Hillbilly music was our greatest entertainment during the Road days. It wasn’t called “country & western” or “bluegrass” then, any more than it’s called “hillbilly” music today. It was just called “music,” as in those days, it was the only kind going, save church music accompanied by the “pie-ann-ey.”
As much as I’ve listened to Earl Scruggs over the years, I’ve seen him perform only once. That was at what is now known as the Burnt Chimney Elementary School, then just the “Burnt Chimney School.” Though it was 1945 or ’46, and I was very young, I remember most of the details of the day. The show featured Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, plus Hylo Brown and the Timberliners.
The auditorium at the school was too small (and hot) to accommodate the crowd, so the whole show was moved outdoors to the back of a flatbed truck. The sound equipment consisted of a single microphone, one of those big ones that picked up on all sides, as were used in the halcyon days of radio.
It was a wonderful performance—everyone loved it. I especially remember Scruggs playing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on the banjo, then the crowd screaming for him to do “Earl’s Breakdown,” which he did. Years later at the Newport Folk Festival, Pete Seeger was praised for his banjo work. Seeger replied, “Have you heard Earl Scruggs?”
Flatt and Scruggs played at the old Kasey Store near Moneta, too. I’m sorry to have missed that one. We didn’t miss many, though, and the best part was that the musicians performed in small communities like ours, “Live, and in Person.” Furthermore, it didn’t cost an arm and a leg to see them. Often it was free admission where someone would pass a hat around.
Most of the performers started hopefully, then faded to obscurity, like “Tommy Magness and his Tennessee Buddies,” “Ray R. Myers, the Armless Musician,” “May Hawke and the York Brothers.” Some who appeared locally made it modestly, such as Reno & Smiley and Martinsville’s Jim Eanes. Others like Flatt & Scruggs and Mac Wiseman became legends.
They were wonderful entertainers, all of them. They played on makeshift stages, flatbed trucks and in small school gymnasiums. Few in their audiences were skilled enough to know who was good and who was just acceptable.
For instance, Rich and I thought Ray R. Myers could play the steel guitar with his feet as good as anyone we had heard. Myers was born with no arms and had trained himself to do everything with his feet and toes. He wore cloth coverings on all but those toes when eating at the table. Otherwise, he could dress himself, play music and drive a hydramatic Oldsmobile.
Nearly 40 years later, Rich sent me a news clipping that reported one Ray R. Myers had been denied renewal of his Pennsylvania driver’s license, when the new computerized system had automatically rejected an armless man, despite his being licensed for over 40 years. Myers sued and was reinstated. Rich noted on the clipping. “As soon as I saw this, I knew!” Myers was then a security guard in Harrisburg.
At home, we listened to “music” on the battery radio. I could hear it coming through the window when I woke in the morning, along with the aromas of breakfast cooking.