Lester Woodie, Coming Up The Hard Road by Wayne Erbsen

In the Summer of 1949 a shy boy of eighteen rode up to Bristol, Virginia for his first professional job as a fiddle player. Behind the steering wheel was a man in his early twenties who had encouraged the boy’s music from the start. The older man’s name was George Shuffler.

“This is a good break for you,” George said to the younger man riding beside him. “The Stanley’s are tough, and what with making a guaranteed $50 a week, why you could send some home to the folks and still have more money than you would have ever made working in that bakery. And besides that, it’s time you got out of Valdese, (North Carolina) and saw a bit of the world,” he kidded. “Yeah boy, those Stanley Brothers are tough.”

They arrived in front of radio station WCYB in the early evening where the young fiddler was to meet the Stanley Brothers. George helped him get his heavy suitcase out of the trunk and patted him on the back to say goodbye. “This is a good chance for you,” George said as he climbed behind the wheel for the trip back to Valdese. “And don’t forget the hometown boys,” he shouted out of the window as his car accelerated past the fiddler standing there on the sidewalk. “Here it is,” he thought to himself, “Radio WCYB.”

With his fiddle under his arm and tugging at his suitcase with the other, he made his way down the stairs to the basement where radio WCYB made its office. By the time he got to the bottom of the stairs, Ralph and Carter were waiting for him. He shook hands with Ralph and while greeting Carter, Carter reintroduced him to the Stanley’s mandolin player and high tenor singer, Pee Wee Lambert. “Pee Wee,” Carter said, “You remember this fella, don’t you-Lester Woodie.”

Though it’s only about seventy five miles of crooked roads between Valdese, North Carolina and Bristol, Virginia, young Lester Woodie had come up the hard road to get there. Leaning over a cup of coffee, an older Les Woodie remembered some of the bumps in that road.

When I was about eight years old, we moved out in the country, near Valdese, North Carolina. Not more than a few steps away lived the Shuffler family. They raised more kids that I can remember the names of. There was the oldest girl, Lena, then came George, then Betty, John, Dude, Sue, then the one we called Gus, and the one we called Joe. They were a big, very closely knit family, and all the kids could play some instrument or another. Only mom and dad didn’t play, though they did sing in church. John, George and I became like brothers, and I was always over at their house eating supper, or they over at mine. John is just my age, but George was about three years older. George, being the oldest boy, was the most advanced musicially, and even when he was ten years old, knew what a guitar was for.”

With the Christmas of 1939 approaching, both Lester and his older brother Lloyd hoped for bicycles. Their father was on the conservative side, and decided that he had raised two boys, and he intended to keep them. He didn’t want to lose either of his boys to the cars that hotrodded past their house. Instead of bicycles, he bought his sons musical instruments. To Lloyd, he gave a brand new Harmony F hole, arch top guitar. And to Lester, he gave a brand new Harmony mandolin. The boys were disappointed at first, but soon hid their sorrow with sounds of their new duet.

“Lloyd and myself were so different. He always loved to display his talent. Whenever anybody mentioned music, he was ready to perform. I was on the shy side, and very reluctant to perform in front of people, though I loved to play by myself. Of course, mom and dad had to show off the family talent, so when company came, we always had to play for them. I hated to play for people so much that several times, in order to avoid performing, I would wind up one of the strings of my mandolin so tight til it broke. Then I’d have an excuse for not playing. Lloyd, he didn’t care. He went on with the show anyway. He was a one man band, just him and his guitar.

“There was an old man in Valdese by the name of Zenie Page who worked on fiddles. He was an old-time fiddler and I guess my first exposure to the fiddle. He was kind of a handyman, and when something would break around the house, we’d call Zenie, and he’d come and fix it. He generally brought his fiddle with him, and if we coaxed him enough, he’d drag out that old fiddle and play for hours. The old man had asthma so bad that he’d built himself a little one room workshop, just behind the house, so he wouldn’t bother his wife with his asthma attacks. He had a bed rigged up in there. He was out there to himself, and I used to go by there and get him to play the fiddle for me. He played the old hoedown fiddle. He’d play “Bill Cheatham,” “Ida Red,” “Turkey in the Straw,” the old standards. He only played the fiddle with two fingers, and by then I guess his playing was a little scratchy, but to me, it was beautiful. “Old man Page used to tinker with fiddles, and always had several that he’d promised people he would work on stuffed under his bed. By today’s standards, I guess he wouldn’t be much of a repairman, but he did the best he could. I remember he used to take combs and make bridges out of them. He’d inlay the combs with stars and dots carved out of old toothbrushes. They’d look beautiful, and sound terrible. He taught me how I could use a comb, with some of the teeth removed, for a mute. Old Zenie taught me to cut corners and improvise any way I could, because I didn’t have any money.

“It was my brother Lloyd who bought me my first fiddle from Zenie. He did a few odd jobs to collect a dollar here and there. He paid Zenie around twenty dollars for that fiddle. He went to all that trouble to get me that fiddle just so he’d have someone to play with. He didn’t wait for Christmas or a birthday, but gave it to me as soon as he had arrived at the figure of twenty dollars.

“Since George, John, and I were spending so much time together, it was natural that we should start playing music together. Somehow or another, my brother Lloyd got left out of it, but he apparently didn’t care, because he liked to play by himself. Before long, me and the Shufflers started working on our singing. We had heard records of the Sons of the Pioneers, and we copied their singing style. I used to sing lead, George the baritone, and John, he had a great tenor. We did stuff like “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” and “Cool Water.” Occasionally, we’d try a Monroe Brothers song, me and John. I had been listening to Bill and Charlie Monroe over the radio since I was in the first grade of school. They were on a noontime show on WPTF in Raleigh, North Carolina. I used to listen to them while I came home from school to eat lunch. There was a lot of good music on that station. Johnnie and Jack used to play there.

“Most of the music we heard was on record, though we did catch some stuff on the radio. John had dropped out of school and took a job in a cotton mill, so he had plenty of money, compared to us. So we used to gang around John’s record player and listen to the records he bought every Saturday when he went to the record store in Hickory.

“Occasionally a good group would come by and play at the ball park in Valdese. Promoters would sometimes book entertainment as a draw to the ball games. Now and then, a group would be booked at the ball park even when there was no game. Groups like the Louvin Brothers would play. We learned a lot about harmony singing by listening to the Louvins. They really sang it right and had the feeling in it. Ira was a real genius with music. I got to know them pretty well, and I never missed one of their shows around Valdese.

“It seemed sometimes like we learned as much by listening to those 78 records as we did by watching the local musicians around Valdese. You know there weren’t all that many musicians that played around Valdese then. Of course, there were old fiddlers here and there, and there were some homes that had a banjo hanging on the wall that was played for sheer enjoyment once in a while. But good musicians were really rare. There must have been more music played when my daddy was growing up than when I was. As time goes on, there seems to be more things to do for entertainment, and it wasn’t as necessary to entertain yourself. When I was growing up, the old music was kind of on its way out.

“After I got that fiddle, George, John, and myself organized ourselves into a band. We called ourselves The Melody Mountain Boys. Soon we picked up a guy from Drexel named Curly Williams, who played steel guitar. It was like an electric Dobro. We did country stuff with the western harmonies. George played guitar, John the bass, me on the fiddle, and Curly on the lap steel. While we were playing together I remember that things got so tight once that when all the hair of my bow fell out, I was reduced to playing the fiddle with a wire coat hanger. You can imagine what it sounded like.

“Just about the time we started getting our sound the way we wanted it, George got a call from the Bailey Brothers, who wanted George to come play with them in Nashville. It was a chance to play on the Opry, so George left. The last thing George said when he left, though, was for me to keep practicing on that fiddle, because when he came back, we’d do something with the band. George worked for about a year with the Baileys and also did a short stint’ with the York Brothers. When George came back, we really got serious, and started playing radio shows. Up until that time, we had contented ourselves with playing neighborhood functions, like corn shuckings. I had a favorite uncle who lived on a farm. He raised a lot of corn, and at harvest time, he’d bring in his corn by the wagon load, and pile it real high. Then he’d have a big party, and invite the neighbors, and anyone who could play.

“It was the radio shows that really made us tighten up our show. I remember wedid a live program in North Wilkesboro, did one in Lenoir, and played over radio WHKY and WIRC in Hickory. George had been to Nashville, so he did the MC work. He could really be funny. I think what makes George so funny is that he reduces things to its lowest terms, and brings it right down home. If he is out slopping the pigs, he won’t tell you he’s a nutritional engineer for the pork market.

“Besides the country stuff and the western harmonies, we also did a lot of songs we learned off of records of the Blue Sky Boys, Bill and Earl Bolick. I worshiped their music. The first time I met them was when I was working with Carter and Ralph on the Farm and Fun Time in Bristol. They came there and worked a stint for a number of months. Both the Stanleys and Blue Sky Boys were about equal in popularity in those days.” George, John, and I used to love to do the Blue Sky Boys’ songs. We used to do “Why Not Confess,” and “The Sweetest Gift, A Mother’s Smile,” among others. John and I featured a duet, and if the song was adaptable, George would come in on the baritone part. In the Melody Mountain Boys, we used different kinds of harmonies, depending on the song. Often, we’d use a harmony with the lead in the middle, with the baritone below, and the tenor above. On other songs, we’d use a tenor and a high tenor or high baritone, both above the lead. You had to work the harmonies according to the song.

It was during this period when the Melody Mountain Boys were working on radio that they got Perry Duncan, who went by the name of “Carolina Slim” to play second fiddle to Lester Woodie. “Slim was my greatest influence on the fiddle. His touch on the fiddle was simply fantastic. He was from Cagers Mountain, which is across the Catawba River at Rutherford College, near Valdese. He lived up there in a log cabin with his mother and dad. In fact, before joining us, he had a group called the Log Cabin Boys. Slim and I played twin fiddles. I usually played lead, and Slim would second me. I learned more through playing with him than anything else. Oh, we had heard groups that had two fiddles, like the Skillet Lickers, but that wasn’t the sound we were looking for. We were trying for a little more modern sound than they had. Slim and I used to get note for note harmonies. We’d slow down a tune to make sure we were getting it right. After we had played together for a while, it was like I could read his mind; I knew exactly what he was going to do even before he did it. I guess we played together off and on for four or five years.

“During those years we played about all the time. We played just about every day and all Sunday afternoon, after church. That’s the secret of being a musician, playing every day. You about have to learn something when you spend eight hours a day doing something. We lived with the music, and we understood what it was supposed to sound like. Brothers always have an advantage when they’re entertaining together, because they understand each other so well. That was kind of our situation. George, John, and I were just like three brothers. If you could say we ever had a leader, I guess it was George, because he was older, and he was the only one who knew how to get out of Valdese. When it came to a decision, we all would have to agree, or disagree. But you didn’t need too much of a leader, because there was no money being passed.

“In June of 1949 I graduated from high school, and went to work in a bakery. I was working the night shift there one night when about 10 oclock they called me up front. Somebody was there to see me. I came out and introduced myself to the two strangers standing there in the front of the bakery. It was Ralph Stanley and Pee Wee Lambert. They had been to see Jim Shumate in Hickory about him playing fiddle with the Stanley Brothers. He wasn’t able to join them, but he recommended me. So there they were, asking me to join them. I didn’t debate about it too long, because I wanted to get out of that bakery. I was to meet Carter Stanley the next day. They had reserved a room in the Hickory Hotel for me to get together with them to try me out. I had heard the name “The Stanley Brothers,” but that’s about all. I hadn’t heard any of their records. The Stanleys had been playing in Bristol since ’46. They did a few shows back then, and bought themselves a brand new Cadillac. That was really the big time for them. They had just signed a recording contract with Columbia records before I joined them. When I found the hotel, and walked up the stairs to their room, we got out the instruments and played two or three tunes. I believe I played “Fire on the Mountain” and “Sally Goodin.” I think they sang one song to see what I could do as far as backup. It was “Little Glass of Wine.” Back in those days, they played and sang most everything high and fast. If Pee Wee couldn’t get up high enough, Carter would get on him. “Oh, you can do it,” Carter would say. “Get on up there!” The only thing that really bothered me about playing with the Stanley Brothers at first was their speed. They played everything so fast. But when you’re eighteen years old, it’s not too hard to get your speed up. It wasn’t long before I fell in with them. It did take me a while, though, to learn their songs. When I played with the Melody Mountain Boys, I often sang bass on the quartet numbers. As it turned out, the Stanleys needed a bass singer for their quartet, but I didn’t know their songs. I remember one night we were playing out at a ball park when I first joined them. They were going to do “Over in the Gloryland.” I told Carter I didn’t know the words, so Carter told me to just fake it. So I jumped in there and sang, even though I didn’t know the words. If I was lucky, I’d hit a word right here and there. But since they were going so fast, it really didn’t make much difference.

“In those days, Pee Wee did more singing on the show than Ralph. Ralph was on the shy side and was content to sit back and play the banjo and let Pee Wee do all the singing, if he wanted to. It was really only after Carter died that Ralph’s music really came out. With Carter gone, it had to come out. We. used to ride all night in an automobile to get to a show. There it was, 2 O’clock in the morning, and everyone trying to sleep with Ralph at the wheel keeping himself awake by singing the old primitive Baptist hymns. He really used to sing some weird songs. To me, the lonesome sound of those Baptist hymns is what gave the Stanleys their identity. Of course, there were other influences in the Stanley’s music as well. They all worshiped Monroe and his music. Pee Wee, especially, just idolized Monroe. In fact, to me, Pee Wee even looked a little like Monroe. When he put his hat on, it was uncanny. He even did a lot of Monroe’s stuff on the shows; songs like “The Prisoner’s Song” and “Molly and Tenbrooks.” Monroe didn’t take kindly to other groups using his material and copying his style. Since the Stanleys were Bill’s biggest challange, there grew up quite an animosity between them. Later on, both Carter and Ralph worked with Monroe, and Bill got over his jealous feeling. At the time, however, it was quite intense. About that time, the Stanleys signed a recording contract with Columbia records, Bill’s label. Columbia also signed Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper and their group, the Clinch Mountain Boys. Columbia made them change it to the Clinch Mountain Clan. Monroe was incensed that Columbia would sign another group with his sound, so he left and went to Decca.

“At the time the Stanleys were in Bristol, we had a new record out. There arose a pretty stiff competition between several ratio stations there. Station WFHG was jealous of WCYB because of the success of their live shows. This disk jockey was doing a show on WFHG and he played the Stanley Brothers’ new record. He followed it with Bill Monroe, saying “Now this is what it is supposed to sound like.” Carter got so mad that he went down there and got that disk jockey by the collar and pulled him out of that studio and had his words. And that just fueled the flame between the two stations. They never came to actual blows, but there were some pretty strong words. Of course, all of this was just coming up the hard road. Today, everyone’s just friends. But back then, it’s understandable that if you are doing a thing, anybody that similar threatens you.

“About that time, we also had Leslie Keith working with us. Leslie had worked with them before. He and I had an act together on stage. About half way during the show Ralph and Carter would do some duets, and I would go back and get on a Raggedy Ann outfit, with old clothes and wide tie. I played the comedian. Leslie was a real hand with a black snake or bull snake whip. I would come out in my comedy outfit, and would hold papers for Leslie between my legs, and light it on fire. I’d even put cigarettes in my mouth, and Leslie would cut the fire out of it. We had a real circus act. Leslie was really good with that whip. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have done it. I must admit, I was pretty scared the first few times. But Leslie talked to me and told me that he could touch me and never hurt me, or he could cut my nose off if he wanted to. That was supposed to make me feel better.

“While Leslie was working with us, we used to promote fiddle contests as a means to promote our show. It was always a contest between Leslie and myself; it wasn’t just open to anybody. We’d get on the air about a month before a certain show date. We’d talk to each other and boast about how we were going to beat the other. I’d ask him what he was going to play, and he’d tell me that he wouldn’t say, but that I’d better watch out, because he was going to get his revenge for the last time I beat him. Leslie was better known than I was, because he had been around a lot longer than I had, so he had quite a following. In those days, people would really follow a fiddler. These contests were a great draw for the Stanleys. It was sort of like advertising for a wrestling match. By the time of the show, everyone was in a real fighting mood to see who was going to win the match. There was a real contrast in styles between Leslie and myself. Leslie played the old-time, single string style. I played using more double stops, double notes, then he did. In the contests, he used to play “Black Mountain Blues,” “Cacklin’ Hen,” and “Listen to the Mockingbird.” I played “Cotton Eyed Joe,” “Orange Blossom Special” and “Lee Highway Blues.”

“I guess I learned “Lee Highway Blues” from Jim Shumate over in Hickory. I’d listened to the Opry and heard Curly Fox play it too. Fox was one of my big favorites then. I also loved to listen to Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith play his long bow notes. I learned what I could from Shumate, Fox, and Arthur Smith, but when I really got to playing the fiddle, I was really trying, for Benny Martin. The best fiddling that I ever heard Benny do was when he first came to Nashville with Big Jeff. It was on WLAC in Nashville, before Benny went with Flatt and Scruggs. Big Jeff was married to Tootsie, who had Tootsies Lounge, the infamous bar and grill next to the Opry where all the performers hung out. Big Jeff had a 6 o’clock program then. Benny really was relaxed and laid back then. He could play anything he wanted to play, and really got some fantastic stuff. I guess the thing I learned most from Benny was about tone. He got better tone out of a fiddle than anybody I ever heard. Benny did a lot of double string harmonies, while people like Chubby Wise were known more for their sweet single notes. Benny would take a chance on hitting anything, and he’d usually hit it. He’d do pretty up-the-staff harmony parts, and he always did it with a beautiful tone. He did a lot of stuff on the bottom two strings. The hardest thing I ever tried to learn on a fiddle was Benny’s way of playing that real slow vibrato. That’s what really set him apart in my book. It took me years to get that.

“Of course, I believe you can learn licks from just about any fiddler, no matter how much he knows. There’s usually something good he does that you can pick up, or something wrong he does that you may be doing too and make an effort to correct it. Some of the better known fiddlers that I’ve learned from include Dale Potter, Chubby Wise, Kenny Baker, and even Sonny Loden, now Sonny James. “I’ve always hated to hear a scratch on a fiddle. I hate a sound that sounds like it’s coming off of a washboard. I like a full, resonant tone. I used to call Benny Martin, the bravest fiddler, because he would always try some difficult position. I think that’s what makes a musician great. When you’re playing every day, you more or less work out a break, or a certain lick, and you play it pretty much that way every time. Especially when you’re in a studio recording a record, you tend to rely on your memory and play it the way you worked it out. You play it safe. But when you really feel the music, and really feel like you’re creating, that’s when you feel inspired to play something you never dreamed of playing. And that’s something you just can’t do every day. You can’t just walk out and say let’s play and really fall into it. If you’ve memorized a break, you can do it anytime, but if you’re really feeling the music, and feel like you’re creating, you’ll probably play it different every time you play it.

“I recorded most of the Columbia stuff with the Stanleys. We did “Drunkard’s Hell,” “Fields Have Turned Brown,” “I Love No One But You,” “Hey Hey Hey,” “The Old Home,” “Man of Constant Sorrow,” and another half dozen or so. I can’t remember exactly. I’ve gotten more comments on the breaks I took on “Man of Constant Sorrow” than anything I recorded with them. I never really felt satisfied with what I did, and for years afterwards I thought it was just another break. I remember how we recored “Hey, Hey, Hey.” I was doing a crazy thing on the fiddle. I was d-oing a shake on the bow like they do to the the train sound on “Orange Blossom Special.” Carter just loved it and he made me put it on that record. Carter wrote that song. I didn’t think that much of it at the time. Carter wrote a lot of his songs while we were riding along in the car. I remember we were staying at a Hotel in Huntington, West Virginia while we were doing a TV show up there. That was one of the first live TV shows that there were. He was working on that song “Let Me Love You One More Time.” I think I helped him with a word or two on that one. Carter seemed to write on impulse. A lot of times riding along in the car he’d get a line or two and maybe by the next morning he’d have the rest of it. He may be riding along and just start singing. He’d sing two or three lines, or maybe a whole verse. Then that night when we were warming up for the show, he’d get his guitar and run over it again. Maybe by the next day, he’d have the rest of it.

“We left Huntington and went to the Louisiana Hayride. It wasn’t too long after we got to the Hayride that Ralph got homesick, so we came back to Bristol. Ralph thought the world of his mother andcouldn’t be that far away from her, so we came back to the Farm and Fun Time. From there I was drafted into the Korean War. The whole time I was in the service, I was lucky enough to keep playing. Every where they sent me, I ran up on a band.

“When I got out of the service, I headed back to Valdese, North Carolina. John Shuffler had been fighting in Korea, and he had just gotten out too. There we were, back in Valdese, the end of the line. I told John I was thinking of re-upping and going back into the service. He was sure that he had had enough of the service. John talked me into going up north to Ohio to look for a job, but we never did find one, and came back home. Just as I was ready tore-enlist, George had just come back from Charlottsville, Virginia, where he had just recorded with Bill Clifton. On the way through Lynchburg, he met up with Curly Lambert who was playing with Bill and Mary Reid. George found out they needed a fiddle player and encouraged me to join them. I went up to Lynchburg and decided to take a job with them. Not long after I joined them, we cut two sessions for Columbia records. We had three TV shows a week, radio every day, and our personal appearances. I was getting a little dissatisfied, and felt like I wasn’t accomplishing anything, so I enrolled in a business college. It happened that the college was right across the street from the radio station. I got up every morning and went to school and at lunch time I’d go across the street and play on the radio. It was a hectic schedule, but I stayed with it for a year or so. About this time I got married just at the time the group was getting ready for a move to Nashville. Troy Martin, a promoter, was getting us all lined up in Nashville. Before we made the move, my wife and I were expecting our first child, so instead of going to Nashville, I decided to get off the road, and we moved back to Hickory. I went to work for a dime store in Hickory, and stayed there about four years. Then I got transferred to Roanoke and I got in with Bill Jefferson’s band up there. We did TV, dances, and I started helping him with the MC work on the TV shows. Bill kept encouraging me to get into radio, and told me he could use me. I was about to be transferred again, so I quit the dime store business and went into radio, where I’ve been ever since. I’m now the manager of station WKDE in Altavista, Virginia.

“I guess you could say I’m still quite active in music. After a few years of semi-retirement from pickin’, I became interested in bluegrass all over again. I started playing at bluegrass festivals, and in the last two years with Stan Dudley and Bluegrass I and also an album with Roby Huffman, a fine bluegrass singer from North Carolina. Recently I went into the studio with my friend Charlie Moore. That album hasn’t been released yet, but I thoroughly enjoyed pickin’ with Charlie. He’s one of the finest bluegrass song writers today. Just a couple of weeks ago Stan and I did another album to be released soon.

“But my biggest accomplishment is an album of my own, “More Pickin’-Les Singing! Les Woodie and Friends.” It’s been out about a month. It’s a vocal and instrumental album. It’s not quite solo, because I had a gang of my friends playing on there too. James Bailey on banjo and mandolin, Stan Dudley and Carl Clark on guitars, Spider Gilliam on bass, Steve Wilson on Dobro, and Greg Woodie on a couple of drum licks. Carl Clark and Ken Bentley of the Tunstall Trio helped on the vocals. The Trio is a bluegrass gospel group from the Danville area. They are a very talented and dedicated group who sing some of the finest harmony you’ll hear today. I work with them mostly these days. Most of the songs and tunes on the album are my own. They’re a little different from most bluegrass material. I don’t really consider myself a writer. I write only when I feel like it. Sometimes it hits me when I’m driving alone, say from Danville to Lynchburg. It usually happens as fast as I can write it down. I don’t understand it, but it’s almost as if someone else is doing the writing, not me. I sure wish I could find out who it is!”

Rural Roots of BluegrassFor more information about bluegrass music, check out Wayne Erbsen’s book, Rural Roots of Bluegrass, This book is richly illustrated with 107 vintage photos and includes history, lyrics to 94 songs, musical notation, chords, playing tips, and historical sources for each song. Includes profiles on the Bill Clifton, Bill Monroe, the Blue Sky Boys, Bradley Kincaid, the Callahan Brothers, Carolina Tar Heels, the Carter Family, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, the Coon Creek Girls, Earl Scruggs, Eck Robertson, Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman, Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, Fiddlin’ John Carson, G. B. Grayson & Henry Whitter, Jimmie Rodgers, Karl and Harty, the Lilly Brothers, Monroe Brothers, the Morris Brothers, Riley Puckett, Samantha Bumgarner, Vernon Dalhart, Snuffy Jenkins and Wade & J. E. Mainer. 6″ x 9″, 180 pages.

 

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