Billy Wheeler, a very active banjo player in northern Virginia since the 1970s, died at his home on December 20. He was 62 years of age.
Born Jospeh William Wheeler III, Billy seemed able to play most any stringed instrument he picked up, though he excelled on both banjo and pedal steel guitar. He played both professionally, and was a prominent five string man in the capitol area bluegrass scene for many years.
Perhaps best remembered for his stint with Cliff Waldron & The New Shades of Grass, joining that group while still in his teens, Billy was also a member of the Benny and Vallie Cain band, and often performed with Leon Morris. His banjo was featured on the first album from Lonesome River Band, I Guess Heartaches Are in Style This Year, on which he also served as producer and recording engineer. That project was recorded in Wheeler’s studio, co-owned with his father, Joe.
The 1970s and ’80s were a time when bluegrass banjo was rapidly evolving with the more contemporary influences coming into the music, and Wheeler was highly regarded for his ability to stay fresh and appropriate within these new sounds, without losing the driving beat that had long defined the banjo’s role. Other five stringers envied his crisp tone and consistent rhythm, which live on in his many recordings.
Here’s one he wrote for a 1983 album, North Virginia Blues, called Early Fall.
In more recent years, he had stayed closer to his home in Highland County, which he shared with his loyal companion, Chief.
A date for a memorial service will be set in the near future.
His family suggests that memorial contributions can be sent to either of the following:
McDowell Volunteer Fire Department
c/o Delbert Rexrode
527 Windrush Lane
Doe Hill, VA 24433
Highland Baptist Church
(write “Wood Ministry” in the memo line)
302 Jackson River Road
Monterey, VA 24465
R.I.P., Billy Wheeler.