A visit with Charles Haney

Becky JohnsonThis recollection of a visit with Charles Haney is a contribution from Becky Johnson, as are the accompanying photographs. Charles and his brother, Carlton, revolutionized the way bluegrass music is consumed in this country when they hosted the first multi-day bluegrass festival in 1965. The Haneys were also involved in the management of Bill Monroe’s career.

The Lucky Strike smokestack in Reidsville, NC - photo by Becky JohnsonSaturday morning was clear crisp and cool as we got into the car to head to Wentworth, NC for a fiddlers/bluegrass band contest at the Community College….my husband Art was a judge there; but I had another plan; to meet Charles Haney in nearby Reidsville.

Charles, 84, is the brother of the late great Carlton Haney, who put on the first multi-day bluegrass festival in Fincastle, VA Labor Day Weekend, 1965.

In about 15 minutes, I had reached the town of Reidsville, once a thriving tobacco town in Rockingham County, where tobacco was king up until the 1990s. A tall brick smokestack, still standing, had the Lucky Strike logo painted down the shaft. Remnants of The American Tobacco Company, rival to RJ Reynolds and Lorillard that once dominated the landscape both in manufactoring and farming of vast green fields of “golden leaf” stretched out as far as the eye could see.

But today’s Reidsville is much quieter, with boarded up storefronts and open antique shops galore, but this day it was host to the annual Fall street festival celebration. The aromas of grilled sausage, hot dogs and popcorn seeped inside the car as I slowly made my way through the edge of town, with families pushing strollers and teenagers clumped together, all heading to Scales Street.

Soon, I was climbing uphill in my Honda Civic Hybrid, higher and higher above the town until I found the water tower at the summit. I had arrived at Charles’s house, just to the left of the giantic metal monolith. The front porch was open and inviting, in the familiar venacular design with a couple of overstuffed chairs, and the front steps were flanked by small ceramic angels, a tiny plastic alligator, and 2 frog figurines.

“Come on in!” said Barry, a friendly middle aged man wearing a flannel shirt and jeans, “I’ll show you where Charles is.” I followed him through the house , past the kitchen and into a small room where Mr. Charles Haney was holding court in bed.

Charles HaneyHe was grizzled and slight, sporting a blue shirt with sparkling blue eyes to match. His visitors soon left, and I introduced myself to him. “I’m the lady who sent you the flowers this summer,” I said to break the ice. Those blue eyes lit up followed by a big toothy grin.”YOU’RE the one who sent them!! I thank-you so much …well I kept em and kept em till they faded all away! I had been wanting to get in touch with you, and now you’re here!”

Charles and I spent a long time sharing memories of his late dear brother, Carlton. “Me and my brother, well we had country music and bluegrass package shows that traveled all up and down the east coast, down to Florida and all the way up to Maine! We made country music BIG in them days with those country and bluegrass package shows, and me and Carlton did it ALL!!!” Charles said proudly.

“Maybe I could write a book about my life, about me and Carlton, and all we did in the music business together!” He told me how after Charlie and Bill Monroe split in 1938, “Charlie came and lived here for a couple three years, did you know that?” Charles explained how Carlton first met Bill Monroe, at a barn dance in nearby Danville, VA. “Why Bill Monroe called up Carlton at his job at the car battery factory, and asked him if he would quit, why Bill would hire him to go work for him! And so he did.” And the rest they say is history.

Charles Haney and his caretaker, Barry - photo by Becky JohnsonIt was time to leave, and I asked if I could make some photos of him. “Let me get my hairbrush,” and soon we found ourselves on the front porch, Charles leading the way in his walker. I made some final shots, got a hug, thanked him again, and I promised to return again soon.

As I headed down the steep hill, and back out to NC 87, I realized that I had been in the presence of greatness, of dignity, and self pride. Charles Haney is a living treasure in bluegrass music. I can’t wait to return again.