Hearth Music Interview with Riley Baugus

A little while ago, I got the chance to interview one of my heroes of Appalachian old-time music, Riley Baugus. Riley's the real deal. He grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and learned as a kid from all the greats, especially Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham. He's not nearly as well known as he deserves, especially considering that he truly understands the heart of the music. He grew up not just with old-time dance music, but also with the deep religious singing of the South. That kind of knowledge of religious song traditions means that his voice and his singing are as true-blue Southern old-time as you can possibly experience.

Riley works a lot with T-Bone Burnett, and seems to be Burnett's banjo-picker of choice. Riley appears on the new-ish Willie Nelson album (Country Music) picking out "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down," and he appears on the famed Alison Krauss/Robert Plant album, playing a plaintive banjo on the beautiful last track "Your Last Journey." Of course, you likely know him from his singing in the Hollywood movie Cold Mountain (also a T Bone Burnett project). Not only did Riley contribute some key vocals, along with Tim O'Brien, Dirk Powell, and Tim Eriksen, but he also made all the banjos that appeared in the movie. If you haven't seen this movie, close this article right now and go to your Netflix account to rent it. It's pretty amazing, and hard to believe that they got Nicole Kidman singing Appalachian shape-note music!!

Since Riley's a star artist, along with Kirk Sutphin, at the upcoming Seattle Folk Festival that we're presenting, I got the chance to interview him. He sure had a lot of interesting things to say!

Hearth Music Interview with Riley Baugus

Hearth Music: Where did you grow up? What town?

Riley Baugus: I grew up in Walkertown, NC, near Winston-Salem.

HMHow did you meet Tommy Jarrell and what was your earliest memory of him?

RB: I met Tommy Jarrell at his house. Kirk and I went there to visit and play music in 1982 with Terri McMurray, who is now married to Paul Brown of NPR fame. My earliest memory of Tommy is of him sitting on his green, Naugahyde couch in his living room, playing the fiddle. I don't know what tune he was playing, but I do remember him sitting there playing the fiddle and singing every once and a while during the tune.

HMDid Tommy Jarrell mentor you?

RB: To say "Mentor " is not really accurate. That's not how it worked. You didn't really go to Tommy's to get lessons, you would go there as an interested musician and he would play and you'd pay attention. If you wanted to learn things from him, he would show you, but it wasn't really a one-on-one teacher/student relationship as we think of it nowadays in a music lesson situation. He would play the tune, break down its parts, but at full speed, and that's how you learned. You could ask specific questions and he'd answer them the best he could. That is how the tradition has been passed since the first musicians in the area began playing.

HM: What did you learn from him?

RB: Wow! That question is like asking someone who does Karate, "What did you learn from the Sensei?" Tommy had a lifetime's worth of knowledge about all sorts of things. Life in general, tunes, how to play them in the archaic style that he learned as a boy, hundreds of stories about things that happened to him in his life, stories about his family, the community, other musicians that he played with over the years, where he first learned the tunes that he played, stories relating to particular tunes, how to attack a tune..... and the list goes on and on. When you went there you didn't just go to learn one thing. You might go with the idea that you would learn, "Sally Ann," but come away with three versions of the tune from different time periods, but the stories of why it was changed at certain times and what the song lyrics in the tune meant. I learned and still learn from him things about tunes on the banjo and fiddle and guitar and mandolin and singing that are from the 1800s that he learned from his father and his uncles and his neighbors. To learn from Tommy Jarrell was like having a time machine at your disposal. He was in his 80s, learned most of his music as a teenager at about 15 or 16 years old, from men and women who were in their 80s and 90s at the time he was learning, so the information you were getting was one person removed from the mid 1800s, and to people removed from and even earlier time, likely the late 1700s. Great experience.

HM: Who were some other Round Peak players that you learned from at an early age?

RB: I was learning from a variety of places and methods at the time, from recordings to people that you'd run into at festivals or people that we'd go visit, or just folks that showed up at Tommy's. I learned a lot from folks like Verlin Clifton, Frank Bode, Dix Freeman, Benton Flippen, Paul Brown and Ernest Creed to name a few, but I was also playing with Greg Hooven back in those days too, so there was a lot of learning going on. He was a powerhouse fiddler and singer, who was a little younger than Kirk and myself, but about the same age. He was learning things from Albert Hash and Thornton Spencer, and Tom Norman as well as Tommy and the whole Round Peak community. We did spend a fair bit of time over at Chester McMillian's house learning from him and his father-in-law, Dix Freeman, who was a wonderful fretless, Round Peak banjo player. He too has his share of stories and information about the old days. He was more the generation of Kyle Creed and Fred Cockerham, who were several years younger than Tommy, but had learned a lot of their music from Charlie Lowe. We went to visit musicians like Boyd and Cindy McKinney, Robert Sykes, Jake Norman and others. We spent time learning from all of them.

Tommy Jarrell w/Chester MacMillian, Frank Bodie, and Ray Chatfield

HM: Was Kirk Sutphin there with you when you were learning?

RB: Yes. Kirk and I started going up together back in '82. We had been playing music together for several years at that point. We met on the school bus back around '76 and became friends. We discovered that our families were from that same sort of part of the state, up around Surry and Alleghany counties, in the Blue Ridge, and we both like old music and old people. We have taken slightly different paths with our focus, but we still have the same love of the music and people. We used to drive around everywhere together. I was a bit older and got my license first, so I got to do the driving. Before that, our parents would drive us to visit musicians or to fiddler's conventions or we'd get a lift with some of the folks that we met in the old time community.

HM: When and how did you meet Dirk Powell?

RB: Dirk and I met at The Galax Fiddler's Convention around 1984 or 1985. We were both very young and in those days there weren't a lot of really young musicians around, like now. We started hanging out in jam sessions together with lots of our mutual friends and became friends ourselves. We like each other's vibe and music.

HM: Did you guys go through the countryside looking for players? Or was it more organic, like there were just people all around to learn from?

RB: Well, we did do that, but not together. We didn't really just go out looking for people who played music. Dirk's family is from Eastern Kentucky and mine is from the Blue Ridge Mountains of NC. Being part of those communities, we and our family knew, or knew of, all the people around that played music. You just had to get to meet them, or get taken there by someone who knew them. Many times it was easier if the person you were going to visit knew your family, but hadn't met you. It was an easier in that way.

HM: Tell me a story about you and Dirk and tunes. I bet he was a pretty crazy guy back in the day (he still is!).

RB: Dirk and I have played tunes for a long time, but one of the best times was a few years ago at Tonderfest, in Tonder, Denmark. You are literally playing for 10s of thousands of people at any performance at that festival, and usually on a huge stage with really big time professional sound systems. He and I sort of went over into a little shed that was provided back stage at the festival, away from the sound of the stage and the other performers and the spectators and the whole big scene. We just played a Round Peak tune together. It was the most magnificent feeling to be there at that moment, just the two of us, right in the midst of that huge environment, playing with total abandon and pure emotion, feeling each other's music and soul and talking with each other using the instruments as our voices. It was incredible. We knew we loved playing with each other and being with each other, but that moment was really special. I have a memory of Dirk at another festival when we were young. We were in Somerset, Pennsylvania playing at a music and dance festival. I remember leaving Dirk sitting in a chair around 2 or 3 am, playing the banjo. I went to bed, got up several hours later and found Dirk, still sitting in the chair, playing the banjo by himself, just as I'd left him. He loves music and he loves playing and there was still music to be made. We couldn't get enough back in those days. We had to play almost all the time we were awake. It's still that way to some degree.

HM: What does old-time music mean to you? On the one hand, it's a career, but on the other hand, it must be a powerful way to connect with family and friends. How do you reconcile the down-home family nature of the music with an international touring and recording career? Can the music be both humble and famous at the same time?

RB: Old time music, as I see it is one of the forms of traditional folk music of this country. Traditional Southern Appalachian music is the melding of several musics to create what we now call Old Time. The European fiddle tunes and pipe tunes came over to the Appalachians. Once here the players were faced with living in the same areas as people the Canadians refer to as people of The First Nations. They had their musical styles. They were also living with and around black slaves, forced here from several African nations, and these people had their own music. The rhythms and melodies all melded to form what we now know as Old Time. It is old music, but new music. It is usually music that is deeply heartfelt and meaningful. Speaking for myself, the performances of the music that I give today are not merely recreations nor an attempt at preservation, but a living, breathing example of music and tradition that still lives in the mountains near my home, where my family has been living since the 1700s. In these mountain communities you can still go to several dances every weekend, jam sessions within the community, and to performances of old time music all over this area. It is not an art form that is dead and simply being recreated by people as a spectacle, but the music and culture of people from the Southern Appalachians. Of course, I am only referring to the Southern Appalachian region, because that is what I am most familiar with. There are Old Time musical traditions all over the nation. The Southern Appalachians, the Ozarks, the Midwest, the North East. The Appalachian chain runs from Alabama all the way up into Canada and there is Old Time music all the the way through them.

I do feel that the music can remain humble and become famous at the same time. Tunes like, "Man of Constant Sorrow", first recorded in the 1920s by Emry Arthur, and "Keep On The Sunny Side," from The Carter Family are great examples. Two very humble songs, which through the vehicles of film, TV and radio, became very famous after O Brother Where Art Thou hit the theaters. The fact that I, and other musicians, perform and record this music as our careers in no way detracts from the humble nature of the music. In fact, I feel that the fact that the music comes from such a background is part of what people enjoy about it. In this day and age where people rely on the stores and corporations to tell them what they need, how they should look, what to eat, what to wear, what to listen to and so on, I think that many people are looking for something that is real and connected to the culture of a simpler place and time, and traditional music is one of those things. I feel that this is the very reason that I can have a career playing the traditional music of the United States, because it is real, and honest and connected to the Earth and the soul and the spirit of people and with times past, long ago. Music that is recorded and performed and written now that is called Old Time music is just as authentic and real as the music that was being played in the 1800s. All those tunes that people collected from players from years and years ago were made up or written by someone. They didn't just spring into existence. The music that we make in the studio now for films and CDs and call it Old Time is still, "Old Time." It is about the spirit and style of the music. Music cannot live in a vacuum. It must be allowed to breath and evolve and live or over time it will die out, just as anything deprived of space to grow or air to breath would.

HM: Tell me about working on Cold Mountain.

RB: Working on Cold Mountain was a great experience for me. I didn't really have to change who I was to be part of the project. I just had to go to the studio everyday and be Riley Baugus and sing songs the way that I would any other day and play the banjo just the same way. It was great working with T-Bone and Anthony Minghella and all the other musicians and the actors. We were all trying to do the best music that we could do for the project. It was a story that we all loved and wanted it to be as great as possible, as so much of the story was about the music. I learned a tremendous amount about working on a really big project and about sound and making things be the way you want them to be and sound the way you want them to sound. We really did have fun with it. A lot of work, but fun nonetheless.

HM: Was Jack White pretty down-to-earth, did he learn from you, or was he more distant?

RB: Jack White was great. I can't say that Jack learned anything directly from me, but I can say that Jack is a marvelous musician. He really "listens" to music, not just hearing it, but listening for the deeper parts that make music special. I think we all learned from each other during that experience. I know that I came away with more knowledge than I could wrap my head around at the time. It takes time to absorb so much information.
Jack was truly down to earth. He was right there with us, doing what we were all doing....making music. We all jammed a great deal and talked about music and listened to music and played and sang songs. He was great to work with. We did have fun. I didn't find him to be distant at all. We sat around and chatted between takes and when we weren't needed in the recording area. He's very interesting and a good guy to hangout with.

HM: What did you think of the final product of Cold Mountain? Was it pretty fair to old-time mountain life, or was it more of a Hollywood fantasy?

RB: When I finally got to see the whole thing together, I was deeply moved, and the way the music worked with the action was stunning. Due to time limitations there wasn't as much music in the film as we recorded, but there was still a huge amount of music in the film. I thought the screenplay was great and the final film was excellent. We all worked very hard to have it be great and I do think it was. It was the most realistic view of the Civil War that we've seen portrayed in film. The Crater scene at Petersburg was astonishingly realistic. I think it was a fair portrayal of mountain life for the time. There are always little things that one might see and say, "Oh, that's not how it was," but every detail was painstakingly seen to. Even the tin cups and plates were period correct. They were made by a Civil War expert, who is a tinsmith that lives close to me here near Winston-Salem, NC. I think that especially for Hollywood, they got this one as close as possible and it was great.

HM: What did you do on the Alison Krauss/Robert Plant album? Was that a fun project?

RB: I played banjo on that recording. I was there for several days working with Norman Blake on some of the tunes that were to be on the album. We played and recorded several things with Robert and Alison. The cut that ended up on the album is a song by Rosa Lee Watson, "Your Long Journey." We played it and Robert and Alison sang it. We set up around the sofa in the studio and just cut it. It was great.

HM: Tell me more about Willie Nelson and working with him. How did he gel with your music? 

RB: Working with Willie was great. He is one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. He's a great musician and a wonderful soul. He loved the banjo and I was asked by him on several cuts to kick off the tune. It was as if we'd all been playing together forever. The band was great and Willie was great. T-Bone knew just the right people to put together for the project and what material to bring to the table for us to record. I ended up on 12 or the 15 tracks I think.

We did do a short bit of touring, just to promote the new record. We played at The Ryman, on Soundstage in Chicago, on David Letterman's show, on The View and a concert at The Grand Ballroom in Manhattan. It was really, really fun and a great experience all the way around.

Willie Nelson with Riley Baugus

: Tell me more about T-Bone Burnett. It sounds like he's getting more and more connected to your old-time Southern music roots. Like Appalachian music. How has it been collaborating with him?

RB: Working with T-Bone is great. He is connected with Southern Music totally. Old time, Cajun, Country, Rockabilly, Rock and Roll. He is a big fan of the Appalachian sound and really seems to like it on his records and soundtracks. He is from Texas and has heard all sorts of music as well as written in lots of styles. He loves Bluegrass and Old Time. It is very cool getting to work with him and try to pull off what he's looking for in the studio. Always a pleasure.

HM: Where do you think old-time music is today? With a whole new generation embracing the music (I live close to Portland, OR, so I know a bunch of hot young stringbands), is the music being reborn in new ways? Is the core of the music: community, family, friends, still the same, or has it been changed by its brush with fame?

RB: That's a hard one to answer accurately. You need a control in the test group. I am always around music and musicians and quite a few of them are Old Time musicians, but I would say, seeing that there is still a strong community in these mountains, of people that are interested in Old Time music, that it is still strong. The sense of community, family and friends is still very strong. There are now even programs in the public school systems in some counties that encourage school age kids to get involved and learn Old Time music from players in the community who run the program. The program is known as JAM (Junior Appalachian Musicians). They get together after school about 3 days a week for jamming and lessons. It's a great way for kids to get involved without too much pressure. It's just about fun, and music and culture and community.

Surely the music is being reborn in new ways. As I said earlier, it can't survive in a vacuum. I think what's happening is that folks are picking up tunes from different geographic regions and styles, taking them back to their community and playing them in the style that they play where they live. That is exactly what was going on at the turn of the century, around 1900 and later when people would go to labor camps, like puncheon camps or coal camps to work. There they would encounter people from all over, some of which were musicians who would bring their tunes with them. Many of the tunes in Round Peak arrived there that very way. Someone would go off to work somewhere, and come back with a new tune or two. Of course the tune would be then adapted to the Round Peak style rather than being played in the style of the region where it came from. Looks to me like things are just as they have been in terms of Old Time music, except that people now have more access, more ability to travel and the resources to make it easier to learn, such as Computer slow-downers and cds that can be played over and over and over, instead of having to learn a tune in real time at full speed after only getting to hear it once or twice at a dance or from an individual you might pass on the road as you were walking to or from somewhere. There are teaching camps all over too that offer tuition in specific instruments for extended periods of time, like Augusta or Swannanoa, or Banjo Camp North, the classes offered in Brasstown, NC at the John C. Campbell Folkschool, or a similar tuition offered in Galax, Virginia at the Chestnut Creek School for the Arts. People can go there and get 15, 24, or even 40 hours of instruction from an expert teacher and player with every question answered. Old Time music is more available than ever and it seems to be becoming more so. The internet is a great place to find music, do research, and get all the information you can imagine. The resources are endless.

HM: Is the true old-time Southern music dying out?

RB: I don't really think so. It is changing and has always changed, but it is by no means dying out. As I say, more resources and activities are available than ever. The Mt. Airy Fiddler's Convention has around 10,000 people in attendance every year, and the majority of them are there for the Old Time competition and parking lot and campground music. There is a Bluegrass contingent, but it's not as prevalent as the Old Time followers.

HM: Are people still singing the old way in Baptist churches and passing on ballads, or is it alive and changing? What's your take?

RB: Ballad singing isn't really done in Church. Ballad singing is still done in the mountains in the Southern Appalachians, and is alive and well. There are lots of young folks learning the old ballads, or "love songs," as they are called, even if they're murder ballads. Donna Ray Norton, and Elizabeth Laprelle [ed note: appearing with Riley at the Seattle Folk Festival] are two good examples of young folks learning and carrying on the old ballads. There are folks of my generation too that are still doing the old ballads, like Rick Ward from Beech Mountain, Watauga County, NC, and Tim Eriksen. Ballads are still songs of story that were once used as a means of conveying news from one place to another about an occurrence, or as cautionary tales to people to say sort of, "Don't do as the person in this song did," but now and for a long time they have been passed from one generation to the next as examples of old songs with a good story. They are now a way of relaying history, which is still a very important function. Many of the old fiddle tunes perform that function as well.

The singing that is done in the Baptist churches takes many different forms in the mountains. The style that is done by the Old Regular Baptists in Eastern Kentucky and the Mountain Primitive Baptist styles are similar. They sing old songs in a lined-out fashion. That is to say that a song leader "Chants" the first line of a verse and the congregation repeats the line to the melody. This continues for each line of each verse. That way no one except the song leader has to have a book or know the words to a song. This method is also still used in the churches in the Hebrides, on the Isles of Scotland, except they sing the songs in Gaelic. It is called Psalm singing there and the melodies are very similar to the ones used in the Southern Appalachians for many of the old songs. The Regular and Union Baptists vary their method of singing. This is the case for the Freewill Baptists in the mountains as well. They still mostly sing the old songs, but not necessarily with the lining out. Some do, some don't. Just depends on the particular church. For the most part, all the churches that I have mentioned still sing unaccompanied. No musical instruments are allowed in the church. They believe that the New Testament doesn't say that they are to praise God with music in any other way than with their voices, so this tradition continues very strongly today. The documentation of the Lined-Out Hymnody of The Old Regular Baptists of Eastern Kentucky, I think has done a lot to bring people back to that style of singing. I think church attendance is up in those areas.

HM: Tell me about your town.

RB: Walkertown is a small town just outside the city limits of Winston-Salem, NC. I live actually out in the more rural area, out in the county, but our mailing address is Walkertown. Kirk Sutphin and I live here. We are as far as I know, the only Old Time musicians in Walkertown. It isn't really a music town. We gravitate more toward the Northwest of Surry County or over to the Northeast toward Rockingham County where Charlie Poole was from. These are the areas where Kirk and I learned most of our music from NC.

HMDo you play a lot at home, like with Kirk and others?

RB: Kirk and I do play together when we get the chance. We live on the same street and have done forever, with the exception of just a couple of years when I lived in Stokes County and then on the South side of town. We still live on the road where we grew up, just a half mile apart.

HM: Do people come from all over to visit for tunes? Is there maybe even a tourism industry for the music in your town?

RB: People do travel down here from time to time to play with Kirk and myself. We get folks from Japan, England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Holland, France. They come from all over. Mt. Airy, NC has more of the tourism vibe going on. That is the town closest to where Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham and Benton Flippen lived. The Surry Arts council does have functions based around and including the music of Surry County, and people come from far away for those functions.



HM: Tell me about your album with Kirk. That looks great! What kind of tunes and songs are on it? Was it fun to make?

RB: The new album is called Kirk Sutphin and Riley Baugus, Long Time Piedmont Pals. We were approached by Charlie Faurot of Old Blue Records to make the album. He is the collector that recorded Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham and Oscar Jenkins back in the 60s. Those recordings sort of got the ball rolling for the "revival" of Round Peak music, which really means that it spread outside the Surry County area and was discovered by loads of people who fell in love with the sound and the idea of the living tradition. It is a collection of tunes that we have known since childhood as well as some we learned just for the recording. We included some tunes that we learned from recording of a great musician named Matt Simmons from Stokes County, NC. It is the county just to the North of us here and is often overlooked musically. "Drunkard's Dream" and part of our version of "Wild Bill Jones" comes from Matt Simmons. It also includes a version of "Paddy On The Turnpike," which we learned from H.O. Jenkins, the grandson of Frank Jenkins who played with Tommy Jarrell's dad, Ben Jarrell in DaCosta Woltz' Southern Broadcasters, in the late 1920s. We did a couple of tunes that we learned from field recordings of Fields Ward from Galax, VA and some tunes from Wade Ward, and tunes we learned from Tommy Jarrell, and others that we learned along the way from several different players.

It was huge fun to make. We recorded it all live. No overdubs, or punching in. We played the tunes and recorded them. Charlie set up in Kirk's living room in true field recorder fashion, and we did the record. We like to think of it as our field recording. It's cool to do a record that way without all the bells and whistles that you have at your disposal in a studio. Just the instruments and the voice and the room sound and whatever editing gets done. One of my favorite ways to record.

I played Banjo and Guitar on most of the recording while Kirk played Fiddle and Banjo on most of it, but we did switch around a bit too. I played Fiddle on a couple and he played Guitar and Old Time Fingerstyle Banjo on a couple. Most people tend to think that Clawhammer is "THE" old time way of playing 5 string Banjo, but Fingerstyles were just about as common in the Southern Appalachian region.

Kirk's brother Darren built a log cabin out behind his house, so Kirk and I went out there and my wife Rosalind took our photos for the cover. It was very appropriate to take those photos at the cabin. Ros is a great photographer and really caught the feeling and us in our element. As kids we always loved the things that were old, seemed old or stood for the old ways. It was like getting to be kids again to do this record. We played tunes that we actually had to learn, and we spent several days together playing tunes and telling stories and just having fun, just like when we were kids.

I am a very fortunate man to be able to do something that is so fun and interesting for my work and have people enjoy what I do and hopefully be moved in some positive way by the music I make and the stories I tell.


Riley Baugus: What Are They Doing in Heaven

Riley Baugus: Cumberland Gap

Riley Baugus & Kirk Sutphin: Wild Bill Jones



Riley Baugus & Kirk Sutphin: Long-Time Piedmont Pals

Kirk Sutphin & Riley Baugus: Kirk & Riley -- Long Time Piedmont Pals


Riley Baugus: Long Steel Rail
Riley's Recent Solo Album from Rounder Records --HIGHLY recommended


Riley Baugus: Life of Riley
(Riley's First Solo Album)

Riley Baugus: Life Of Riley


Riley Baugus & Kirk Sutphin are headlining the 2011 Seattle Folk Festival, December 9-11. You can catch them at the gala Appalachian Winter Concert on Sat December 10 at Columbia City Theater, and they'll both be teaching workshops (old-time fiddle and Blue Ridge Mountain singing) during the day on Saturday, on Friday they'll be playing our benefit square dance for Bike Works, and on Sunday they'll be playing our Sunday Family Jam at Town Hall Seattle. Weekend Passes are only $40 and get you in to everything!



blog date 11/22/2011  | comments comments (1)