Come Softly To Me
This was my first grade photo from 1975. For our very first "show and tell," I played The Fleetwoods' 45 RPM record, "Come Softly To Me," that I found in my parents' collection. The school was W.R. Odell Elementary, our colors were green and white, and our mascot was the Dragons - the greatest school mascot ever. This rural school was made up of blue-collar white and black folks whose families were primarily cotton mill workers and farmers. My teacher, Ms. Fries, was a first-year teacher and only 22 years old. She treated all her students as if they were her own children even though she did not yet have any. When I dropped the needle down on the industrial looking record player, she smiled and asked me to play the record again for our principal, Mr. Larry Riggs. It was at this moment that I saw the profound effect that music could have on people.
My father started my sister and I on a healthy diet of classic country music. He would often say that Hank Williams Sr. was a poet, especially after we would hear "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." I fondly remember listening to 8-track tapes of Hank Williams Sr., Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Red Sovine, Slim Whitman, and George Jones while my father drove us around town in his 1978 F150 white Super Cab pickup truck.
Concord is located in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. The Piedmont is in the middle section of the state, between the mountains and the ocean. I grew up in this area and fell in love with the Piedmont Blues. Rev. Gary Davis, Josh White, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Blind Boy Fuller, Pink Anderson, John Jackson, and many other great Piedmont Blues artists are from my neck of the woods.
While growing up in Concord, my best friend was the great-grandson of J.E. Mainer. J.E. lived off of Poplar Tent Road and was the leader of J.E. Mainer and his Crazy Mountaineers, an old-time string band. This type of music predated bluegrass and, in fact, J. E. and his banjo pickin' brother, Wade Mainer, were huge influences on Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, and the Stanley Brothers.
I first heard the Violent Femmes on WDAV's "Flipsides" in 1983. The Femmes were mixing acoustic music with a punk edge. Ever since then, I have looked for bands that have that same acoustic/punk sound. While this is a very rare thing to find, when it DOES occur, it can be a very powerful thing.
"Flipsides" was an alternative rock radio show on WDAV 89.9 FM (Davidson College, Davidson, NC) that would air from 11:00pm to 1:00am. I would listen to it each night while growing up - it was a big influence on me.
The Crockett family was a great promoter influence located in the Charlotte, NC area. They promoted pro-wrestling shows among the mill-working, blue-collar folks in the southeast in the 60s and 70s before going nationwide in the 80s. Nature Boy Ric Flair was, and still is, the greatest world champion to ever step into the squared circle. He was surrounded by a great cast of characters including Ole, Gene and Arn Anderson, Dusty Rhodes, Thunderbolt Patterson, Rufus R. 'Freight Train' Jones, #1 Paul Jones, Blackjack Mulligan, Ricky 'The Dragon' Steamboat, Harley Race, and others. These wrestling shows created a lot of excitement and pandemonium around The Carolinas and as a kid, it was larger than life.
Stock Car Racing
The Charlotte Motor Speedway was eight miles from the house that I grew up in in Concord, NC. In the 70s, NASCAR was still regarded as a regional sport and most of the fans were working class. At that time, the president of the Charlotte Motor Speedway was Humpy Wheeler. Humpy may go down as the greatest promoter to ever live. He was a genius in how he worked his events - his strategies had a big effect on me from a young age. Growing up in the Piedmont, everyone had a driver. Mine was David Pearson in the Wood Brothers #21 Purolator Mercury. Along with Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Buddy Baker, and Cale Yarborough, it was a great time to be a fan. Long before stock car racing was a mainstream sport, it was very much like independent record labels - rebellious, in your face, unconcerned about the status quo. Very rock-n-roll.
Tommy Faile was a member of Arthur Smith and the Crackerjacks and had a velvet smooth, baritone country voice. When I was growing up, The Arthur Smith show on WBTV was a mainstay in all the blue-collar households in the Piedmont. Tommy Faile was the working man's poet. He wrote "Phantom 309," which was a hit for Red Sovine and was covered by Tom Waits. Faile also scored a regional hit with "The Brown Mountain Light." Randy Travis has personally told me how big of an influence Tommy Faile was on him. Faile was a local legend and world-class talent.
Church of God
My grandparents were charter members of the Fisher Street Church of God in Kannapolis, NC. As children, my sister and I would go to worship services with them a few times a year. The church was full of cotton mill workers and children from the local orphanage. Although there were lots of poor people in attendance, in some ways, they were very wealthy because the room was always overflowing with love. Church of God gospel music features a piano style where the left hand bounces back and forth, very much like boogie-woogie or ragtime-style piano. As soon as the music would start, the church would immediately fill up with the sounds of clapping, shouting, and praise. This music really stuck with me and I saw (and heard!) that everyone was singing from the heart. I would rather hear someone with less talent sing a song with heartfelt conviction than a great vocalist who is just going through the motions.
While living in Winston-Salem, NC in the early 90s, I became a weekly shopper at "Rave On," a record store that was located on Peters Creek Parkway. The shop owner and I got to know each other well and one day, he asked me if I had ever heard of Sammy Walker. He told me that Sammy was discovered by Phil Ochs and that I should check him out. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any of Sammy's music anywhere! One day, while in the shop, the owner gave me a copy of Sammy's self-titled second album. I later discovered that Sammy was living in North Carolina, so I reached out to him and a friendship began - Sammy even played a concert for my 30th birthday party!
In July 2000, I invited Martin Stephenson over from the United Kingdom and introduced him to many North Carolina musicians. We recorded a field recording album titled "The Haint of the Budded Rose - A Musical Ramble Through North Carolina." It was a tribute to old-time music, especially that of Charlie Poole. A special moment during our journey was Martin playing beside the tombstone of Charlie Poole.