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Masters of Mountain Music

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By April Wright, Reporter

As a young boy growing up in Kentucky, local music legend Willard Gayheart, scraped up $3 to purchase his first guitar, and even though he didn't do much with it then, when he moved to Galax in 1962 he got hooked on learning bluegrass and old-time music.

Gayheart, now a renowned musician and pencil artist, shared his story with a crowd at last Thursday's first Bluegrass Gravy & River Quilts event at the Crossroads Institute in Galax.

Bluegrass Gravy & River Quilts, composed of four events in March and April at Crossroads, will highlight the heritage of the area, with components of bluegrass music, arts and crafts, food traditions and scenery. This is in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is expected to bring in 20,000 visitors to the area this year.

Listeners packed every seat and lined the wall to hear the music and stories of six local music legends — Gayheart, Wayne Henderson, Jimmy Edmonds, Bobby Patterson, Gerald Anderson and Spencer Strickland. They performed songs including “Eight More Miles to Louisville,” “Mockingbird,” “Rambling Boys” and “Virginia Beauty.”

Emceed by local folklorist Joe Wilson, each musician told the story of how they got into playing bluegrass.

Gayheart remembers listening to the Carter Family when he was four years old. He learned how to play his first few chords from his mom, but it was something about the music that filled Galax that really intrigued him, he said.

Luthier and bluegrass musician Jimmy Edmonds — who owns the Leaf & String music shop in downtown Galax, where he builds instruments — said he begun playing fiddle at four after his dad broke down and finally got him one.

Music, he said, runs in his blood — he has bluegrass musicians on both sides of his family, including his dad. Now, he plays several different instruments and a variety of music, including bluegrass, old-time and country.

Edmonds has played alongside the world-renowned Henderson for years. The first instrument he built, a mandolin, started from a piece of wood salvaged from a scrap pile in Wayne Henderson's shop. Edmonds started making fiddles in 2001 and guitars shortly afterwards.

Henderson, of Rugby, learned music from neighbors and his dad, a great old-time fiddler. He, his family and friends kept themselves entertained with music.

“At the fiddlers' convention, I wanted to win a ribbon so bad I couldn't stand it,” Henderson recalled.

Henderson won his first ribbon — third-place — at the Galax Old Fiddlers' Convention in the 1960s.

When he was a kid, he made instruments out of cardboard and fishing line. Today, his custom-built guitars are some of the most prized in the world.

In a 1995 White House ceremony, Henderson was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship in recognition of his instrument-making. He is just six away from his 500th guitar.

Gerald Anderson got into making mandolins in Henderson's shop in the 1970s, and has worked with him for the past 28 years.

“Everything I learned about picking and making guitars, I learned from Wayne,” said Anderson.

Anderson took on apprentice Spencer Strickland about seven years ago. Strickland has since started his own shop, is building a guitar for a member of Tim McGraw's band and is traveling with bluegrass musicians Kenny and Amanda Smith.

Bobby Patterson, Gayheart's longtime friend and musical collaborator, said he was one of those people destined to be a musician, since he was born into it — both his mom and dad played guitar.

“My dad worked at a furniture factory and would give me pennies from his pocket,” he said. “Over time, I saved up $32.50 in pennies. Close to my birthday, my dad said it's time to cash those pennies in.”

He and his dad went down to the old Porter Furniture Co. in downtown Galax, where he bought his first guitar for $29.95.

Then, his uncle gave him a banjo, and “I learned to play it before I went to bed,” he said.

“Musicians would come to my house once a month and jam,” said Patterson. “They would play until 11 or 12 at night.”

Patterson met with banjo-maker Kyle Creed, and they started their own record label together in 1970s, and Patterson still strives to preserve and record traditional music.

Patterson and Creed recorded Henderson's first album in 1976, he recalled.

Now, Patterson and Gayheart play weekly during the summer at the Blue Ridge Music Center.