Willard Gayheart Keeps The Musical Mountain Spirit of Appalachia Alive (INTERVIEW)

Willard Gayheart has dedicated his life to Appalachia. Growing up in the Cumberland Gap region of Kentucky and eventually settling down in the small town of Galax, Virginia nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Gayheart has found artistic ways to keep the rich legacy of this region alive. He’s perhaps best known for his pencil drawings depicting life in the region, publishing two books of art and running his own frame store near Galax. But his fascination with the old “mountain spirit” has also transpired in the music he frequently plays. In these parts, music is often shared between family members, who pass it down to each new generation.

Though he’s been playing bluegrass and folk music in bands and jam sessions for as long as he can remember, it was family that finally pushed Gayheart to record his first solo album. His granddaughter is the accomplished folk artist Dori Freeman, and she pushed her grandfather to finally record an album at the age of 87. At Home in the Blue Ridge (Blue Hens Music) is a collection of Gayheart’s originals as well as a few choice cover tunes. Many of these bluegrass and old timey folk tunes had been kicking around for a while, and Gayheart is sharp as a nail as he picks away on his guitar and sings songs that are as vivid as his artwork. To make the album, Dori Freeman and her father Scott convened at Gayheart’s frame store along with producer Teddy Thompson, New York recording engineer and producer Ed Haber (Linda Thompson, WNYC), and Dori’s husband Nick Falk.

There’s a warmness in the music that resulted from their session, stirring up a feeling of nostalgia for simpler times when communities worked together to keep their rural way of life afloat. Recently, Willard Gayheart took the time to chat about growing up in Kentucky and Virginia, his lyrical tales of life in Appalachia, and what it feels like to record your first album at the age of 87.

This album is your debut solo effort. You’ve played music all your life but what took you so long to make a solo album?

I’ve just been in bands and we’ve recorded many albums through the years. I’ve been in about 3 or 4 different bands and just never got around to doing anything of my own. I’ve recorded some of these songs before, but not as a personal project. This of course came up with my granddaughter Dori and my son-in-law Scott, and Dori’s husband is a wonderful musician. So we were able to do this as a family so it makes it even more special I think to do some of these songs because some of them are about how I grew up in Kentucky, just kind of story songs. I just feel really fortunate to be able to do this at my age. It’s been really special.

You collaborated with your granddaughter on this album. Did you show her music growing up? What was that like working together on this project?

She grew up close by, and of course her daddy and me were in various bands together, and when Dori was little she would go with her family to the concerts we did. She was always around the music and concerts. I think I wondered when she started to grow up if she would want to play music, because both sides of her family were musicians. She didn’t show a lot of interest until high school, and then all of the sudden she learned to play guitar, sing, and write her own songs. She just blossomed all of the sudden. I think the opportunity to play together was important for her.

You recorded the album in your frame shop with customers coming in and out. How did you set that up and get the sound you wanted?

Ted Thompson produced it and he came from New York and brought portable equipment to setup here in the shop. We were fortunate that we didn’t have that many interruptions during the time. This is a frame shop and it’s not in a location where there’s a lot of walk-in traffic, we’re kind of out in the country. Most people come here to get framing done and we don’t have that many.

Did you write all of the songs on this album? Were they songs that had been kicking around for a while?

I wrote all but two songs, and the ones I didn’t write were “Appalachian Hills” and “Coney Island Washboard”, [which] was an old jazz tune from way back that I just happened to know.

Is there a feeling of nostalgia in these songs?

Yeah, I grew up in Kentucky. When I was a boy at the end of the Depression we lived in an area that was higher than the rest of the world, I felt. Most of the people lived off of the land and we were kind of isolated back in the mountains. We raised our own food and had a lot of hard work to do. I’ve written a few songs about back then and a few incidents that happened. There was a little tragedy once back in 1946 when some fellas got in a little argument and we had a shooting right in the middle of the road on a Sunday afternoon in the summertime and everybody could hear. One of them was killed and I wrote a song about that called “The Shootin'”.

I wanted to ask about that song. So that was a real life thing that happened?

Yes, I’ve changed the names [laughs] so I wouldn’t embarrass anybody. It was a rare thing in our little community for that to happen but it did. There was a country road and the road went right up the creek. The creek was about 10 miles long and there were swinging bridges across the creek to houses in many places. These fellas came up the road and the fella they had a problem with lived across the creek in one of those houses. They hollered for him to come over and he came over suspecting they wanted trouble, so he had a pistol in his pocket. He went over there and the trouble started and he killed one of them. So they picked on the wrong man I think. In some places there are hard times. There was some drinking going on and some moonshine around, and there were a few people that I knew who had a still hidden out in the woods. Those were different times than we experience today in the mountains, we’re caught up now [laughs].

In the first song “The Workin’” you talk about missing the mountain life. Is that life still around?

I don’t think so at all, not where I grew up. All of those fields we tended, it’s all grown up now because no one does that anymore. Now there are jobs in Hazard, KY, the closest big town, and other places. A lot of people have gone and moved to Ohio, Indiana, and different places to find work. Things have changed.

Has anything gotten lost in all of that change?

The thing I remember most is people being dependent on each other. Our creek that we lived on and so many of us were related. There were several families that settled there in the early 1800s. When somebody had a problem the others would help. I remember one time when my great uncle, they were grubbing a new ground in the side of the mountain in the spring, and he got a locust thorn in his hand and he got blood poisoning and passed away. One man organized a bunch of people on the creek and they came and helped finish the work for his widow – they put in the crops for him and harvested them in the fall. That was not uncommon, those people depended on each other.

What is the music scene like where you live?

The first music I remember locally was a musician here and there, and they might get together and jam. Then maybe sometimes there’d be enough of them to play a square dance but there wasn’t a lot of musicians and music. When I came along – in 1939 I remember my dad bringing a radio home and it picked up the Grand Ole Opry – that’s when I really started getting interested in music. I [also] got to hear records from a lot of the old timey musicians who were just beginning their careers and I was just really taken by that. When I was growing up it seemed like all I wanted to do was learn to play a guitar and sing. When I was 12 years old the teachers hired me to build fires in the wintertime. We didn’t have a school bus, we had to walk to school, but I lived fairly close and I could get there early in the morning. We had potbellied stoves and I would get the class warm by the time the kids got there. I got paid 10 cents a fire and at the end of the year the teacher paid me all at once. I had 3 dollars and I knew one of the neighbor boys had a used guitar that he got from Montgomery Ward probably in the early 30s. I bought it and my mother could play a little, and she showed me the first chords. About 3-4 months later I could play and sing a little bit. When I came to Galax, Virginia in 1962, this is where I found the music. I had never been to any place where there were so many musicians, especially string and traditional music. It wasn’t long before I was in a band. When I came to Galax I started getting into drawing and I had a theme: nostalgic glimpses of the Appalachian. So my songs are a lot like the drawings.

At your age, how do you keep the creative spark going and what motivates you to keep making music and art?

I think always my motivation has been that people are complimentary. I just love the music and I love to entertain. This thing we do at the Blue Ridge Music Center every week through the summer months – people are traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway from all over the world and we get to meet them and play our music for them – to me that’s just the most motivating thing. I look forward to every show and I never get tired of it. I don’t write many songs, I’ve never felt that I was gifted there, but people seem to enjoy the songs. A lot of people my age have quit everything, but I’m just getting started!

At Home in the Blue Ridge Mountains is out now. 

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