Bands like Whitewater Bluegrass Co. are in woefully short supply.
Here’s a veteran crew of WNC-mountain natives, playing in a seriously top-notch bluegrass outfit now in its 21st year of operation — but with little or no mainstream success to speak of.
There are no big-label record contracts looming in their future.
There are no annual invitations to MerleFest — a shame.
And there’s certainly no over-boisterous PR man relentlessly peddling the band’s wares around town. (Why should there be? Talkative bass player Ted White does just fine in that role.)
But get this: Despite Whitewater’s humble niche in the local music scene, they couldn’t be happier with their lot in life. This polished quartet is that rare conglomerate that seemingly just wants to play. If they have an ulterior motive, it’s “only” preservation — wanting to keep traditional bluegrass and old-time relevant. And wanting to do it well.
Which is no problem. For starters, banjo player and Haywood County native Marc Pruett keeps a Grammy on the mantel at home, garnered for his contribution to his old buddy Ricky Skaggs’ record, 1997’s Bluegrass Rules!. Pruett’s fluid picking — machine-gun steady, propulsive and soulful — anchors the acoustic weavings of his band mates. His chosen instrument works well at home, too. Marc’s wife, Anita, shares his love of banjo: She was actually the original Whitewater banjo player, back in the ’80s.
Asked if having so much banjo in one’s life is a good thing, Pruett responds with a laugh: “Well, I can play Ralph Stanley in my house and not get run downstairs.” Rounding out the Whitewater picture of Ted’s bass and Pruett’s banjo, you’ll find flat-picking and rhythm guitarist Bill Byerly and the senior member of the Co., fiddle virtuoso Billy Cunningham, now 74. Cunningham balances his superb bow strokes with mean harmonica blowing when the occasion calls for it, and he retains a surprisingly gentle, even angelic, voice for a man his age.
When I called their “PR man” to find out more about this mystery crew of local bluegrass purveyors, White picked up the phone and proceeded to spin yarns about Whitewater history, about Marc’s many adventures in local music (in which the Grammy plays only a minor role) and about their plans to finally record a new album this winter — their first since 1986.
The vibe at a recent December gig at their regular Thursday-night venue, Michael’s Restaurant in Arden, reveals why they’ve been a band so long: Credit a chemistry born of familiarity. These guys are old friends, and they play like old friends.
On and off stage, Whitewater Bluegrass Co. embodies a living history lesson of mountain music, and preserving that history marks one of their chief callings — especially for Pruett. The understated player, an erosion-control officer by day, recently received a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council to make a documentary about some of the real old-timers of this area — saving their fading stories and music while there’s still time. The first chapter of the documentary, filmed with students at Haywood Community College, follows a day in the life of Albert Burnett, a surprisingly wily 92-year-old with countless yarns and songs of his own to spin. Burnett’s nuggets of old-time wisdom include this declaration: “If you have corn, you have everything.”
Pruett, with a tone of strong admiration, explains the old man’s philosophy: “If you have corn, you can feed yourself; then you can feed your chickens, which will lay eggs that will give you more chickens — and more to eat. Then you have fried chicken for the preacher on Sunday, and then you can feed your hogs …” (And on and on.) Marc, of course, enlisted his band mates to score the film’s first installment. And this is where Whitewater’s most at home: playing old-time mountain music with a young, hungry energy, but with the dexterity and layered expertise of seasoned veterans.
At Michael’s they plow through classics like Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen,” and they’re not above “delivering” a slick rendition of “Dueling Banjos.” Next comes another cinematic classic — the theme from Robert Mitchum’s moonshine movie Thunder Road. (In characteristic good humor, White reveals that Thunder Road was filmed in this area — just another chapter in the ongoing history lesson.)
Next comes a Hank Williams tune. And then a sweet bluegrass “Jingle Bells” — no irony required.
[Stuart Gaines is a contributing editor to An Honest Tune, and writes Mountain Xpress‘ Junk Journal column.]
Whitewater Bluegrass Co. plays Jack of the Wood (95 Patton Ave.) on Friday, Jan. 7. 9:30 p.m. $5. 252-5445. Their weekly gigs at Michael’s Restaurant in Arden will start up again in March (684-5991).