Review: Willard Gayheart and Friends are 'At Home in the Blue Ridge'

Willard Gayheart. Photo by Kristen H Photography

Willard Gayheart. Photo by Kristen H Photography

Rating: 6.5/10

The sentiment that it's “never too late to pursue your dreams” is the stuff of a thousand motivational posters. It's also a true statement for 87 year old songwriter Willard Gayheart, whose first solo album, At Home in the Blue Ridge is being released May 24 on Blue Hens Music.

Gayheart's life, even before his fourth quarter solo career, is an interesting one. Born in 1932 in rural Eastern Kentucky, Gayheart got to experience the Great Depression first-hand in one of the poorest regions in the country. After spending two years in college before becoming a cartographer in the Korean War, Gayheart and his wife Pat moved their family to the then mostly unknown to the larger world traditional music hotbed of Galax, VA. There Gayheart dabbled in professional music, cutting three albums on a local label in the '70s with a band called The Highlanders and touring regionally with his next band, The Skidmarks. From there Gayheart managed a department store before retiring in the mid-'90s and opening the Front Porch Gallery and Frame Shop that has become a centerpiece of the burgeoning local arts community.

But in all that, Gayheart did one more very important thing that led him to his first solo release; he instilled a deep seated love of traditional music in his granddaughter Dori Freeman. After Freeman went on to her own professional career, cutting two critically acclaimed albums with producer Teddy Thompson, Thompson was interested in seeing her roots. After meeting and playing with her grandfather, Dori and Teddy convinced Willard that it was time for his solo debut.

The most remarkable thing about At Home in the Blue Ridge is, despite sounding like an album full of Galax-area traditionals, all but two of the album's songs were written by Gayheart over the years. As producer, Thompson furthered the songs' weathered feel by recording everything live over two days at Gayheart's frame shop, with the performers all crowded around one microphone.

Joining Gayheart to sing and perform on the record are a true group of “friends.” His former Highlanders bandmate Jimmy Zeh plays banjo. Son-in-law Scott Freeman contributes mandolin and fiddle. Dori's husband Nick Falk played drums. And, most prominently, is Dori, whose voice slots in so perfectly with Willard's that you can tell these are two people who have been singing together since her birth.

The album's themes are ones that will be familiar to any fan of traditional Carter Family style music. There's the tale of murder in a small community (“The Shootin”), a devotional number (“A Turn Toward the Light”), rural mountain life (“The Working”, “Kentucky Memories”) and music (“Henderson Guitar”, “Coney Mountain Washboard”).

But there are two songs that stand out among the album's eleven. One, “Ern and Zory's Sneakin' Bitin' Dog”, will be familiar to Dori Freeman fans as she included a cover of it on her album Letters Never Read, and it has long been a fan favorite live. A simple ditty about a man who takes a shortcut home from his sweetheart's house, only to regularly be chased by two bachelor farmers' dog. The other standout is “Robin D.” There are few things in the world better than a well written sea shanty and “Robin D” stands up with some of the best of them. The tale of a man who becomes so obsessed with building a boat so to sail away from his life's cares with his wife, that his wife left him and he is left only with the boat.

There's nothing revolutionary on At Home in the Blue Ridge. It isn't meant to be that kind of record. But Willard Gayheart belongs to a generation of musicians who saw a way of life that is now gone and learned their craft in a community life that no longer exists. Albums like At Home in the Blue Ridge serve as priceless historical markers, a place for fans of modern Americana music to look back and trace the thread back to its roots, gathered around an old potbelly stove with a group of friends, jamming on whatever comes to mind.