Bristol’s Rhythm and Roots Reunion reminds us to take a second, or an entire weekend, to just rewind and rediscover our distinctly American musical past. An ongoing theme of understanding our present and future through our origins runs throughout the entire weekend-long music-inspired event. We can’t know where we’re going without ﬁrst knowing where we came from. Consequentially, how can music evolve in any other method than to build upon its origins? Artists featured at Rhythm and Roots Reunion each year, such as ﬁnger-picking, guitar-whittling Wayne Henderson and sweet-voiced, rhythmically-inclined Helen White, allow us to glimpse a piece of the origins of Appalachian music as we know it today. Wayne and Helen’s stage show merges good-natured humor with the smoothly-written tunes of the Carter Family in a combination of the ﬁnger-picking madness of Jimmie Rodgers and others that were “best in the business,” as Wayne ﬁttingly articulated, from the time of the Bristol sessions, now known as the “big bang” of modern country music, as depicted in the Country Music Mural Stage of downtown State Street, Bristol, Tennessee where Henderson and White’s 2008 stage show was appropriately held.
Wayne, a resident of Rugby, Virginia, is best known for his craftsmanship of handmade acoustic guitars. Wayne has mastered the sheer genius of good craftsmanship, carving out beautiful guitars from red spruce, maple, and Brazilian rosewood. It’s no wonder the waitlist for one of his handmade guitars is currently around ten years. Wayne jokingly claims to have no sympathy for those on the waitlist: “I waited thirty years ‘fore I got a new guitar,” he said of his four-hundredth guitar embellished with an abalone shell design mapped out by hand ﬁfteen years prior to the guitar’s actual making, “so I don’t feel like people have to wait too long if the waiting list is about ten years.” He goes on to humor the crowd with a modest tale about his talent about making a ﬁddle in ﬁve days: “Well,” he said, “I took some maple, spruce, and I whittled away everything that didn’t look like a ﬁddle.” In contrast with his humorous tales about himself, Wayne and Helen collectively recreate numerous country and bluegrass songs from A. P. Carter’s “It’s Hard to Beat” to Jimmie Rodgers’ “Alabama Jubilee” to some Doc Watson tunes, all of which are simultaneously crowd-pleasing and conventionally inspirational. A few well-known and long-favored ditties, such as the nationally recognized “Ballgame Song” and classic “Ole Leather Britches” immediately instigate crowd involvement, and Helen even enthralls the audience with an exquisite ﬁddle performance of one of her enchanting bridal waltzes.
Helen, due to her aptitude for songwriting, writes bridal waltzes for anyone who makes a considerably generous tax-deductable donation of at least ﬁve hundred dollars to her self-founded afterschool program Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM). JAM promotes the implementation of music in schools in fourteen counties ranging from three states. Around sixty-ﬁve children are currently signed up for the program, which teaches how to play a range of instruments, including the ﬁddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo, bass, string bad, ﬂatfoot, and singing. Helen started JAM nine years ago after working as a guidance counselor for eighteen years, a position that exposed her to many heart- wrenching stories in the Appalachian region. Of the success surrounding the program, Helen enthusiastically portrays an environment where “kids are learning how to play and loving it.” Helen is an exemplary member of the music community as she takes the initiative necessary to maintain art and music in public schools that have low budgets, allowing children to learn about music in a way that promotes healthy growth and development in a safe environment—all through the implementation of the discipline of instruments that are the roots-based inspiration of bluegrass and country music.
At Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion, Wayne and Helen volunteered to hold a workshop where Wayne offered to anyone who showed up that he and Helen would “show them every lick [he] knows.” Wayne teaches the crowd important tips for both amateurs and experts when he encourages persistence and composure as the most important parts of performing. Wayne states that if he makes a mistake mid-song, he maintains his composure and doesn’t worry about having made a mistake: instead, he tries to be persistent in attempting to play the tune correctly for the very last chorus, the part of the song Wayne dubs “the only one everyone remembers anyway.” Helen, the designated vocalist of the duo’s stage show, relays the necessity of the rhythm guitar that she usually plays in combination with the lead guitar that Wayne usually plays. Joking about her mission when playing rhythmic guitar during performances, Helen says that “no matter what happens, it is [her] job to make it look like [she’s] the one who made a mistake.” This generates an undertone of laughter from the audience and a chuckle from Wayne himself, who later goes on to teach the crowd some more tricks of the trade involving both handmade guitars and performance techniques.
One performance technique is Wayne’s differentiation of the strumming techniques between ﬂat-picking, which uses a ﬂat, triangular pick with which to strum the guitar strings, and thumb-picking, which implements the use of a pick that, as the name suggests, allows the picker to strum the guitar with just the thumb. After stating that thumb-pickers generally only strum downward while ﬂat-pickers strum in both upward and downward motions, he and Helen demonstrate the difference by playing a song in which Wayne thumb-picks the lead guitar part while Helen ﬁnger-picks the rhythm guitar part. At the workshop, Wayne and Helen create a welcoming atmosphere that not only educates the audience members through question and answer sessions with the listeners, but also incorporates the playing of classic bluegrass and country songs upon request from the open audience.
Wayne and Helen are using the roots of Appalachian music to pay tribute to the reminiscent legendary greats responsible for country music as we know it today. Helen uses Appalachian music to motivate upcoming generations to lead a fulﬁlling lifestyle and to expand the awareness of our origins in country music through the afterschool program Junior Appalachian Musicians. Wayne crafts some of the world’s ﬁnest handmade acoustic guitars for both himself and other musicians, such as Eric Clapton, who cherish the incomparable beauty and craftsmanship of instruments that liberate the original sounds of instrumental music. Together, Wayne and Helen humbly and heartily provide an auditory rendering of the music attributed to Appalachia: an exceptional replication of the ﬁnger-picking techniques that emulate the beloved creators of melodies, exemplary musicality, and undue talent that spurred following generations to produce bluegrass and country music at its best.
First published October 2008 in Virginia Intermont College Campus News. Photographs by Matthew Fowler.