and kind of rugged, and it was a joy just for me to get away from the house. While the quartet practiced, the other kids played in the yard while I would be sitting right in front of the quartet, hanging on to every word, and watching everything they did. That a cappella was embedded in me, and when I got older, learning how to sing any part was never hard for me.
When a man that sang with my dad celebrated his 80th birthday, I drove fifteen hours to be there. His name was Willis Byrd. He and my dad were very close when my dad was living. Willis loaned me the first mandolin I ever played and the one I learned to play on as a child. I used it for a while and then returned it to him. Many years later, and after I left the Country Gentlemen, I went back and did a show at the Hancock County High School. Willis brought that mandolin to the show and gave it to me to keep. It had been sitting in the attic and was in pretty bad shape. I took it to a man named John Pagannoni who has done a lot of mandolins for me. I told him that I did not care whether I would be able to play it; I just want it to look good. John said he would see what he could do. Three or four months later he told me to come get it. So I went and picked it up. Well, he totally restored it and said I could play it! He said that he decided not to replace the strings that were on it when I brought it to him. They were probably the strings that were on it when I first borrowed it as a kid. I still have that mandolin still with those original strings on it. I treasure that first mandolin even though it was a Montgomery Wards special, and Willis had paid only fifteen dollars for it in 1946. I wouldn’t take $250,000 for it today.
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