Celebration of Life, scholarship slated for Gary Saunders

Gary Saunders, a beloved western North Carolina musician who passed away in 2020, will be remembered and celebrated with picking, grinning, and storytelling on Saturday, June 18, 3:00-5:00 p.m., at Whippoorwill Academy and Village in Ferguson, NC. A Dr. Banjo Jam Camp Scholarship has been established in his memory.

Saunders, 67, of Lenoir, NC, passed away on August 10, 2020. He loved making music, telling stories, and making folks laugh. An outdoorsman, he enjoyed hunting and fishing. A versatile musician, Saunders performed in several local bands including the Neighbor’s Bluegrass Band, the YaYas, and the Catawba Bluegrass Band. Additionally, he was an active member of the Wilkes Folk Music Society and volunteered annually with MerleFest. Several band mates and friends relayed their affection for this incredibly talented and loved individual.

Bob Henson of the Neighbor’s Band shared, “I played music with Gary for over 20 years. We hunted and fished together. Gary was a good and generous man to everyone he met. He was also the funniest person I ever met. Gary worked hard at everything he did: music, his work at the phone company, at home, and at having fun. He absolutely loved hunting and the outdoors. He gave generously of his time and treasure to those in need, especially children. He was the older brother I never had and I loved him dearly.”

The YaYas’ Donna Latham reflected..

“I met Gary Saunders through Cathy Huffman who played standup bass in our band of four women, The YaYas! We instantly became friends and asked him to join our band in 2015. We would meet up and play at every jam, singer/songwriter event, party or festival that we came across. Our music took a turn toward bluegrass with the sound of Gary’s banjo or guitar, and we all loved it and loved him! In 2016 and 2017, we busted out MANY gigs while us girls worked full time jobs. Gary was asked by my pastor, Gregory Yeager, who played fiddle with us on occasion, to join us at church on Sunday mornings and play in our praise band.

Even though late night gigs were frequent, Gary was always there waiting early for me to arrive at 7:00 a.m. He became friends with our church family, and his banjo was a loved addition at the Lutheran Church!  

Gary was ALWAYS raring to play! Gary showed us many songs that we grew to love and he had so many that we never had a chance to learn. Practice was at my house and we always looked forward to those special times of stories, music, picking, and grinning! He became a friend I could always count on, and was there for me when I just needed to pick or talk! I am sure Gary could tell some crazy stories about us girls and our time together which was too short!  

It was a dream come true to play with such a talented musician at the TR Bryan Memorial Concert at MerleFest two years in a row, at RockyFest, and other festivals, bars, juke joints, or just on the back porch. He was the BEST banjo picker around in our book and Gary never met a stranger! He had friends all over the world! We are grateful for our time together and will always miss him deeply as we are better people for knowing him.”

Linzey Ham of the Catawba Bluegrass Band added, “He was a good friend and my wife’s distant cousin. He was truly the salt of the earth. He also played with our band on bass and banjo.”

“I’ve known Gary for several years now, not only through Wilkes Acoustic Folk Society, but also through mutual friends. To say Gary never knew a stranger would just be repeating several hundred other friends of his. Gary could talk to anyone at their level and make them feel good about themselves and others – always lateral protocol, never downward. The man was an emotional healer, a kindred spirit, it seems. We spoke together of music, hunting, fishing, and life, like old friends from the very first time we met. His musical dialogue worked out about the same. Gary new a whole lot of songs/tunes from many genres and could pick up the choruses, and sing great harmony, sometimes switching leads and even sing some counterpoint sometimes. His bass was about the same, but sometimes he would drive a tune and whoever else was playing with it!,” stated Keith Watts, Wilkes Acoustic Folk Society/MerleFest Volunteer Coordinator.

Sharon Carter Underwood, a Fan of Gary Saunders and music friend, chimed in, “When God was giving out talents and gifts he blessed Gary Saunders triple time! Gary had the biggest heart of anyone I know. He was blessed with the gift of music, encouragement, helping others, and a wonderful sense of humor! He loved God, his family, picking bluegrass music with his friends, hunting, and fishing!”

“Gary played many instruments and we all agree if he was in the picking circle the music was always so much better and lots more fun!

On June 18. we will have a celebration of life for Gary at Whippoorwill Village and Academy in Ferguson, NC. We will tell stories, play music, and give the first Gary Saunders music scholarship to a young lady that Gary encouraged for many years, Rebecca Myers. She is a talented teenager who sings and plays multiple instruments. She attended Dr. Banjo camp this spring through this scholarship. The scholarship money was raised by friends and family of Gary and it is being managed by the Wilkes Acoustic and Folk Society; of which he was an active member. Donations are still being accepted.”

The Friends of Gary Saunders established the Gary Saunders’ Dr. Banjo Camp Scholarship. This scholarship is in memory of “an awesome and well-loved musician and friend to many; known not only for his incredible musical talent, but Saunders will also be remembered for his humor, storytelling, hunting/fishing escapades, and his extra big heart of encouragement and help to others”. The camp is for all bluegrass instruments. The annual scholarship will award one deserving recipient (for ages 10 and above) to attend The Pete Wernick-Dr. Banjo Camp, covering the three-day tuition. Held during the week of Merlefest, the camp is located at YMCA Camp Harrison in Boomer, NC.  

Applications and details for the scholarship can be found online.

Tax deductible donations can be mailed to:

Wilkes Acoustic Folk Society
Attention Treasurer, John Logsdon
PO Box 123
N. Wilkesboro, NC 28659-0123

Reference the check for Gary Saunders Memorial Scholarship.

 Marcie Saunders, Gary’s wife, concluded, “My husband loved his faith, his family, music, fishing, and hunting. His life was full and he enjoyed helping his friends and others. He is greatly missed by all who loved him.”

Gary Saunders made the world a better place.

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About the Author

Sandy Hatley

Sandy Chrisco Hatley is a free lance writer for several NC newspapers and Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. As a teenager, she picked banjo with an all girl band called the Happy Hollow String Band. Today, she plays dobro with her husband's band, the Hatley Family.