Alton Tharse Batten, known widely as Al, passed away on Sunday, November 20. He was 68 years of age.
Al was born and raised in Selma, NC where he lived his entire life. He led the popular bluegrass group, Al Batten & Bluegrass Reunion for more than 40 years. Before launching his own band in 1972, he had performed on banjo with Roby Huffman & the Bluegrass Cutups and Jennell Hicks.
Batten had been in failing health this past year or so, but declined rapidly over the summer and crashed over the past week or so. But he had continued playing banjo until this summer, even appearing on stage seated when he had trouble wearing the banjo around his neck.
Bluegrass Reunion started as a regional band in central North Carolina, and found themselves touring all up and down the east coast by the mid ’90s. They also made two trips to perform in Ireland in the early 2000s. A number of their recordings are still available online.
Bluegrass music called to Al early. He started playing banjo as a teenager and began to take it seriously once he graduated from NC State. He became quite proficient in Scruggs-style banjo playing and is also remembered as a fine entertainer and stage MC.
Outside of bluegrass, Al worked as an educator for almost 35 years. He was a Vocational Mechanics/Agriculture teacher and farmed some on the side until he retired, and was very active with Boy Scouts and Future Farmers of America.
His good friend, Johnny Ridge, who played fiddle with Bluegrass Reunion for nearly 20 years, remembers that former students would regularly come up to him at shows to talk, and that Al always had time to speak with them.
“Al never met a stranger, he was a friend to everybody. He had an outgoing personality that drew everybody to him. There’s a whole lot of people that thinks a lot of him. Not just in music, but in the school and youth communities. Al was mighty good to me and my family.”
A private funeral will be held with family and close friends on Wednesday, followed by a Celebration of Life service at Bethany Baptist Life Center in Kenly, NC at 1:00 p.m. The family has requested that, in lieu of flowers, memorial donations be made to SECU Hospice House in Smithfield, NC.
R.I.P., Al Batten.