Many bands have amazing tales to tell detailing their genesis. How did such a talented group of musicians ever manage to find one another? is the unvoiced question they nonetheless seek to answer. Their minds a-hum with PR dreams, such folks may swear to an almost-unbelievable series of karmic events.
But if you’re actually related to your bandmates, this type of hype doesn’t fly too far. And that’s OK: Family acts have at least one ace in the hole when it comes to reeling in listeners. Quite often, the idea of an entrenched music-making gene is a powerful draw in its own right.
So does that mean these people’s lives are all fancy licks and kindred bliss? Don’t be naive, hints guitarist Wes Wyatt, whose Spartanburg-based father — Col. Gene Wyatt — is considered by some to be the finest guitarist of his generation.
“We’re father and son, and we argue with one another just as much as any other father and son,” the younger Wyatt conceded in a recent interview. (And as Don Lewis — a member of local family band Sons of Ralph — points out, “A brother or sister knows how to get to you like nobody else.”)
As showcased in their country-blues act, Hot Guitar, the Wyatts’ familial bond and fiery fretwork have sparked comparisons to perhaps the most notorious roots-music family act of them all — bluegrass great Doc Watson and his late son, Merle. Significantly, that legend didn’t end with Merle’s death. Today, his son Richard can be found recording and jamming live with his famous grandfather.
In the following pages, Xpress catches up with Hot Guitar and a handful of other local folks who are sounding out their own legacy.
To sir, with love
Wes Wyatt is a towering bear of a man; at a stirring early-June Basement show that had fans roaring for an encore, the singer/guitarist dwarfed the stool he sat on. Well-schooled bassist Doug Trammel labored on his right-hand side, and to Wes’ left sat guitarist Col. Gene Wyatt — a white-haired gentleman in his seventh decade, whose mischievous smile peppered a fragile but dignified air.
The differences between the pair go well beyond the physical. “It’s not always been an easy road,” Wes admits, before adding, “We’re really good friends, as well as being father and son.” Often, live shows prompt the kind of subliminal communication that happens only in lifelong relationships.
“If we make a mistake live, we can [acknowledge] it with a wink and a nod, even through [the song],” Wes relates. “We know what happened, but it might not be apparent to anyone else.”
Almost 50 years ago, Gene Wyatt left a career in professional baseball to begin teaching guitar at the university level. And though Hot Guitar marks the first time he’s performed regularly with his son, the senior Wyatt’s other gigs outside the classroom have included a long association with Hank Garland (a renowned session musician who once backed Patsy Cline), on-stage stints with Chet Atkins and Roy Clark, and appearances at the Grand Ole Opry.
Last year the state of South Carolina honored Gene with the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award.
“One of my greatest accomplishments was being able to play before [the] state General Assembly,” says the elder Wyatt. Another of his accomplishments sat in the audience that day: South Carolina Lt. Gov. Robert Peeler, to be precise.
“I taught him when he was a boy,” the guitarist reveals.
“My dad has always been an educator, first and foremost,” proclaims his son, who lives near Charlotte. “And when I say an educator, I don’t mean a guitar instructor or a teacher, I mean an educator — someone who always tries to push the music as a healthy thing, no matter what you do.”
At the same time, however, “He’s never pressured me to have a career at it, never pressured me to be a teacher like himself,” Wes maintains. “But he was always happy that I did play. If I was into music, then I wouldn’t be into something else, you know what I’m saying?”
Asked to predict Hot Guitar’s future, the younger Wyatt decides, “Bands come and go, and this one will, too. … It’s not that I don’t account for tomorrow — I do — but we’re having fun now, so we just try to live in the moment.” His father, on the other hand, has more definite plans: “Well, I would like to go on and play at Carnegie Hall. … I think that would be my pinnacle.”
But back to now: “Our pickin’ is different, because [my father] never went through a Chuck Berry/Jimi Hendrix phase, like I did,” Wes continues. “But he never discouraged me from ever going that route, either. He wasn’t, like, ‘This is a right way; this is a wrong.’ Now don’t get me wrong: He’ll call bulls••t when he sees it. He’ll say what he thinks, and you gotta respect that … because he’s an educator, you know, a serious guitar player.”
Local mandolin player Jason Krekel, whose father is professional songwriter Tim Krekel, offers a variation on that theme: “[My dad’s] not so much a teacher to me,” he says, “as we just kind of share what we’re doing with each other, just sit around and pick.”
This young Asheville musician is immersed in an ambitious assortment of bluegrass projects, including Acoustic Vibration Appreciation Society, the Larry Keel Experience and the A.L. Wood Band. The latter group is named in honor of yet another father/son pairing, multiple-award-winning banjo player A.L. Wood — who has played for the U.S. Senate — and his guitarist son Woody, from Asheville favorites the Blue Rags. And while formal collaboration between these two is a sometime thing (currently, the elder Wood is not with the group, though the rest of the band may soon release a live CD to immortalize earlier sessions with the bluegrass veteran), Krekel seems determined to realize his own family project. The mandolinist reveals that his father is good friends (and a frequent collaborator) with Asheville singer/songwriter Malcolm Holcombe, and the three may do some local shows later this summer.
“He’ll usually have a gig when I go visit him in Louisville, and I’ve kind of gotten my name spread around up there,” explains Jason. “I’ve just recently been trying to break him into the circuit that I’m a part of down here; he used to play a lot down here when he was younger, but he’s been out of the loop for a while.”
Not that his dad needs the gigs: Tim Krekel’s credentials include writing hits for Crystal Gayle and Patty Lovelace. But his work outside of Nashville gives him a different kind of satisfaction, says his son.
“His own band has a pretty good following in Louisville, and he has fun with that — kind of performing his songs the way he intended them.”
And, while not exactly a starving musician himself, the senior Krekel may have entertained such anxiety-producing visions when his son first showed signs of carrying the family affliction.
“He wasn’t very encouraging at first, because [being a musician] is kind of a hard row to hoe,” Jason says with a laugh. “But once I proved I was going to do it anyway, he was very supportive.”
Are mandolin players, perhaps, more defiant in general? Could be: Consider another local master of that instrument, the forward-thinking Ralph Lewis, who “digs everything,” insists his son Don, a virtuoso fiddler. Together with his guitarist brother Marty, drummer Richard Foulk and bassist Gary Wiley, Don can be heard in Sons of Ralph — arguably the hottest band to spring up in Asheville in the last couple of years.
“We found out pretty early on how cool [our father] was,” says Don. “Once, with no prompting from us, he said — he kinda had the name wrong, but he said — ‘I like those Test Crash Dummies. I like their sound’ … and he [also] liked Kurt Cobain. For someone almost 70 at the time, and now 72, it blew our minds that he was so open.”
The elder Lewis was once part of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, playing to arena crowds around the world. Such a resume would leave most musicians firmly lodged on their laurels. Not Ralph Lewis: Later, he took up the electric guitar, and he’s always been fond of the Beatles and other versions of the next new thing.
This hunger for action dates back decades (“Whenever he first got started [playing music], there wasn’t anything even called bluegrass yet,” notes Don) and was passed on to his sons like an heirloom pistol. In the beginning, one heard a lot more traditional — if outlandishly rendered — bluegrass at a Sons of Ralph show. Now, the sound is muscled, amped, thundering across a mighty acre of genres toward an unsketched horizon.