Willard Gayheart and Friends, “At Home in the Blue Ridge”

Galax, Virginia, is one of the most important musical communities in North America that you’ve never heard of. It’s at the heart of a part of the world where people gather in the barber shops (see ‘Pickin’ & Trimmin’ on YouTube, a profile of the Barbershop in Drexel, North Carolina) or the diners (sadly the Cook Shack in Union Grove North Carolina is closed now, but lives on in YouTube) and play music in ways that can quietly take your breath way with its joy and its ease.

For many, it’s hard to believe that places like that exist, but they do. Gayheart arrived from Kentucky in 1962 and was as delighted with what he found as anyone would be. “When I came to Galax, I couldn’t believe it,” he says, “every family had a musician of some sort. Music was in the air around here. It was mostly old-time and bluegrass, mostly traditional music but others too.”

This album offers a wonderful glimpse of the feel, the music, and the culture. It was recorded in Gayheart’s art framing shop, which apparently was open for business at the time—customers came in while they were playing, and Gayheart would get up to serve them. The title doesn’t lie: he’s really at home with friends from around town. One of them is Wayne Henderson, the famed luthier who lives just down the road in Rugby. Henderson only makes guitars for people that he knows and who he thinks could make good use of one. More often than not, they’re people that spend time in his shop because they live (or once lived) nearby. People like Doc Watson, Uwe Kruger, Josh Goforth, David Holt, and lots of young people who you’ve never heard of, at least not yet, including Zeb Snyder.

The material is typical of the region, full of winks and nods, a persistent optimism, an appreciation of the simpler things. If you’re looking for cynicism, you won’t find it here, thankfully. The playing is as delightful and effortless as the sentiments expressed. It’s Gayheart’s first recording, and it’s a gift in every way. As he sings, “you can have your fancy dining/you can have your mansions fair/you can travel to the Rockies just to breath the mountain air/but of all these modern luxuries/the one I love by far/is playing mountain music on my Henderson guitar.” Exactly.