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Honoring Legendary Banjo Player Kyle Creed

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By April Wright, Reporter

Though local Kevin Fore never got to meet local old-time music legend Kyle Creed, who passed away in 1982, the banjo player forever changed Fore's life.

To Fore, Creed was his hero and he would have given anything to meet him. In fact, Creed is the reason Fore got interested in the banjo and the reason he started hand-making some of his own instruments using the Kyle Creed method.

Creed grew up in Surry County, N.C., and settled in the Coleman community in Carroll County. From a musical family, he was an excellent clawhammer banjo player and fiddler and had a distinctive style on the banjo that was characterized by his clear and crisp sound, playing the melody note-for-note.

Creed was also well-known as a skilled banjo maker, with his instruments treasured by people all over the world.

Fore and local musician/music preservationist Bobby Patterson — a close friend and former business partner of Creed — plan to commemorate Creed’s legacy by compiling the banjos he designed and displaying them for an all-day event at Stringbean Coffee Shop in downtown Galax on Sept. 12.

Fore, of Low Gap, N.C., first heard Creed’s music about 10 years ago when he picked up the album “Liberty” at the Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention. He was 25 at the time, and remembers getting chills the first time he heard Creed play banjo.

It sparked an image of olden times, when people sat around playing in tobacco barns.

“It had such clarity, and every note he hit was clearer than I had ever heard,” said Fore. “And there’s different versions of the song 'Roustabout,' but you can hear the soul in the banjo when he plays it.”

From then on, Fore was hooked on bluegrass and old-time music.

Fore, who often raced at a dirt track in Elkin, N.C., began to have breathing problems from the dust and the dirt and was told by a doctor if he didn’t stop racing, he would live a short life.

So, he sold his car and bought a banjo, learning to play the instrument by listening to Creed’s songs and a 1979 home recording of Creed teaching someone how to play the banjo like he did.

“Hearing them talk was just as important as listening to the music,” Fore said. “You can tell that they lived the music back in those days.”

Just nine months after listening to Creed's recordings, Fore landed fifth place in a banjo contest at the Alleghany County Fiddlers' Convention in Sparta, N.C.

Two years ago, Fore began building banjos, just the way Creed had done.

“Just as my banjo playing is influenced by Kyle Creed, so are my banjo making skills. I wanted to carry on what he was doing,” said Fore.

Creed built banjos with and without frets using hard maple, wild cherry, apple, dogwood and American black walnut.

He was the first banjo maker to use tabletop Formica on the fret board of the instrument. Creed mostly used this technique on fretless banjos but made a few banjos with a unique checkerboard design on the finger board, alternating the use of white and brown Formica.

Creed, Fore said, built a fretless-slotted peghead with tabletop Formica covering the fingerboard and peghead for friend Fred Cockerham in the 1960s, after Cockerham lost his sight. That banjo is now housed at the Smithsonian.

“No two banjos that Creed built are alike,” said Fore. “All of Creed’s banjos had a distinct sound that drew people to purchase his banjos.”

Fore said Creed placed the bridge closer to the tail piece to give a deeper sound to the instrument. Even today, Creed’s banjos are some of the most sought after by old-time musicians and collectors and can be found all over the world.

Fore, who owns two Creed banjos, worked off one of the models, taking measurements and using blank pieces of wood, to match the style.

This week, Fore will finish up his 32nd banjo.

Partnership

With Patterson

For a time, Kyle Creed operated a sawmill in Oregon and did carpentry work in Colorado. Upon returning to the area he established a country store in the Coleman community, where he met dear friend Bobby Patterson.

Patterson, now 67, was only about 20 at the time and was a frequent customer at the shop.

“We both played music and he immediately became a part of my family and me a part of his. He treated me like I was his son, and I went everywhere he went playing music,” said Patterson, noting that Creed had two daughters, but no sons.

Then, Patterson said, mountain music seemed isolated and people just played at home. But Creed showed Patterson the routes of bluegrass and old-time music, taking him to play at the homes of some of the area’s greatest musicians, such as Fred Cockerham, Earnest East and Paul Sutphin.

“At the jams, we all had a connection,” he recalled of his outings with Creed. “A kinship starts from that moment, and it’s just electrical. There’s no other way to describe it.”

Patterson and Creed influenced each other, but Patterson was intrigued by Creed’s flawless timing on the banjo, the way he whistled a tune in between talking and the way he called everyone “neighbor.”

“He’d say ‘What’s your name. neighbor?' or ‘How you doing, neighbor?' and that's how he'd connect with people,” said Patterson.

“What most influenced me was his determination,” he said. “There was no turning back and he tackled anything.”

In 1972, they formed the Mountain Records label, recording many local groups at the studio they built on the land of Patterson’s father.

Mountain Records preserved the music of the Grayson, Carroll and Surry county areas.

The two toured together, performing at various venues including one in New York City.

When Creed fell ill with cancer shortly before he passed away, he sold Patterson his half of Mountain Records.

Patterson said he regrets not learning how to play the clawhammer banjo just like Creed before he passed on.

Lasting Influence

Creed’s old-time band Camp Creek Boys, formed in 1961, was the most influential of that time and still is today.

It reached people worldwide. In fact, Fore said, one of his friends, a native of Japan, remembers hearing a Camp Creek Boy's song at a music store there. It changed his life, as well.

“He influenced a lot of banjo players,” said Patterson. “There’s no telling how many people he touched, but there's a whole army out there.”

Fore and Patterson are hoping to reunite all the fans of Creed's music at the Sept. 12 event and plan to create a database of all the banjos he’s made.

So far, they only have about 30 of his banjos — and some pictures of Creed's banjos from Austria, Australia, Oregon, Washington, D.C., Utah, Richmond — to display.

One collector will be flying from Japan to display his Creed banjo.

However, they suspect there are at least 200 banjos out there. Shortly before Creed died, Patterson obtained a Creed banjo numbered 190, “but some don’t have numbers and who knows how his numbering system was,” he said.

“I'm sure there are plenty here that are just under people's beds,” said Patterson. “We want to see them, too.”

Fore and Patterson are asking that people also share their stories of how they came across their Creed banjo.

“There’s a lot of interesting stories about how they got them,” said Patterson. “I traded my Volkswagen Dasher for one.”

The exhibit will showcase Creed's 1979 instructional CD, album recordings, photos and Creed's handmade banjo picks created from car headlights.

“Right now we have a good count of photos and instruments,” said Fore. “We want this event to be historical and educational as possible.”

Fore is trying to gather all the banjos Creed made to be on display Sept. 12, from 11 a.m.-10 p.m. at Stringbean Coffee Shop, on South Main Street in downtown Galax.

If the banjos can't be there in person, Fore is asking that a picture — with description, banjo number, year made and scale length — be sent. The banjo owner should also include the story of how they obtained the banjo.