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When Houston Caldwell was only 14 years old, he took the stage with longtime bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley.
“I remember that Ralph asked Houston — and he didn’t joke — if he wanted to play his banjo,” remembered Kenneth Caldwell, Houston’s father.
At the time, the young banjo prodigy wasn’t old enough to realize what an honor it would have been to hold a musical instrument that had been plucked on countless stages all over the country.
So, instead of taking Stanley up on the offer, he just shook his head and said, “If it’s all the same to you, I’ll just play my Huber.”
And that was that. “Ralph let him play on stage with him, and he played with Ralph’s grandson Nathan, who was the same age as Houston,” said Kenneth.
When asked what songs they picked together, he guessed that it was probably “Shucking the Corn” and “Clinch Mountain Backstep,” because “those were Houston’s two favorite songs,” he recalled.
Stanley, along with dozens of other big bluegrass names, will take the stage this weekend for HoustonFest 2014: A Celebration of Song and Service.
This annual event was created in memory of Houston, who passed away in April 2010, at age 18.
In his short life, Houston made an unforgettable impact as a musician, a firefighter, a soldier and a community volunteer. Each year, Houstonfest is held in his memory for the purposes of continuing his vision of support for the area’s musical heritage and community service.
A History of Bluegrass
Many musicians and groups support the event each year, and Stanley made it a point to include HoustonFest on his list of venues for his farewell tour. “I’ve played in Galax several times, anywhere from 10 to 25 sets at least,” he said. When asked about his memories of the area, he admitted that there were too many to count. “I’ve enjoyed playing the festivals [in Galax], and I’ve always enjoyed talking to the people that I get to meet when I’m on the road.”
Ever since he formed a band with his brother, Carter, in 1946, the tunes of bluegrass became his blood and his breath. Between then and 1966, when Carter passed away, the Stanley Brothers and The Clinch Mountain Boys were one of the world’s most celebrated bluegrass groups.
After Carter’s passing, Stanley shifted into an older and sadder style of mountain music. He served as a mentor for talents such as Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, Larry Sparks and Charlie Sizemore.
Today, Stanley is known to average more than 150 shows each year. Throughout his career, he has earned countless honors in the world of bluegrass, one of the most notable being his inclusion in the collection of songs for the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
He holds a laundry list of awards, including the Living Legend award from the Library of Congress, the honor of being the first recipient of the Traditional American Music Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the honor of being the first artist of the new millennium to be inducted into the historic Grand Ole Opry.
One of his proudest achievements is his honorary doctorate in music from Lincoln Memorial University, which was conferred to him in 1976.
Even with his prestigious resume, Stanley credits his music to his faith in God. “I believe that the Lord has plans for people, and I think that this is what he wanted me to do,” he said.
After a lengthy career, Stanley made the announcement that this year would be his final tour before he retired. However, when he began making his way from one venue to the next, he admitted that his final taste of the limelight has given him second thoughts about hanging up his hat.
“I sorta thought that it might be it for me this year, but I wouldn’t say for sure now,” he said. “I just got to feeling good about it again, and I decided that I’d miss it.”
When asked what his definitive plans were, Stanley was ambivalent. “I might be done this year, or maybe the next… I guess when God tells me to stop and makes me unable, that’s when I’ll be done,” he said.
Over the many years of his career, Stanley had a profound effect on bluegrass musicians, including a young Galax boy named Houston Caldwell.
Houston started playing banjo when he was only 10 years old, and those who saw his fast progression over the remaining eight years of his life knew that he had an incredible potential.
“Ralph and everyone else always had words to encourage him,” said Kenneth. “Houston would even ask them what he needed to do, and they would tell him to just keep playing.”
In addition to learning music himself, Houston’s family was always impressed with his passion for educating others on the importance of furthering local bluegrass heritage. “I want people to remember him for his passion… even when he was a little boy, he wanted people to move and live here, and keep the music going,” said his mother, Tess Caldwell.
One of Houston’s main concerns was about getting kids to go outside and play music instead of staying inside and playing video games. “We hope to keep encouraging this with our event, with the scholarships and everything else,” Kenneth said.
But while bluegrass was an important priority, Tess said it always came second in Houston’s life to serving his country. “He wrote us a letter, and in this letter he said that he felt more like a man being a soldier, and that he could call all of our fallen heroes that he’d read about all through his life his brothers in arms,” she said.
In another letter, he expressed his desire to become more involved in festivals and events back home to draw in bigger crowds and inspire community growth.
Tess remembered the day that he announced that he wanted to become a firefighter, and join the U.S. Army. “From kindergarten, he played every kind of sport he could do. He was sent to wide receiving camps at Virginia Tech, and camps at UVA. Then, when he was 14, he said that he needed to have a talk with us, and he told us he didn’t want to play sports.”
At first, Tess was upset about the sudden change of heart, but he told her, “Mom, what is more honorable?”
“I guess you’re right,” she had replied.
This determination and passion is what his parents remember the most about Houston. “He was a child from birth that, whatever he wanted to do, he accomplished it. And I used to tell him that God favored him. No matter how many banjos you play, your goal is that you have to put God first… and he always said, ‘I know.’”
Tess cried as she read another passage he’d written to her: “Thank you so much for everything you have encouraged me to do through life. Thank you for the times you’ve punished me, and for [encouraging me in] my love for Christ. That is a weapon that more soldiers should learn to use.”
Ultimately, Tess shared that she would like to see the event’s scholarships used to fund youth in their efforts to obtain a degree from a four-year college. “Most of the ones who write to me now are young — from five-year-olds to a couple of 17- and 18-year-olds. Most are using [the scholarship] for lessons and gas to help parents, or to buy a better instrument. But eventually we want to see scholars apply it to [a college degree],” she said.