Willard Gayheart and Friends, “At Home in the Blue Ridge”

For Penguin Eggs

A few years ago, when Dori Freeman released her debut, self-titled album, it seemed that she had sprung, fully formed, from the head of Zeus. Well, this album, on which she participates, fills in the blanks. Willard Gayheart is her grandfather. As the titled of the album suggests, they’re at home, just hanging and picking. As you do. Or at least as so many do in that part of the world, the area around Galax, Virginia. One of the songs here hints at the larger community, “My Henderson Guitar,” as in Wayne Henderson, the famed luthier who lives just down the road in Rugby. Henderson famously and delightfully only makes guitars for people that he knows and who he thinks could make good use of one. More often than not, they’re people that spend time in his shop because they live (or once lived) nearby. People like Doc Watson, Uwe Kruger, Josh Goforth, David Holt, and lots of young people who you’ve never heard of, at least not yet, including Zeb Snyder.

The point being that Freeman actually came out of one of the most important musical communities in North America, give or take a bit. In that part of the world people gather in the barber shops (see ‘Pickin’ & Trimmin’” on YouTube, a profile of the Barbershop in Drexel, North Carolina) or the diners (sadly the Cook Shack in Union Grove North Carolina is closed now, but lives on on YouTube) and play in ways that can take your breath way, principally because there’s so much joy and ease.

For many, it’s hard to believe that places like that exist, but they do. Gaylord, for his part, arrived from Kentucky in 1962, and was as delighted as anyone. “When I came to Galax, I couldn’t believe it,” he says, “every family had a musician of some sort. Music was in the air around here. It was mostly old-time and bluegrass, mostly traditional music but others too.” This album offers a wonderful glimpse of the feel, the music, and the culture. It was recorded in Gayheart’s art framing shop, which apparently was open for business at the time—customers came in while they were playing, and Gayheart would get up to serve them.

The material is typical, with lots of warm winks and nods, a realistic optimism, and an appreciation of the simpler things. If you’re looking for cynicism, you won’t find it here, thankfully. The playing is as delightful and effortless as the sentiments. It’s Gayheart’s first recording, and it’s a gift in every way. As he sings, “you can have your fancy dining/you can have your mansions fair/you can travel to the Rockies just to breath the mountain air/but of all these modern luxuries/the one I love by far/is playing mountain music on my Henderson guitar.” Exactly.

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