The more strings change…

This Saturday, four of the world’s pre-eminent steel-string-guitar players will land in Asheville — but chances are, you haven’t ever heard of them. Although fellow musicians speak these artists’ names in hushed tones, the performers billed on the Masters of the Steel String Guitar national tour play second fiddle to their own instruments. And though they lack commercial success, they’re nevertheless carrying on a musical tradition that’s too vital to disappear — and that is, in fact, slowly coming back into vogue.

“The music field is geared toward what I’d call commercial-type music, and I don’t quite fit that mold,” says Eddie Pennington, a featured ‘master’ who won the only two national thumb-picking competitions he ever entered. “I think that if this music gets discovered, then it’ll go to the top. There’s not a lot like it. You can play it by itself, and it’s full and complete.” The musicians featured on the tour — produced by the nonprofit National Council for the Traditional Arts — represent four distinct American guitar styles. John Cephas, two-time winner of the coveted W.C. Handy Award, plays Piedmont blues (a style that dates back to Colonial America), accompanied by world-class harmonica player Phil Wiggins. Johnny Bellar is a master of the resophonic guitar, or dobro, an acoustic instrument invented in the U.S. in the 1920s. Wayne Henderson, a National Heritage Fellowship winner and guitar-maker (Eric Clapton is among those on his waiting list), hails from a line of Appalachian crafters and musicians.

On the untitled demo CD released to herald the launch of the tour, the guitarists play with a fluidity and natural grace distilled from raw experience. Tracks such as “I Don’t Love Nobody,” featuring Wayne Henderson, literally spill off the strings. In “Prison Blues,” Cephas and Wiggins have taken the song’s suffering to heart. David and Linda Lay of the bluegrass band Appalachian Trail provide vocal and instrumental support rounding out many of the songs. It should be noted that all of the featured performers are less “career musicians” than they are people whose lives are intertwined with American musical tradition.

“The style that I play traces back to a guy named Kennedy Jones, who first started using a thumb pick in 1919,” explains Pennington, who works by day as the coroner for his native Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. “There were a couple young guys who followed him around, because he was such an influence to them. One’s name was Mose Rager, and the other name was Ike Everly. Of course Ike, he turned out to be the father of Don and Phil, the rock ‘n’ roll boys. Then, from [the influence of Kennedy and Mose], Merle Travis was one of the first guys ever recorded, on the radio and all, and took [the thumb-picking sound] to other parts of the world. Then you get Chet Atkins listening to Merle. I’m not saying that there weren’t other people playing with their thumb and fingers and all, but basically, the style that you hear that became so prominent in the world, through the influence of Chet Atkins and Merle Travis, came from Kennedy Jones.”

In fact, Pennington himself is part of this ancestry, having grown up around Rager. “The first time I saw him I was 18 years old, and I think that was the most impressed I’ve ever been with anybody … You didn’t so much play with him — you mostly listened. He didn’t really stop and show you very much. He radiated a magic. I could almost see a guitar breathe when he played it, there was so much life in it. He was just playing, and I was just soaking it up. That’s the way I learned.”

Wayne Henderson grew up similarly immersed, surrounded by parents, grandparents, cousins and siblings for whom making music was the primary recreation. “Music has been a part of my life as long as I can remember,” says Henderson. “My grandpas were both banjo players, and music was just a big part … that’s what I did for recreation, pretty much. I had all kinds of neighbors, and there was not a whole lot of other entertainment, so there was always somebody to play with.

“My dad was a fiddle player, and I got to backing him up when I … was a youngster, and he would play those old tunes like ‘Arkansas Traveler’ or ‘Ragtime Annie’ or tunes that I got to want to play on the guitar, and you’ve got to have a flat pick to do that — [but] I couldn’t use a flat pick. A neighbor told me to get those finger-style picks, so they’d be stuck on my finger and I wouldn’t lose them. I developed a style with my fingers and my thumbs, so I could do that [imitation of a flat pick]. I learned to do that when I was a kid, because I didn’t know any other way to do it. I’ve been playing this way for 46 or 47 years. There aren’t a lot of people who play that way … there’s less than half a dozen that I know of.”

It seems significant, somehow, that Henderson is pleased with his day job — he’s had a rural mail route in Rugby, Va. for about 30 years. When asked why he sticks to the route when he could be playing music or making guitars, he talks about financial motives, but it seems there’s more to it than that. “It’s mainly because I just enjoy doing that, pretty much,” he adds with sincerity. “Normally it’s a pretty relaxing thing to do, driving around and delivering folks’ mail who I’ve known all my life.”

Their music and their community seem inseparable for these guitarists — a connection that rarely surfaces in other genres, hwere, for most artists, a day job is simply something to be endured until they can afford to quit. And though Pendleton concedes that the day may soon come when he can afford to leave his coroner’s job, for now, he says, he’s happy to provide that service to his community.

“Everywhere we play, people seem to enjoy us. I would think there would be a market for it — if we had the opportunity to have it on the market,” he ponders. “But there is such a small variance that they allow … they know how much success they’re gonna get out of that certain pattern that they’re using, and they stick with that. Then that limits guys like me and Wayne Henderson … from getting to make real big careers of it.”

Still, Pendleton says he’s got no regrets:

“We all are very close on this tour,” he reveals. “The last time we play[ed], everybody [on the tour] just sat and watched [each other’s performance]. Everybody enjoyed everything — except John Cephus’ driving. There’s no star egos … we’re all friends, and we all try to help each other and enjoy being with each other.” Besides, with a teenage son (Alonzo) who’s already a national junior thumb-picking champion, Pennington doesn’t have to look far for hope. “And I feel like, if people get a chance to hear it, then they will desire to hear it a lot more,” he says about the genre, adding, “It sure hooked me when I heard it.”

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