Cullen Galyean, bluegrass pioneer noted for his hard-driving banjo playing, passed away peacefully in his sleep in the early afternoon of July 13, 2010. He had been experiencing poor health for some time.
Cullen Galyean, born in Lowgap, North Carolina, in 1939, is from a family whose bluegrass roots stretch back many generations.
Equally adept at playing the guitar, mandolin, fiddle and the bass, Cullen’s first banjo – a 4-string Bacon Tenor – was found in a garbage pile in Washington, DC. The banjo pickers he admired most were Don Reno, Earl Scruggs and especially Ralph Stanley, with whom he played briefly. He borrowed from all three of their styles and created his own.
However, his first instrument was the guitar which he first picked up about the age of nine.
As a 16 year old he joined the Mountain Ramblers, the Galax, Virginia, band led by James Lindsey. Despite his youthfulness, Galyean had considerable influence in the band, pushing their music further in a traditional direction.
Later he joined a band with Bobby Harrison and Ivory Melton and they played at fiddlers’ conventions and other venues all over Virginia and North Carolina. In 1972 the band played on the Grand Ole Opry.
When not playing his beloved banjo, Galyean worked at a sawmill, as a produce delivery person and as a security guard.
Over the years Galyean has featured on several albums, mostly on the Folkways label; with his own band, The Virginia Mountain Boys, one of which features Glen Neaves; with the Mountain Ramblers; Blue Ridge Mountain Music (Atlantic) – the first bluegrass album ever released in Australia. Fans of fiddler Galyean are fond of his romping takes of Big Tilda and Big Ball in Boston – as part of the Foot Hill Boys (on County Records), with L.W. Lambert, and with Bobby Harrison – Let Me Fall (Folkways FS 3910).
A talented songwriter, 15 of Galyean’s original songs can be heard on the October 2009 release Born Into Bluegrass, the Songs of Cullen Galyean (Mountain Roads Recordings).
Galyean is rated one of the top banjo players of the 1960s. Playing Midnight Rambler, his unique banjo style earned him first place in the banjo competition at the very first bluegrass festival in the US in 1965 at Fincastle, Virginia. In the process he beat a cousin, Larry Richardson.
He will be deeply missed.