Almost Heaven in Tennessee

Junior Sisk & Rambler's Choice performing at SPBGMA 2013 - photo by Valerie GabehartFor the past four years, my wife Valerie and I have enjoyed a mid-winter infusion of bluegrass by attending the annual SPBGMA convention in Nashville. Held at the Music City Sheraton Hotel, many attendees enjoy the contest, concerts, exhibits, and jamming, without ever leaving the hotel, but there are also all the sights, sounds, and flavors of Nashville.

When it comes to sights, for a traditional country music and bluegrass fan, it’s hard to top the history that oozes out of the Grand Ole Opry, The Ryman, Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop, and The Country Music Hall of Fame. As for sounds, the large room concerts at the Sheraton are great, but with the SPBGMA Convention in town, we’ve also taken advantage of the up-close experience at the Station Inn to watch Alison Krauss, Del McCoury, J. D. Crowe & The New South including the late, great, Randy Howard on fiddle, to name a few.

Of course there’s also the food — Demos’, The Old Spaghetti Factory, Calhoun’s Ribs, and The Loveless Cafe are some of our favorites. With all the sensory overload, the best part of the event are the brief, often quiet, moments re-connecting with folks that you haven’t seen, in some cases, for years. This year we enjoyed some of those moments with transplanted West Virginians who have traded Almost Heaven for life elsewhere.

Darrell McCumbers' booth at SPBGMA 2013 - photo by Valerie GabehartI visited with well known musician and vintage instrument dealer, Darrell McCumbers. A native West Virginian, and banjo player for the McCumbers Brothers, Darrell now lives in southwest Virginia (Sammy Shelor is his neighbor) and is known primarily for his knowledge and inventory of pre-war flat head Gibson banjos. “I bought my first original flathead five-string, a 1934 RB-4, in St. Mary’s, West Virginia in 1970 for $125.00,” McCumbers remembers, and in the 1980s the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia “tried to buy it for $20,000.” Fortunately for McCumbers, he didn’t sell, and still owns it today.

Over the years, his collection has grown to include nine original pre-war flathead five-string banjos, three of which were featured in Jim Mills’ book, Gibson Mastertone: Pre-War Flathead 5-String Banjos of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Darrell was kind enough to invite Valerie and me to visit him, and though I may never own one (I probably should remove the word “may”), I’m looking forward to getting my hands on nine pre-war flathead five strings at one sitting.

Williamson Family at SPBGMA 2013 - photo by Valerie GabehartAnother transplanted West Virginian, Kevin Williamson, had a few moments in the spotlight at SPBGMA. Along with Tim Graves, Daryl Mosley, and Bennie Boling, Williamson is a member of the Farm Hands Quartet, who collectively received seven nominations for awards at the SPBGMA convention. One of his first jobs in the music business, while growing up as a teenager in the Huntington, West Virginia area, was playing bass for Glen Duncan and Phoenix (which featured Paul Adkins as lead vocalist). Following a stint as part of Dave Evans’ River Bend, Kevin spent most of the 1980’s in Red Wing with his father, Jerry Williamson, before relocating to the Nashville area in the 1990’s.

During the 90’s, Kevin formed Shadow Ridge, which his wife Debbie Williamson joined as a vocalist. If recent developments are any indication, the couple may become more well known as the parents of a trio of talented sisters, or perhaps the leaders of a family band. Their daughters were featured on the program at SPBGMA, and eldest daughter Melody, an excellent vocalist and fiddle player, was featured on the mainstage during IBMA’s World of Bluegrass 2012. Oh by the way, like his father Jerry, Kevin is a prolific songwriter and was gracious enough to allow Valerie and me to record one of his compositions (I Was Raised In A Railroad Town, written about Huntington, West Virginia) for a new CD project we’re working on.

Danny Kelly at SPBGMA 2013 - photo by Valerie GabehartWe also bumped into old friend Dan Kelly, who Valerie ably played rhythm guitar for in a former life, when he won the West Virginia State Fiddle Championship back in the 1980’s. Danny went on to become one of Roy Acuff’s Smokey Mountain Boys, after the death of the legendary Howdy Forrester, where he worked until Roy’s death. In the many years since, he has worked for Pam Tillis, Steve Wariner, Faith Hill, and Alan Jackson, and is currently working with Clint Black and the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band (with banjoist Leroy Troy).

During a visit to Nashville in the early 1990’s, Danny invited us backstage at the Grand Old Opry to meet Roy Acuff, and as thrilling as that was, I was even more thrilled to find that Earl Scruggs was paying a visit to the Opry to accept the plaque for his induction into the IBMA Hall of Fame. I had the chance not only to meet him, but to chat for some time with Earl and tell him how his playing, and his book, had shaped my life in so many ways. Thanks again for that night, Mr. Kelly.

Many more similar encounters (some primarily business-related, some purely personal, many a mixture of both), too numerous to mention, make the event one of the highlight events of the bluegrass “offseason,” the primary reason that we keep going back.


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About the Author

James Gabehart

Jim has been playing the banjo, and other string instruments for nearly 40 years. Since joining the musicians union and becoming a performing musician at the age of 15, he won five West Virginia State Banjo Championships, as well as dozens of other competitions, and has taught hundreds of students. Jim was elected as Prosecuting Attorney for Lincoln County, WV in November 2012, and is an active touring performer with his wife and musical partner, Valerie. Learn more about their music at