James “Buddy” McNeill, 88, upright bass player, passed away on October 22. The Seagrove, NC native had performed in numerous area bluegrass bands over the past 40 years (1980-2020).
Many musicians start playing an instrument in their youth, but Buddy didn’t take up the bass fiddle until midlife. He decided to learn after his younger brother, Richard, started playing guitar, and he wanted to join him.
“I got him into it,” Richard proudly recalled.
The McNeill brothers began playing in a “jam session group” as described by Richard. In addition to Richard McNeill on guitar and Buddy on bass, they were joined by Gary Callicutt on mandolin and Wayne Miller on banjo. Later, Wayne’s brother, Glenn, took over bass duties. They called their band, Randolph Express, and the group began to perform out for area events. Buddy would fill in when Glenn wasn’t available.
“He was a mighty nice, sociable fellow. He always made you feel welcome,” shared Callicutt.
Over the years, Buddy played with Richard in various configurations of bands called the Bluegrass Buddies. One such band consisted of the McNeills, Wayne Miller, and RC Hulin. At other times, the band also included JB and Troy Swaney, Fred James, Lloyd Garner, Judy Burgess, Bill Mollman, and RG Powell.
The Bluegrass Buddies played regularly at the True Bluegrass Music Hall at Eleazer in the Uwharrie Mountains of North Carolina, and Bob’s Store in Cedar Falls, NC. In the ’80s, they once performed for a Jim Martin Rally during his campaign for North Carolina Governor.
Another more recent version of the Bluegrass Buddies that played with the McNeills and Hulin included Elton Caviness on banjo, Judy Stout Burgess on mandolin, and Kenny Welch on guitar. They entertained at Hardee’s in Asheboro, NC, on Thursday evenings for its patrons.
The bassist also entertained for area nursing homes with the Carolina Partners that consisted of Harvey and Beulah Hyatt, Claude Morris, and Bobby Richardson.
Most of the time, the McNeills played locally, but according to Richard, “The furthest we played out was with a group called Original Formula.”
The band was made up of Al Elliott, Robert Perkins, Howard Conard, and the McNeills. They performed in Mt. Airy for WPAQ’s Merry-Go-Round and at the Andy Griffth Playhouse. They played in Virginia for a TV station in Danville and a radio station in Galax.
Buddy has also jammed with Wayne Brown, and Jimmy Lee & Travis Brady. He played with Garland Chriscoe, Wade Asbill, and competed at Seagrove Fiddlers’ Convention with Tim Moon. He enjoyed spending time with his classmate, Harold Chriscoe, in Chriscoe’s luthier shop in Seagrove.
Richard said that he and his brother hadn’t played together in recent years.
“We played at his house on Friday nights until COVID hit, but haven’t played since then. We enjoyed playing together and playing for folks.”