A High School Bluegrass Band: 1974-75

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by Mary Jo Shannon

Jim Parker, now living in Texas and a Patrick Henry classmate of my older son Harry, reads The Roanoke Star.com online. He e-mailed me with a suggestion – I should write about the bluegrass band Harry and he played in at PH during their junior and senior years, 1974-75.  “We had a blast,” he said.

I replied that, being a mother, I did not have insight into the activities that caused them to “have a blast,” and would appreciate some help. My only knowledge concerned Harry’s interest in the banjo,  that he frequently went out with friends to play, practiced his banjo at home and sometimes the band practiced at our house.

Knowing that teenagers often lose interest shortly after acquiring expensive equipment for pursuing a current hobby, we were dubious about Harry’s  request for a banjo. We agreed if he raised half the money required we would give him the remainder. He kept his part of the bargain and we kept ours. I gave him a tape, “Learning to Play the Banjo,” and soon he was taking a class in banjo at Virginia Western and practicing every spare moment he had at home.

Jim was more than happy to fill me in on what I did not know about the band.  He said Richard Greer, a postal carrier who worked with his dad at the Post Office, taught the class Harry took at VWCC. He also taught Jim at his home. “Richard didn’t teach us to read music—we just basically mirrored him. We both picked it up rather quickly how to play by ear,” he said.

Soon both boys knew “Cripple Creek” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” which is the theme of any banjo player. They got together in their junior year with other interested PH students. The band was open to whoever showed up for practice and the purpose was to get together and have fun; they never got around to naming the band.

Peter Meek, who played standup bass, managed somehow to get that giant instrument into his Volkswagen. Nancy Thatcher and Anne Overstreet played guitar and sang. Jim said Nancy now lives in Florida and still sings folk music with a few friends on weekends.

Also on guitar were Kenneth Roller and Wade Ballou, who played a Dobro (trademark for an electric guitar with a metallic resonator). According to Jim, Wade’s father, Judge Ballou loved bluegrass — “He was a hoot!” Jim said — so they practiced at Wade’s home frequently. Chuck Jennings was also a guitarist. He now lives in New York City and Harry sees him occasionally. Harry says Chuck is an accomplished and respected jazz musician making his way through life doing what he loves because he loves it and not for the money.

Jim recalls that after hearing the PH band play, a Roanoke bluegrass band (“The Dreadful Snakes”) invited fiddler David Thatcher to join their band.

And where did they play? As juniors and seniors they played at the PH Talent Show, they played at the Lithia Fiddlers’ Convention, and once they played at the Elks Club, where Jimmy remembers they received $5.00 each.

From my perspective, this bunch of high school kids had a good time playing music and that was wholesome. Harry always let me know where they were going, though sometimes in a humorous way. For instance this  note which I found on my refrigerator one day when I came home from school (and which I saved, obviously):

“Omnipotent Matriarch,

“I have donned the wings of Achilles and in a flourish of fare-wells have departed with my companions of the arts for parts hitherto unknown to the inhabitants of this fair household. I, along with the noble Chuck Jennings, have gone from this warm home into the cold unknown of a friend’s farm, where under guidance of our minds and senses, we will express our innermost emotions with our instruments.

“Alack, fear not, for I will return safe, unharmed and full of life’s pep and vigor nigh onto four or five hours hence. Save not dinner, for my humble soul will partake of the ambrosia of the illustrious Texas Tavern upon returning from matters away and hence.

“My time draws near, so for now I must close. . . Leaving only these words for the memory of the hours that will separate my soul from thine… (over)”

And on the back this translation:

“Mom, I’m going with Chuck Jennings to play some banjo. We’re trying to get a group together. I’ll eat at the T.  Harry”

Ah, the joy of the teenage years!